Sra Feigelman: Growing through disturbance

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Photo by Nick Littman

I snapped into consciousness by a cold gust of wind and a smattering of rain across my face. The fly of our tent, the only thing that had separated us from the storm that bore down upon us, had cast off into the wind. It was my second night in Horseshoe Canyon, and my second night ever in the backcountry of Utah. In a sleep-smitten frenzy, my tent mates Calla and Zoe sent me out into nature’s brewing violence to retrieve our weather-protection apparatus. After struggling to get out of my new sleeping bag, I finally made it out to grapple with getting the fly secured to the tent. I retreated to home base, soaked and shivering. I stuffed myself into my sleeping bag and shut my eyes tight, putting tomorrow on reserve to consider what the hell I was getting myself into with the Wild Rockies Field Institute.

I signed up for WRFI on a whim, for a change. My study abroad plans had fallen through (not enough people had signed up to go study food systems in Mexico). Nonetheless, I was still itching to expand my academic and physical horizons. I was craving movement, perspective, and realistically I only had a sense of what went on east of the Mississippi, never mind west of it. I hadn’t any idea of how other corners of the country operated in culture, in politics, in environment. Plus, I heard that backpacking builds character.

I had spent my whole life thus far on the east coast, in similar bubbles of lifestyle and approach toward success. In high school, knowledge was quantifiable, in the form of letter grades and GPAs, which put heavy constraints on qualitative understanding of what I was studying.

Truth be told, I felt my life as a collegiate beginning to dwindle in momentum. Although my studies had begun to pick up in content, I couldn’t help but participate with lagging initiative. I was beginning to sense a cap on what I could retain in the classroom, in a chair nailed to the floor, enclosed in a lecture hall, furiously copying notes from a screen, alongside 50-100 other students; every single day. Valuable conversations were going in one ear and right out the other.

And so, without much thought and minimal experience, I jumped into a two month alternative semester of schooling on the other side of the country.

Oh, how unprepared I was for what was to come. Within days of arriving to Green River, Utah, our group of nine was miles deep in a canyon of what seemed like infinite sandy desolation. Any green was manifested in the form of a stunted shrub. To the common eye, water didn’t exist. In 24 hours, the temperature dropped from high 80’s to 30’s. To myself, I thought, “How could anything survive here? How am I going to survive here?”

Through the days that followed, my being was jostled by great discomfort. I was bombarded with all sorts of stimuli unfamiliar to my system. I could barely process what was in front of me. I was wandering through an environment of alien flora and fauna, shapes and shadows, formations, faults and climate. At first, I saw nothingness in this odd terrain, in the rocks that I stumbled over, in the bristled juniper bark that tugged at the netting of my pack, in the pale sand that I clobbered through in new hiking boots. Sand stuck to us with magnetic force, and got into every available crevice within our gear. The daytime sun was so strong that my eyeballs often burnt. The nighttime air was cold, and the moon bright. After dinner, my stomach cranked laboriously through our meals, consisting of mostly carbohydrates and cheese. We stacked miles upon miles into our days, and after finally reaching camp and collapsing into the dirt, we still, as a group, had to make time for class and discussion, homework, and sleep. I had to quickly make way for a whole new routine, set of knowledge, and way of life. I was exhausted and confused: it was hard to tell which way was up.

The intermediate disturbance hypothesis states that at moderate intensity and occurrence, disturbance to an ecosystem can encourage and maintain the system’s overall resilience (Noss & Cooperrider, 1994). Too little disturbance leaves a system vulnerable to shock beyond repair when it is disrupted. Too much disturbance might push a system over its edge immediately. Essentially, an intermediate amount of force can prompt an ecosystem to stay on its toes, making it able to adapt to the chaotic forces that ebb and flow around and within it.

Systems ecology is defined as a way to, “understand the processes and structures that define the working of ecosystems of all kind, from microbial to global” (Think Academy, 2016). The natural world, indeed, is a massive system in itself, and a conglomerate of dynamic systems that interact with and respond to each other. However, systems ecology and theory extends further than the “natural world.” It encompasses humankind and all of its happenings as well, giving, “equal attention to the human dimension” (Think Academy, 2016).

Humans obviously operate within ecosystems. Although we are encouraged to see ourselves as something separate and above Mother Nature, in reality, we operate in and as a part of it (Cronon, 1995). Subsequently, humankind, in all its chaos and complexity, can learn from the behaviors and patterns that encompass the natural world. Systemic disturbance keeps any system (or organism) in check, prompting its ability to adapt to different conditions and environments and maintain diversity within them.

