Sunday, January 30, 2011

Conservation Chaos

Crew Chaos

We spent the summer and fall of '09 fighting the rednecks. 'Necks, we called them, and we were the 'neck-thrashers, closure crew, crew chaos, crew clusterfuck. We were building barriers, closing the illegal ATV trails threading through the degraded and abused Manti-La Sal National Forest. It's hard to stay fair and neutral when all summer you are faced with such a monumental task: spoiled forests and hillsides in so many places bisected by the ugly twin tracks of motorized recreation, a place where you can't take a walk across country for more than a mile literally anywhere without running into a trail, legal or otherwise, without finding beer cans and plastic wrappers. A place where even the huge Utah night is broken by the roar of engines, where only the coyote and the owl should be calling. The battle lines were drawn early, and sharply. 

Ruined "no vehicle" signs at
trailside. Note the ineffective
concrete settings
It was good work, though, challenging and refreshingly physical. Out in the beauty of the Wasatch Plateau, on the wildflower slopes and in among the aspen and spruce, we dug our holes, fought the buried and very plentiful rocks, and planted our posts. Fences rose like mushrooms that year. Miles of trail were brushed over with logs and debris. Our huge wall map grew tendrils of highlighted trails as the months went by, with one after another found and closed. We took pride in our work, though all along we doubted it as well, having long conversations about our effectiveness and worth, often slipping into feelings of futility. Rednecks, we knew, carry chainsaws and tow chains, and our wooden fences, even the ones lined with steel cable, could not withstand their determined efforts if put to the test. Brush can be avoided by going around, meaning the formation of another trail. Our work was good, but it was not enough. Our work was doomed.  
Joe's Valley
We labored in all parts of the Forest, but mostly in the Manti Division, and mostly up and down Joe's Valley, a great fault-block valley, also known as a graben, which cuts north-south through the heart of the Wasatch Plateau of central Utah. Manti is the most damaged division by far. We were up and down the main road all summer, as well as many of the motorized trails that follow most of the side canyons. We saw enough of the place to feel we knew it well. We saw where the mines had been, the timbering, the sheep and cattle and horses still pastured there, overgrazed slopes that had been recontoured with bulldozers to halt the runaway erosion, leaving vast stretches of strangely terraced land on many a mountainside. We saw the standing dead of the spruce forests, over 80% lost from spruce beetle attacks. This from decades of fire surpression leading to over-dense, weakened, aged stands; and though the foresters wouldn't admit it when I asked them, I suspect climate change as well. We saw the Forest fill with vacationers on the weekends and especially holidays, the campgrounds full, trailers parked everywhere, ATVs crusing the roads and trails.    

Wasatch Plateau
It was not a land that bespoke great health or abundant wildlife populations. On off hours and nights, I would sometimes simply stand outside in the presence of the mountains, soaking it in, for I loved where I was and was happy. But the feeling of the place was hardly what I would call truly wild. There was just no escaping the heavy hand of man and the utter accessibility, with trails up almost every canyon, roads along the valleys and ridgetops, especially the popular Skyline Drive, garbage everywhere, and plenty of sheep- and cow-bitten hillsides. Their trampling had pulverised the soil and resulted in a dense tangle of trails everywhere they grazed.

We heard there were elk present, but saw none until late in the year, and even then only a small herd of 6 or 7. Of mountain lion and bear we saw no sign, and came to doubt any respectable predator would linger long in such an impacted land. Locals spoke of bear sightings, up around Grassy Lake and sometimes descending the canyons out of the high country to the villages below. But it was hard to believe.

In addition to the conservation projects, the Utah Conservation Corps had us take a course in sustainability, that we might exercise our minds as well as our bodies, that we may build knowledge as well as trails and fences. In short, that we might be more than mere grunts. We were also to give a presentation from a list of topics to our crew, and I chose the wolf reintroduction controversy in Yellowstone and Idaho, a thing I was already interested in and a great supporter of. The world needs more predators.     

