For the first time in my life I can actually say I got to see a place I worked at go up in flames. Its rolling hills, its shabby grasses and forbs we were trying to restore were nothing more than dust in most places. I saw our study site exposed completely with only empty rock circles and empty cages to signify the blood and sweat I and the other DWR staff put into preparing the rehab site.
When I drove up to the remains of my old work site my stomach sank just seeing all the area burned. As I walked out across the landscape towards one of the known casualties I was frustrated see all the dead vegetation and to see the culprit lying amongst the few survivors, laying the foundation for another fire just like this one. A sucker punch for sure, but I was there to document the damage that cattle, invasive species and roads have on landscapes and what we have in store if we keep doing things the way we are now. Each one of these topics play a role in the future of St. George and the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve.
If you have known me for more than a few hours you will probably know I have beef with cows here in Utah. I have seen cows thrash riparian habitats so they looked like nothing more than mud pits. I have seen enclosures protected from cattle have grass two feet tall, while all the land around chewed to the roots. I have also performed the assessments to measure the impact of cows on landscapes, and to be frank, almost every river is damaged in some way if there are cows around. There is ample evidence for their damage, and I have complained about them in the past. If you want a better understanding of their damage just go to google scholar and type in Cattle and habitat degradation.
The land I was walking through to photograph for this story was like looking at the living shadow of cows and the dangers they brought with them. Back when early Mormon Pioneers settled the land around St. George they brought cattle and sheep to use as food and to drive the local economy. Little did these early pioneers know the culture and food they brought with them was going to set the stage for what will be one of the most damaging invasions this country has experience.
When most people think of grass they think of the green stuff that sits in their lawn. When you are talking to biologists they want to know about which species you are referring to as there are over 10,000 species. Of that amazing variety sits one in particular that almost all biologists in the west can say they hate, and that's cheat grass (Bromus tectorum). This grass has been spreading across the United States for nearly 150 years (Freeman et al 2014). But its role in the west is particularly devastating.
The above images have cheat grass within them
In the Great Basin cheat grass has turned upwards of 10% of the region into a monoculture of itself (Freeman et al 2014). For the other remaining 90% it is a mixture of cheat grass and native plants with few remaining lands that are unaffected. But its most damaging characteristic is that it matures early and dries earlier than the rest of the native gasses and native plants in the Great Basin. This sets the stage for fire to break out at the slightest spark and cause devastating fires. These fire then spreads rapidly, fueled by interconnected cheat grass clusters leading to massive wildfires that are seen here in Utah, particularly here in St. George in the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve (RCDR).
Well how did this cheat grass get here? Cows.
Cows to my knowledge do not spread cheat grass in dung. But what they do is tear up the ground facilitating cheat grass spread. Once the landscape is disturbed, it sets the stage for disturbance species to take over and cheat grass is the king of taking advantage of disturbed habitat here in places like the RCDR. But there are no cows in RCDR, currently so the cheat grass invasion began before the reserve was set up and the cows roamed in these parts. Now the reserve biologists are dealing with the aftermath of the presence of cows.
I wasn't here for the fires that took place this summer. But for a day, I walked through their
aftermath. I had reached out to the biologist who manages these animals and asked if I could tag along and see if we could find some tortoises. She gave a date and a time and so on a Friday morning I showed up at a restricted area and set out to find some tortoises with a small team of volunteers. The process is relatively simple, set up a transect and walk within a certain distance of the line and look for tortoises and hope you find one. We didn't. If they had been there before the fire, they either died somewhere out of view or were gone off to greener pastures.
The two fires that tore through the RCDR this summer were caused by humans. One was a trailer with a flat tire, the other was by teenagers who now look at 2.5 million dollars of reparations and very very angry parents. The result was the same though. A forest of creosote bush gone. All the native grasses scorched. All the cactuses sit in withering piles. A scattering of lizards, but almost non-existent through much of it. A few birds call, but overall silent. No rabbits. No chipmunks. No tortoises. No insects.
Unfortunately scattered amongst the landscape are little piles of seed stocks left from cheat grass. Their they quietly wait to pop up next spring to overtake the landscape and start the cycle over again. No recovery in sight.
Since we never found a tortoise that day, I asked the biologist if she knew of any tortoises that had been found dead. She said they had a few casualties of the fire and gave me the coordinates for one that I could get too. It was right were I performed all the habitat restoration when I was working for the DWR in this region. As mentioned above it was disheartening to see it gone. The plots that we had been planting native plants for a large scale study was burnt to a crisp. The small cages were still present, but many of the plants within were toast. In order to get to the tortoise body I had to walk the entire length of the study area. Ash and dust as far as the eye could see. Hundreds of holes, a handful of blisters, and hours of sore muscles for what may be nothing.
The tortoise lay just over the hill from where we worked. Its shell overturned, revealing the slight dimple on the underside of the carapace indicating that it was a male. Half of its shell had been burned up. The other half blackened by smoke. It lay on a pile of cheat grass, the culprit for the fire spread.
The two fires to have struck this area in 2020 were both human caused. They occurred because there was a road that is adjacent to or within the Reserve. These routes near and into this protected landscape increases the chance for man made fires. And if you are wonderings, upwards of 90% of fires in wild lands are human caused. And the more fires we have the more cheat grass spreads which leads to more fires, more costs and more damage.
Recently, Utah legislators have been pushing for a road through the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve called the northern corridor. This is against the original management plan of the area and against what the city and county had agreed too. It has some noble cause to reduce congestion as the city grows, but it is backtracking on commitment it made and will facilitate more damage in the long run as we have seen above.
Unfortunately because of the political climate we live in now, backtracking on promises and conservation are the in thing to do. We saw this with places like Escalante and the wilds of Alaska. We saw this with placement of anti environmental personal within agencies designated as protectors of the environment. And we will continue to see it as we go forward unless things change.
What can you do?
First and foremost oppose the Northern Corridor. Speak up and speak out and write your senators and say come up with a better plan. Follow Conserve Southwest Utah and follow their instructions on how you can help. Speak to your neighbors as things come up and let them know that it needs to be opposed.
Finally educate yourself. I am an ok resource, but the next best thing is with a bit of research online to get you in the right track. Here are my suggestions of topics to look up: Cheat Grass, Desert Tortoise, Cattle, Climate Change (use reputable sources for this one), Wild Fires. Look at the grand picture and ask questions. This will allow you to be able to answer questions and make good choices for the environment.