Indeed, the Colorado Plateau is a harbor of disturbance. Given its harsh climate and terrain, one might consider the impossibility of life to thrive here. However, over time, the Colorado Plateau flora and fauna have adopted this variability and unpredictability into their design and behavior. For this reason, the Colorado Plateau serves as a hub of species diversity and ecosystem resilience, as organisms have learned to thrive in many different extremes, from aridity to flash flood, from frost to heat waves.

A plant I’ve been privileged to spend some quality time with, Mormon Tea (also known as Ephedra viridis), embodies said resilience. I’ve found it alive and well in the parched sands of Horseshoe Canyon, alongside the muddy waters of the Dirty Devil River, freckling the Four Corners front country, throughout the alpine zone of Dark Canyon, and up on the banks of the Green River. This singular species has acclimated to each of these unique climates and their extremes. Over time, Mormon Tea has developed characteristics in response to the variable disturbances that shape its lifestyle. For example, instead of photosynthesizing through leaves, Mormon Tea has adopted scales of chlorophyll, through which it processes sunlight. This reduces the plant’s water loss and keeps its temperature regulated, enabling it to tolerate various environments. By embracing the spectrum of disturbances offered by the Colorado Plateau, Mormon Tea is able to thrive throughout different environments.

Before WRFI began, I functioned within one corner of life, one basin of attraction. This system that I call my life was accustomed to the same structure and forces, to my East Coast lifestyle. I was so well-adapted, so comfortable in my basin of attraction that nothing moved or changed. I had no push to explore or learn, and minimal space to do something different.

WRFI shocked my system. It scooped me up right out of my familiar lifestyle and placed me in a new realm of understanding. I learned to work with unfamiliar physical and social environments, and to practice group dynamics in a new backcountry setting.

In the wake of the Colorado Plateau’s challenges, I’ve learned to adopt a fresh set of skills, values and perspectives. I can pack my life onto my back in 30 minutes in one morning, traverse an 11 mile stretch of a canyon in one afternoon, dive into a fervent class discussion before dinner, and make it to bed before 10pm. Indeed, I will carry this new knowledge across the threshold that separates me from my pre-WRFI self. With practice, I know I will be able to move between the two, incorporating new skills with old and vice versa. Perhaps with time and exploration, I will learn to acclimate to more basins of attraction, lifestyles, and ways of understanding and interpreting the world.

 

Eleanor Babcock: The Beauty of Backpacking

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“Look down at your legs,” Isa’s positive voice exclaimed. “They brought you here!” Twelve days hiking through the chocolate silted waters of the Dirty Devil River Canyon had induced sore muscles, blistered toes, and soil streaked faces, but also incredibly happy campers. Isa made sure to proclaim our collaborative success as we looked out over the entrenched dirty waters, glazed over by daytime dust. We left the Dirty Devil behind, holding the memories and the beauty of the place we called home for those twelve days close to our hearts.

The past two months permitted us to walk our way through sandy washes in Horseshoe Canyon, trudge our way through muddy quicksand in the Dirty Devil, and march through beaming sun rays in Dark Canyon. These extensive trips gave our footsteps purpose and new stories about place to tell. Backpacking is no easy feat. Each morning we dance our way through the packing routine, filling each open space in out packs with loose socks and canvas tent bodies, hoping the weight will balance out well on the trail. As we chugged, deep into the folds of the earth, sunbeams warmed our noses and happy shouts from out group echoed off red canyon walls. Just as Isa notes, our legs power us forward, building strength with each step.

We endure and embrace this type of travel so we can experience portions of the world very few others have seen. We enter into disjointed places from developed civilization which, in our society, we classify as wilderness. These places are defined by the untrammeled characteristics of its earth and its community. Places where taste, touch, smell and sound differ from the developed lands we call home. While backpacking through wilderness, the beautiful rhythm of our step pulses from the arches of our feet to the bounce of our unkempt hair and settles back into the earth. The earth greets our presence by blowing sand particles through our hair and chilling our blistered toes at night. The give and take from the earth while backpacking creates a sense of harmony between us and the untrammeled characteristics of wilderness.