Wildflower meadow
It was a bitter thing, knowing that the wolves were gone from these lands, and most of the rest of the country as well, even where it was supposedly still wilderness. The spirit of the mountains was gone, along with the grizzlies, only existing where they do now because we allow it or because we put them there. There are coyotes yet; we'd heard enough of them to know. But there was a certain hollowness to be felt if one took the time. Miles and miles of National Forest and mountains, but it felt tame as any farmyard. Which is what it had become, really; trees for the cutting, meadows for cattle and sheep pasture. Add to that the constant four wheeler traffic, the noise, and the fumes. This is no wildernesss, it's hardly a National Forest; more like an amusement park. Land of many uses, indeed, but what about the uses the elk might have for it, or the mountain lion, or the bear?

It was on one of our last fence-builds of the year, in among a mixed stand of aspen and ponderosa pine, when I had wandered a short distance down the trail, looking for a suitable choke-point at which to build our barrier. Glancing down at the needle-strewn ground at the edge of a small clearing, I saw fresh tracks in the soft mud. Bear tracks, and big ones. They led off into the grass-floored aspen woods standing adjacent, leading up and over a rise and out of sight. I called the crew over to look at and admire the signature of a wild brother, and fought hard the urge to follow wherever they might lead.

No, I had to stay. We had 'necks to stop.

*(click all pictures for larger images)


  1. It's probably a good thing you didn't follow the bear tracks. I say this not because the bear might have attacked you but because bears don't need humans fawning over their sight.

    I also don't state this from a holier-than-thou standpoint. Like you, I love the wilderness and I worked for the US Forest Service as a firefighter out of college. While members of our crew talked about the need to leave wildlife alone, anytime we saw fresh tracks we were hellbent to forget our conversations and to try to invade their space. It only dawned on me in retrospect that, had I chased down those tracks, I would be no better than those I criticize.

    We need more wilderness areas that humans should leave untouched...entirely.

  2. Thanks for the reply. I guess the bit about following him was more a literary device than absolute reality. I'm not into harrassing wildlife either. Though there is some fun in in the idea of following a track in the woods, knowing that somewhere at the end the creature is still standing in the prints.

    Anyways, it was just exciting to see the evidence of a live bear at last. That's what I was trying to convey.

  3. I love stalking wildlife...with my camera. After stalking a roadrunner last year I've found that I really do love the thrill of the hunt, without the actual killing part. Just observing and tracking, I really enjoy that. Though this is in the city, and the outskirts of the city, not so much in the wilderness. I think I would be too afraid to stalk a bear, a mountain lion, or a wolf. I prefer stalking smaller and less threatening animals than myself. Mostly birds, squirrels, rabbits, lizards.

    Some notable Arizona wildlife sightings: I have seen numerous coyotes here, usually solitary though, never a pack of them. Though I do hear them sometimes at night, very eerie sounding, almost supernatural. Never heard such a thing until I moved here. I've also seen numerous Javelinas (wild pigs). You can smell them coming. Last year I saw a black bear for the first time in my life, walk right by my kitchen window (which is not too common around here). Also encountered a few deer, and two huge bighorn sheep facing me directly in my path, while hiking in the Catalina foothills northeast of Tucson. I had to turn around, because they were blocking the path. Had my camera, but didn't take a picture, because I was afraid they'd stampede me. Also several hawks, vultures, owls, and a few roadrunners. I used to have a blog about it.

    I hate ATVs and the culture of disrespect for nature common among their riders. I also hate litterbugs. Whether in the wilderness or in the city, if there are no trash cans I always pack out all my trash. Though as to the toilet paper question, I'm not too keen on packing that out, prefer to bury it, or burn it if it's not a fire restriction.

  4. Cym, that's awesome. Tucson sounds like a city I might be able to stand, with the surrounding countryside as rich as it is, and at least it sounds like some of it is open land.