TrekWest Blog 35: Meandering Over Sandstone Substrates
Posted: 28 Jun 2013 09:08 AM PDT
More Rambles in Utah’s Grandest Monument so Far
When Kim Crumbo suggested that diving a hundred feet down into a Calf Creek plunge pool, here in the heart of spectacular Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, could create a fine photo opportunity for TrekWest, with videographer Ed George and writer Ray Wheeler hovering about, I averted my glance and asked Jim Catlin to tell us more about the importance of water in desert ecosystems. Knowledge took precedence over thrill-seeking, to my lasting relief, and soon we trekkers were all talking about how the Escalante River will benefit from the voluntary retirement of livestock grazing permits, the recovery of beaver populations, and the removal of exotic Russian olive and tamarisk trees. Jim and Ray noted that much of the water in this system originates as the snow up on the Aquarius Plateau we’d floundered through the last few days. Then we climbed domes above Calf Creek, on that inimitable sandstone which makes the Southwest’s Slickrock Country one of the most photogenic landscapes on Earth, and looked over countless miles of white and red rock elegantly bejewelled with green dots of pinyons and junipers. An impressively long gopher snake shared one grand view with us, high above the sinuous creek.
Then Mary O’Brien of Grand Canyon Trust introduced us to beaver work on North Creek, westward in the huge Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Beavers are working wonders in restoring habitat for trout, ducks, songbirds, and willows and cottonwoods. They are also raising the water table closer to normal levels. Unfortunately, several ongoing problems prevent full watershed recovery. Much of the Monument is still heavily grazed by livestock, meaning continued trampling of stream banks and elevated rates of erosion and sedimentation. Mary said these problems can be reduced by lighter stocking densities, more range-riders (cowboys) to keep cattle from congregating in sensitive areas, and later grazing seasons, so native perennial plants can flower and exchange pollen before being eaten. As mentioned a couple blogs ago, conservation land-owner and scientist Dennis Bramble is exploring these gentler ranching techniques on his land west of the town of Escalante, as are various other conservation-minded land-owners across the West. (Get to know the Wild Farm Alliance and read Dan Imhoff’s book Farming With the Wild.)
A problem even less widely acknowledged than overgrazing is the eradication of wolves. The shortage of top predators has allowed the proliferation of elk and their concentration in choice areas. That is, no wolves means elk too many and too lazy. With few predators to keep them moving and trim their numbers, elk are devouring the lush riparian regrowth before it can reach maturity. Mary pointed out that thousands of willows and cottonwoods have sprouted up since beavers raised water levels and created silt beds behind their dams, but most of these saplings have lost their growing parts (apical meristems) to hungry elk.
A third and related obstacle to watershed recovery is that few people know what a healthy stream should look like. Some people continue to persecute beavers; some run their livestock right into the streams, even as the eroding banks recede and channels incise; and some divert or block free-flowing waters. If more people could experience the lushness and vitality of a beaver creek flowing through desert, as Mary showed us at North Creek, maybe they’d understand.
Folks from a model regional conservation effort, the Escalante River Watershed Partnership, kindly introduced our wild bunch of trekkers to more of this gorgeous part of the Colorado Plateau. Mike Golden, a fish biologist with Dixie National Forest, Linda Whitham of The Nature Conservancy, John Spence of the National Park Service, Kris and others showed us various restoration efforts underway on public lands in the watershed. Mike described the Forest Service’s work to preserve and restore the Colorado River cutthroat trout, which has including altering culverts to allow fish movement. We were all elated when Mike caught in his hands a healthy native trout high in Boulder Creek as we watched from the banks, then gently put it back in the healing waters.
Linda explained the extraordinary success of this watershed group, young as a willow sapling yet strong as an old cottonwood. Kris told of leading youth conservation groups on outings to remove Russian thistle from along the Escalante River. (I inwardly thanked these virtuous youth a few days later, as I backpacked down the Escalante and got only a few scratches where five years ago Russian olives would have shredded me.) John Spence enumerated the advantages to wildlife of cottonwoods, willows and other native plants versus these exotics.
Reeling with ideas, I headed alone down Deer Creek then Boulder Creek then Escalante River, by turns wading snow-melt waters, weaving through floodplain woodlands (passable again since removal of Russian olive), and climbing up slickrock slopes. From the flannel-mouth suckers darting away from my eroding boots, to the water ouzels flying back to cliff-side nests with prey for young, to pure brightest redrock towering hundreds of flawless feet above—oft scored by ravens and falcons—this land, with its pulsing veins of watery life, speaks splendor. For my small part in the public ownership of federal land in Utah, I say save every last wild acre and start restoring and reconnecting the damaged areas.
For the Wild,
All Photos were taken by esteemed photographer, Ray Wheeler, thank you Ray!
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