Our time in society and ultimate search for comfort has evolved to dissipate our connection with nature. William Cronan, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has critiqued societal views of wilderness to be “the dualistic vision in which the human is entirely outside the natural,” separating the developed world from perceived wilderness. The beauty of backpacking is that it allows us to break the division between humans and nature and carry our lives, packed tightly and held close to our backs, into wilderness with the purpose to temporarily live in harmony with nature. My experience backpacking in Horseshoe Canyon, the Dirty Devil Canyon and Dark Canyon has given me harmony with nature as I allow the earth’s red sand to rest in my hair and as I practice attentiveness to the non-human world. This attentiveness allowed me to touch papery Aspen bark, fuel my body with spring waters and smell the damp red rust rock waft through the air. How can we take this harmony backpacking creates and break the dualistic vision Cronan describes between humans and nature? Can we work to apply attentiveness to the non-human world in our own backyards to bridge the gap between wild places and us?

We don’t all need to trudge through murky waters, or carry half our bodyweight on our backs to experience wilderness. Wilderness is what brought our societal norms to be. Wilderness helped us create cities and fuel our modes of transportation. The beauty of backpacking does not need to be experienced through backpacking. We can walk through our everyday system of life in harmony with the land as we choose to recognize the value of nature shaping our lives. The islands of wilderness do not have to be islands if we drain the sea of dichotomy between nature and development through the application of attentiveness to the non-human world. Awe and wonder can be experienced through our front door if we choose to open it and embrace the sunbeams which radiate over the world, potentially bridging the gap between humans and nature.

Eleanor Babcock: Rocky Capsules of Time

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Grallator Tracks

A short, toe-numbing wade across the chai tea latte textured Dirty Devil River on this clear morning was as far as our feet needed to take us away from our campsite. “There’s a really cool surprise around here,” our amazing professor Katie announced as we reached the sandy, willow covered bank.

We had heard this statement before on previous day hikes. Katie never lies about cool things as she has generously led us to ancient petroglyphs and creamy slot canyons. We spread out across the floodplain in search of the next experience that would make our hearts beat fast.

After scurrying around the soft sand bank with passion for new discoveries and tall rusty walls encompassing our views, cheers of delight echoed off the canyon walls as we found the next cool thing. There, sitting prominently amongst the cheatgrass and sagebrush, a fallen table of sandstone protruded up towards the sky. Multi-directional dinosaur tracks stared up at us inverted on the sandstone table. Overhangs on the sandstone layers above us flaunted more foot tracks. These prints were preserved in this sandstone layer for over 200 million years! As I placed my palm on one of the perfectly preserved three-toed ancient footprints, a million questions raced through my mind. How did these tracks get here? Were these goose sized tracks baby dinosaurs or fully grown? The dinosaurs who laid down these tracks could have never imagined that, more two hundred million years later, our group of college students would stumble across them.  What were they doing?  What were they thinking?

Finding a moment in time captured by environmental forces gave us all a sense of awe and wonder. Imagining small, turkey-sized dinosaurs running across the mudflats of the time made me wonder what other sorts of secrets the flaky, red rock layers held.

The dinosaur tracks, which fit in our palms, were made by Grallator. This genus is unique because it is an ichnogenera, only identified by its preserved tracks. Paleontologists assume them to be adults. The multiple tracks we saw were thought to have been laid down at different times.

How can two very different species reach the same moment in time in two vastly different worlds? Rocks. The answer we seek is held in the abiotic, mineral substance of our world. Rocks are capsules of time, which are moved by wind and water, transformed everyday, every year, every century to give us glimpses into the past. Grallator tracks, inverted towards us were quickly preserved by sand particles filling the depressions in the mud and exposed by erosional forces allowing us to reach the mudflat, tropical environment Grallator once thrived upon.

Just as the sculptor molds their next creation, the wind and water acting on the grains of sand shape moments in time. Wind and water mirror the sculptor’s work as they gnaw away, layer by layer, at the rock formations to expose biological existence. These erosional forces gave way to Grallator tracks allowing us to fall, palm to palm, with this ancient species.

The sculpture of the Colorado Plateau is a unique story. A long time ago, the preserved Grallator tracks sat 4 to 6 thousand feet lower in elevation. The whole plateau once sat much below my feet and held unfathomable life forms. Five million years ago, forces deep within the earth shuttered raising this section of crust to the wind and water sculptors, exposing the past.

