Thanks, BLM, for letting the dirt shine through


Editor's note: The following is a recent letter from Collin Smith, an aspiring geologist, to the Bureau of Land Management in Utah. He said he was happy to share it with us because the federal agency receives so little praise these days.

Dear BLM:

I am pleased as punch! I just got back from my first trip to Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and was thrilled by what I saw. Your administration has done a fantastic job making the monument a wonderland for a geologist-in-training such as myself.

Each step of the staircase sends up its own uniquely varicolored plume of dust. Whoever had the stroke of insight to use cows to remove all of that pesky, vegetation should be given a medal. Of course, I'm sure it takes quite a subsidy from taxpayers to make it possible to run all those cows on the monument. It's worth it: Never have I had the chance to study erosion in such an up-close and personal way. The monument has rills, gullies, and 15-foot-deep arroyos. Yesterday, I almost fell in one when the edge dropped out from under me. I can't wait to get back to school and tell my geomorphology professor!

But don't get me started on the soils. In a lot of places, there's nothing holding them together, making sampling amazingly easy. I didn't have to brush aside a single blade of grass to hit pay dirt; I could just scoop loose samples right off the side of some all-terrain vehicle trail. Zion, Canyonlands – those national parks make life so difficult for visitors with all the plants they let clutter up the geology. And if you wanted to identify what's growing, there's way too many species to keep track of. I like how the BLM keeps it simple here: not much more than cheatgrass, crested wheatgrass, Russian wild rye, sagebrush.

On a lot of field trips, my professors make students hike miles just to see a single rock outcrop. With all the roads crisscrossing the monument, I only had to stick my head out the window to get the same experience. It's really nice how you all give so much leeway to visitors on your supposedly "closed roads." I bet having only half as many range managers as rangers helps, though. And it seems like you must get along really nicely with the local counties, because they're always out there grooming the roads for you.

You're even digging out all the piñon and juniper to make it easier to see the ground from above. Not having those trees around makes seeing the topography a heckuva lot simpler. I hear that before the BLM came along, it would take hundreds of years for those trees to burn naturally. It's like you've sped up geologic time to make learning easier for folks like me, who have little imagination. Nothing brings a tear to my eye like two tractors and a chain crawling majestically across the landscape, ripping up a bunch of trees and sagebrush. So much for not being able to see the forest for the trees!

Really, I can't thank you all enough for your wise management of the monument. There's really only one problem that I could see. Sometimes there's this crazy black crust on the ground, holding things together and keeping folks from actually seeing whatever's underneath it. This stuff's even got moss in it. Moss, in a desert! It's keeping everything damp and slowing down the beautiful process of erosion that everyone came to see. I have a suggestion, though: With a little effort, the cows -- and maybe a couple tractors -- can fix this, too.

With heartfelt gratitude,
An aspiring geologist

P.S. All right, maybe I'm not really an aspiring geologist, though I did graduate with a B.A. in geology. I've been working as a volunteer for conservation on the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument for three summers now. Each time I take a trip out there, I'm amazed at how little the agency does to protect this incredible slice of the American Southwest.

There's a whole lot of land beyond Highway 12 and the Escalante River corridors that few people travelling through the monument ever see. While the geologic features are unmatched, so, too, is the slack management of this special place. I hope the new grazing plan currently underway considers the monument's other values, including its biology and wildlife.

Collin Smith is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the column service of High Country News. He lives in Castle Valley, Utah, and works on conservation throughout the Colorado Plateau.

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