Evidence of you, me, and the Grallator species can be preserved in these mineral sculptures. Our biological properties give us an endpoint. The crystal grains of silt and sand are continually sculpted into moments in time, which are preserved beyond our existence. The rock creations cannot be interpreted on their own. They need us, the living, breathing, multi-cellular organisms to examine the earthen sculptures they mold. The Colorado Plateau provides a body of artwork in which the wind and water sculptors present us with a looking glass into almost 200 million years of time. Biological existence is a small window compared to the rocky sculptures whose art forms are strong and more stable throughout generations. These unique places and erosional forces allow two drastically different environmental times to collide giving us a sense of the past.

 

Zoe McCully: From Finite to Flash Floods– Experiences with Water in Horseshoe Canyon

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In Horseshoe Canyon the traces of water can be found everywhere. In the rippling waves on the sandy washes, and in the different forms of damp compacted earth, much easier to hike across than dry shifting sand!

It is in narrow young slot canyons where giant tree trunks have been wedged tightly between swooping sandstone walls with an unreckonable force.

It wraps cottonwoods and shrubs in the washes or arryos with grassy coats that show where it once swiftly flowed.

It is in heavy purple clouds that hover over canyons walls, and we sometimes hear it at night pattering on our tents.

It hides stars and deeply undercuts the rocks nearest to, or in, the wash. We walk through a dry river bed, empty of rapids, eddys and holes.

Pour offs rise above us, too steep to scale, and pictographs painted high on desert canyon walls, are unreachable, the ledges that once made these figures accessible to human hands have since been weathered away.

Yet water itself near the mouth of the canyon is seemingly only present in small puddles and nighttime rains.

As we dropped in elevation, descending deeper into Horseshoe Canyon, and crossed from Bureau of Land Management to National Park Service land, traces and trickles of water turned to a lush riparian ecosystem.

Tall upright cottonwoods, rushes, and reed grasses grew with sharp slivery abandon. Rabbit brush, which we had initially seen come up to knee height, rose high above us, well, maybe not above Nick and Garrett. Willows filled with buzzing bees waved in the warm wind. The wash that was once dry and wide narrowed, and our hike became a winding walk over and through a stream.

Water is the deciding factor in where we camp. Pour-offs, indicated by steep topographic lines in side canyons, often create small steams or puddles that collect rainwater. Springs sometimes seep up from the ground. We need water for life in the same way the plants and organisms that compose this arid landscape do.

Where is the water in this canyon going? Who does it give life to along the way? How do the species in this landscape manage to survive such a climate with such a limited life giving resource?

Gay Marie Ekker told us, “We don’t think about water. We don’t think about how finite it is. The Colorado River is a perfect example of this.”

The water in Horseshoe flows into the Green River not the Colorado.

It flows into our mouths, through our sandy hair and smutty hands.

Water is a force so strong it can carve a canyon, and pull me from my reading when desert mermaids beckon me to dip my head into a cold shady pool. Baptism makes so much more sense in the desert.

Our treasured National Audubon Society Field Guide to the Southwestern States, describes canyons as some of the region’s natural highlights, I concur. The authors explain that, “Bearing abrasive sediments washed from areas with little vegetation, the Southwest’s creeks, rivers, and washes carve steep-walled canyons and cut through the plateau’s ‘layer cake’  of sedimentary rocks, forming a maze of cliffs, escarpments, mesas, and canyons that form some of the region’s most distinctive scenery and that multiply its biological diversity.”

Water is a force so strong it can carve a canyon, and we have been lucky enough to witness in full force the effects of a desert storm. Our second to last night in Horseshoe Canyon we witnessed the intensity of water in the desert, in the form of a flash flood. As we crouched in lightning position, waiting out the overhead storm we were pummeled by sharp flicks of hail. All of a sudden someone pointed out the water cascading off the slick sandstone walls and hundreds of feet down into the grey wet haze the canyon air had become. The canyon walls had transformed from dusty red walls to slick maroon slides, and it seemed like water was pouring into the canyon from any and all possible directions. In this moment of barefoot feet in hail-filled crocs, soggy rain gear and seeping cold I stared down at my soaked rain pants, trying to minimize the amount of water that ran down into my raincoat. I am so grateful that that while I was keeping my head down someone else had the attentiveness to look straight up into the storm. After the lightning passed and while we ambled, mumbled and stumbled around looking for firewood, the water that had once been a small stream gently perusing its way through the sand, turned into a gushing river. One of our fearless instructors, Nick, rushed across to rescue the tents that we had casually set up on the other bank during a sunnier time several moments before the rain set in. That night we moved our tents again, to higher ground, because the wash had become an audible reddish-brown torrent and we were forced to engage with the strength and unpredictability of a desert storm. At the same time it was such a blessing to see water in the desert rise up and flow freely and wildly on a sandy bank where we once sat.

Water is powerful, essential, and temporary in the desert and I believe we have truly experienced this reality in the depths of Horseshoe Canyon.

On this first section we walked from the top of Horseshoe Canyon all the way down to its mouth at the Green River. We learned about how opposing viewpoints, interests, and ideals lead to over-allotments of water and fraudulent claims of land, during the settling of the West.

We have stripped the rivers and watersheds of the West of their abilities to flow freely and I wonder how this will decrease the resilience of this land.

What is the future of a resource that can carve a canyon, strip rock and soil from layers of earth and carry it away, but that has been dammed, bought and allotted by people who misunderstood and idealized the arid climate of the West?

I am eager to learn more about directions we can take with policies, consumption, and systems of thinking to move away from a history and current reality of overconsumption, and misuse of water in an arid land.

What systems of thinking can help us preserve and properly appreciate and allocate this life giving, earth moving, ephemeral, and finite force?

Garrett Hartley : Time Set in Stone

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Walking through the icky sticky mud and the sinking sand dunes of the Dirty Devil River, one can take a trip through time. When I’m not busy falling into riverbed holes and avoiding treacherous quicksand, I can look to either side of the canyon and read the story of time. We look up to the towering walls and see ripple marks in rock which mirror the same ripples washed into the mud of the riverbanks today. Using the principle of uniformitarianism, we assume that the same forces that shape the mud today, resulted in the same shapes we find in rock more than 200 million years old. Naturalists like John Muir have used this approach to analyze glaciation in Yosemite Valley. Modern day geologists do so as well. With this tool, I am reading the stories of ancient water systems, sand dunes, and impressions of footprints laid down in these canyons millions of years ago.

Today the only water we see in the Dirty Devil Canyon is mostly in the main river channel. The Kayenta Formation however tells a different story. Within this layer of 200 million year old rock I see a sequence of ripple marks. Throughout the cliff faces there are varying sized smiley face lines, which interrupt the uniform planar striations that run along the rock face. These smiley faces are more formally identified as “channel lenses.” They show the approximate width of ancient rivers that once spread all across the land. On each side of the smile there would have been a riverbank, at the bottom of the smile, a river channel. These watermarks and smiley faces in stone look identical to the markings in the mud and riverbanks I see today. Other layers, like the Navajo Sandstone, tell a different story.

One thing you cannot ignore when travelling the Colorado Plateau is the extremely varied weather pattern. In the morning it’s so cold I find it difficult to make my fingers function properly; afternoon has you hunting for any bit of shade.  One day in particular we had hiked many miles in the dry heat of the afternoon and then got bombarded by a hailstorm and flash flood by the time we reached camp.   Has this area always been so variable? If I’m not sinking in mud I’m sinking into small sand dunes and once I get a moment to look up from breaking trail, the Navajo Sandstone tells me this is nothing new to the Colorado Plateau.

Long angled lines striking across the face of the stones look just like the wind swept sides of the sand I walk on. The only difference lies in size, the lines on the rock layer are much larger. In geologic terms these lines are known as “cross bedding.” With uniformitarianism I can infer these lines are telling stories of large sand dunes. Indeed geologists believe the Navajo layer constituted the largest sand dune desert known in Earth’s history! Cross bedding can even tell us the direction of the wind that shaped these dunes.

Now I know the land was once muddy and then became sandy. What can I see now because of this change in landscape? Between two other rock layers, one made of lithified mud and the other sand, a massive chunk has fallen from the canyon wall allowing me to gaze over one hundred little footprints of the dinosaur known as Grallator!

Some of my earliest childhood memories are of playing with my large collection of dinosaur toys. Now on the Dirty Devil River it seems they have left something for me, rekindling my curiosity and childlike wonder. Seeing these footprints in sediment that is over 230 million years old has to be one of the most rad things I’ve ever laid my eyes on!

Just as I walked through the mud along the riverbanks and make a footprint, I realize it could be fossilized in the same way under the proper conditions. I have an idea about the land Grallator and his friends walked through. I wonder what their groups of buddies were doing in the mud before the impressions were suddenly filled in by sand and lithified under the heavy weight of mounting sediment?

***

The experience of trading my normal box shaped classroom for the meandering river and steep colorful canyon walls has been an amazing decision. Being able to walk through a landscape and hypothesize what happened in the past based on the processes you notice today absolutely fascinates me. With experiential learning and actively asking questions about my observations, I am able to clearly understand in what ways this landscape has developed as well as how these mechanisms cause and repeat this change. Let the story of time continue as I venture on through the Colorado Plateau.

Ella Mighell: Rainbows of the Dirty Devil

ellaEight days into our sandal and sock slodge through the Dirty Devil, we left behind a campsite with an endangered Mexican Spotted Owl and fossilized Grallator tracks, headed for higher ground. Today we would be hiking on a road, in the middle of a Wilderness Study Area on BLM land in a canyon described as “extremely isolated.” As we hiked we stopped to observe purple blooming fishhook cacti, changing geological layers from the Paleozoic period, petrified wood, pictographs from the ancient Fremont, and a 2007 mining claim preserved in a PVC pipe. Standing on top of a Shinarump Formation terrace, the late morning sun was still on our backs as we faced the yellow, red and purple layered Chinle Formation. Below our feet were water-weathered stones from the ancestral Rockies. We were on “roadless” Wilderness Study Area (WSA) land, but were using an illegal mining road from the late 70s. My mind wandered to what this landscape would have looked like if large-scale mining had taken place in the uranium filled Chinle, Shinarump and Moenkopi Formations; would it even be open to the public, and what would these canyons have become if gas prices increased and uranium became more profitable?

I was finding that the Dirty Devil was a place of contrasting truths. At first it welcomed with its varnish stripped canyon walls and blooming desert primroses. Then it betrayed, the sun blistering my neck and quicksand engulfing me to my hips. Land management of the Dirty Devil is also bewildering in its conflicting and complex ways.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) contorts its management plans to fit several contrasting missions. Through a presentation and discussion with a BLM manager, I came to understand the muddied management practices, why I had never heard of the BLM before coming to Utah, and why there was a mining road in the middle of WSA land. This includes their complicated history of admittedly poor public communications and original agency formation from the 1946 forced marriage of the US Grazing Service and the General Land Office.

The BLM was created to manage public lands for grazing, mining, oil and gas. It wasn’t until 1976 with the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) that BLM management was expanded to include recreation and wilderness in their 270 million acres. The BLM multiple use management gets pretty contradictory when they are mandated to facilitate resource extraction, and also preserve the natural integrity of that land. Things get even more complicated when we include state sections. Basically the state of Utah is strongly incentivized to sell or swap school sections to extractive energy companies. Ironically, the state is also pushing their industrial tourism sector in neighboring areas. According to the manager we spoke with, BLM offices, while trying to base their management plans on science, are mostly driven by social values.

To throw some more sand in this Dirty Devil, local culture is often at odds with federal land control, but many ranchers have subsidized grazing leases on this public land. The BLM’s relationship with environmental groups is often just as polar. The state wants the BLM to give more access to the extractive agencies, while environmentalists think the BLM has given too much. Basically the BLM is at the center of a complex love triangle where one spouse supports the BLM while in litigation with the opposing love interest, and the other way around.

One of the main takeaways from speaking with the BLM manager was that people value public land for different reasons. My relationship with natural landscapes most likely looks very different than yours, but both views have equal value and salience. Public values are multidimensional, and as values change, so must management practices. The complex mission of the BLM’s multiple use management was created in a conflictive system where collaboration and compromises were not encouraged. Yet here I sit on a Shinarump Formation overlook, surrounded by orange canyon walls contrasting with the blue sky. This section of the Dirty Devil has been determined to have “designated wilderness characteristics” and is a Wilderness Study Area. Tomorrow we will hike out of the WSA, and although a fence does not mark the divide, the complex history of this landscape does.

Many Utahans support a mining future, finding hope in the extractive industries and continuing their culture of freedom and rebellion in the wild west. Others, from both in-state and out, hold a similarly strong love and hope for these wild lands, but expressed very differently through federal protection and land use limitations. I fall on the latter side of this divide, but I know that no issue in southeastern Utah is simply environmentalism versus extraction. However, I do question the standing of my opinions as a visitor on these publicly owned lands, without a tie to the local economic well-being of the area.  As I hike further down the Dirty Devil, black and white issues are further greying in complexity, or as Dave, one of our instructors says, it is simply rain-bowing.

Isa Caliandro: Reading Between the Lines

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Horseshoe Canyon. Photo by: Nick Littman. 

Looking up the fence the differences on either side were subtle at first, yet the closer I looked the more obvious they became. On the right there were grasses, hillsides unmarked by trails, and cottonwoods peeking around the corner. I could just see around the bend where sunshine was streaming through tall grasses. To the left there were shrubs, sagebrush, and terraced hills. The only trees were pinyon pines, their twisted lines a replica in plant form of those of the towering sandstone around me. On the right, bright greens; on the left sandy soils, together they represented a difference.

Our journey to this line began one prior. We had been following the curves, patterns, and streambeds of Horseshoe Canyon at a naturalists pace. Taking the time to inquire, examine, and take note of the nuances of the species magically thriving in this landscape. Hailing from the Northeast this new flora and fauna, coupled with the landscape was completely new. Each day, travelling deeper and deeper into the heart of the earth I was growing to love it more and more. Finding sand in my shoes at the end of a day of walking, and getting to explore alcoves tucked away in small side canyons I was beginning to find desert treasures. After a week I was beginning to be able to trace my hands along the softer desert plants and echo their names in my head. It was all beginning to come together, why certain plants had spines and grew on the higher up rocky soil, which animals were avoiding. I had learned how to follow and scout for cow paths so as to not disturb the fragile desert crust. These cow paths mark the driving force between the differences on each side of the fence: grazing.

In Horseshoe Canyon there are two ruling designations that have come to shape the landscape: The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and The National Park Service. The BLM is an agency in the U.S. Department of Interior that has multi purposes.  Its roots are in grazing and land distribution. The BLM leases out land along the canyon to ranchers, which allows them to graze their cattle on the land. This is the land designation for the start of the canyon until about halfway down, at which time the land designation switches to the National Park Service, whose mission is recreation and preservation. They strive to survive and want everyone to be able to see the gems in the nooks and crannies of the great and vast American Landscape. These two approaches to land management ultimately determined the ecological composition of the landscape.

After the fence we followed a very different canyon. As Barrier Creek, the river that flows through Horseshoe Canyon and eventually into the Green River, grew to that of a trickle and the banks completely changed, we began to learn about a new kind of desert ecology. The grasses now grew above my head, dead leftover from last summer and fall; they swayed with the gentle cool breeze. Cottonwoods, previously a rare sighting, now filled the creek banks. They grew tall, sideways, and were full of leaves marking the warmer temperatures to come. They provided shade for the creek gathering strength, and a stunning contrast against the cornflower blue sky. A few days past the fence the canyon melody began to grow. The canyon wren threw its call down the canyon walls where it was met in patches of willows by the industrious hum of bees. Around each turn there was more and more life, and the song grew stronger. It felt as if the birds, especially the canyon wren, was ushering us deeper, and deeper, among the contours and sandy hues to a more magical place. The further we wandered from the cows, the further past that line and the deeper between the lines of sandstone the more deeply the canyon breathed and came to life, it was lush. This stark difference has really made an impression on me, yet more importantly a greater one on the landscape.

A naturalist, and fellow enthusiast, of the Colorado Plateau Thomas Fleischner has detailed the history of the area around Horseshoe Canyon in his book “Singing Stone.” He said, grazing was introduced to the United States by way of Mexico in 1540. Its spread, development, and regulation or lack there of has become deeply rooted within its own culture. Largely out of the public eye, grazing wasn’t a cause for concern until the Dust Bowl when over grazing contributed to the loss of topsoil. It was only in 1934 that the Taylor Grazing Act was passed, mandating government control over grazing. This led to the creation of the U.S. Grazing Services; that was eventually joined with the General Land Office to become the BLM. Then it wasn’t until the 1980’s when the livestock industry and grazing truly came into the public eye. I was surprised to find out Regan even included it in his campaigning in the west. It was only until a few days ago that this livestock issue really took stock in my life but I can safely say it has my attention.

I am by no means an expert on ranching, Utah, the West, or even Horseshoe Canyon. Yet, I do know that in the layers of sandstone, hidden alcoves, and the gentle sway of willows I find great joy. I know the ecosystem on the side of the fence where it lies protected, and un-trampled feels more vibrant. I know without munching, stomping, and tramping this vibrancy thrives and the canyon is just that much more wild. I feel that I can even go as far as to say, the grass is truly greener on the other side.