He's worried about weeds

  • Steve Monsen examines a reseeded area of native grasses

    Franìois Camoin photo
  • Steve Monsen of the USDA Shrub Lab holds some knapweed

    Franìois Camoin photo


Steve Monsen is a stocky, modest, self-contained man. Sixty-three years old, the son and grandson of Utah sheep ranchers, he works as a botanist for an organization that could not sound more unassuming if it tried - the USDA Shrub Lab in Provo, Utah. There, he wears short-sleeved shirts and jeans and cuts a figure about as dramatic as a Ford Taurus. While we're bouncing his oversized government pickup truck down a dirt road near Tintic, Utah, he uses characteristically even tones to deliver a surprising piece of news: He is scared to death.

Suddenly, he stops the truck, jumps down into the sea of shrubs that starts at the roadside, and points.

A wiry plant about two feet in height bobs and nods in the breeze. It looks benign. It has purple flowers and is about the same size and shape as the sagebrush that surrounds it. But this is not like the other plants, most of which provide forage for the sheep who've grazed here since the Mormon pioneers started running sheep in the 1860s.

It's squarrose knapweed, the latest and most intimidating of a wave of weeds moving across the Western range.

"We're near the epicenter," says Monsen, nodding toward a distant silo sitting next to some railroad tracks. Squarrose knapweed was first identified near the silo in the 1940s. Monsen thinks it came in on sheep feed that was stored in the silo. For decades it didn't do much. It just spent a few years in primrose-sized clumps. It wove strong root systems through the sandy soil.

Then, in the late '70s and '80s, it started to spread. Now it covers at least 125,000 acres, mostly in Millard County, but also elsewhere in Utah and in parts of Arizona and Nevada.

It is spreading fast enough that Monsen and his fellow botanists use a special truck when they work here. When they use other vehicles, they wash them to prevent transporting seeds back to the Wasatch Front.

Along with wheat, barley and most of the forage grasses planted on the public range, squarrose knapweed evolved in the grasslands of Eurasia. In Utah, it is very nearly invincible. Its seeds, like those of dandelions, are connected to "parachutes' that detach in the slightest breeze and sail off to colonize soil hundreds of yards away. The seeds germinate easily in dry weather, while native plant seeds germinate in perhaps three out of 10 years. Its sturdy root system makes mowing it down an impossibility. And even if knapweed is killed with herbicide and removed, any seeds it leaves behind will be perfectly capable of starting the cycle all over again for 20 years. Knapweed exudes a substance that kills other plants in the area.

Its presence is a sign of ecosystem collapse.

Monsen has spent 40 years watching weeds invade the West. It is his job. He pushes his hands into his pockets and looks glum.

"Knapweed has already driven ranchers off the land in Montana," he says.

"I saw skeletonweed move across Idaho. In 1967-'68, I saw a couple of little patches. About as big as this road in diameter. Now that weed occupies millions of acres. Squarrose knapweed is going to do the same here. They're on a rampage. These weeds scare the dickens out of me."

What is a weed?

A weed goes by various definitions, but Monsen's favorite is "a plant out of place." Foremost among these is cheatgrass, which often precedes knapweed and skeletonweed and which has spread across the West literally like wildfire.

Cheatgrass greens up early in the season, but quickly turns to an inedible, combustible straw. It gives the landscape a soft, hazy, dreamy look and a tendency to burst into flame. Because cheatgrass both causes and thrives on fire, it burns out native plant communities with unnatural speed. A University of Utah graduate student, preparing to research her master's thesis at a well-known native-plant site, had to call off the project when she arrived to find cheatgrass - and nothing else.

Steve Monsen has a theory on why this happened. Weeds favor disturbed areas, and the Utah range has been mightily disturbed for the last 130 years.

More specifically, he considers the current weed invasion the latest symptom of the overgrazing that occurred between 1860-1880, when the pioneers finally started ranching in the Wasatch Range after spending decades barricaded in their small towns, besieged by the Utes. When the Indians fell, the settlers made up for lost time.

They grazed the range so hard that six inches to a foot of topsoil was lost off the top of the Wasatch Plateau. Grazed it so hard that Monsen's great-grandfather, while herding the town's cattle from his hometown of Mount Pleasant into the public rangeland, started running into boys herding cattle from Spring City, the next town over. (-He said it was originally beautiful stands of bunchgrass and bitterbrush," says Monsen, "but they knocked those out in a hurry." )

Eroded soils slid downstream with the rain, making floods commonplace. They grazed it so hard that the town of Manti bought its own watershed and cleared off the livestock around the turn of the century. Then they petitioned Teddy Roosevelt's secretary of Interior to send a range scientist to Utah to help them out.

Monsen gets passionate talking about the advent of range science on the Wasatch Front. He loves the characters - A.W. Sampson of Nebraska, who opened the Forest Service Experiment Station in Ephraim in 1912, and labored successfully to convince other scientists of the connection between overgrazing and erosion. Then there was the distinguished Lincoln Ellison, who died in an avalanche and was widely believed to have been reincarnated as a hawk above his favorite test plot.

Monsen joined the state wildlife agency in 1960, and in 1968 hooked up with Ellison's successors at the Shrub Lab - more formally known as the Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Research Station Shrub Service Laboratory. In the "60s, he came to love the tireless hours in the field.

Unfortunately, the work these range scientists were doing was exactly the wrong thing.

"We were aggressively seeding crested wheatgrass, smooth brome and intermediate wheatgrass," says Monsen. "We were full into the idea that these introduced species were OK. I'm probably as responsible as anyone in the West for the number of acres that have been seeded with crested wheatgrass. I've had to wipe a lot of egg off my face for what we did."

At the time, he is quick to add, it made sense. First, these European grasses produced good forage for livestock. Second, their seeds were available. There was no commercial source of native seeds.

But somewhere along the line, Monsen and some others started to realize they were restoring the damaged range into monocultures of livestock feed. And as he watched test plots that had been planted as early as the 1920s, Monsen realized with dismay that the introduced grasses outcompeted native plants. These forage grasses, too, were plants out of place. Weeds.

By the 1980s, he was convinced that native-plant communities were the most precious asset on the range.

"A native community better protects the site, better provides season-long forage to a number of species of grazing animals, insects, butterflies, whatever," says Monsen. "It provides habitat for those animals, while a single species just doesn't do it.

"I think a community better fits the site in that it provides a more stable cover. It provides nutrient cycling so that soil fertility levels are maintained. Communities also better fit diverse sites. I don't think any one single species has that ability."

He wasn't alone. Then-president Jimmy Carter issued a directive that only native seeds should be used in public range restoration efforts, unless there wasn't enough native-seed stock.

Therein lies the rub, says Monsen: Even now, there's not nearly enough. But there's some. During the 1960s, native-seed companies for "wildland" plantings sprang up around the West - Ephraim is home to four of Utah's six native grass seed companies. The Forest Service, in conjunction with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, started a native-shrub nursery, using a site administered by Snow College.

The early seed-collection years were colorful ones, Monsen remembers. Seed collectors were often "rugged-looking individuals' who would collect on private as well as government lands. "Often we'd have landowners be somewhat upset about what was going on; they'd see people out there beating their bushes with a tennis racket," he says, and snorts with laughter. "So we'd tell our collectors if they got harassed to tell them they're doing cancer research."

Seed supply isn't the only obstacle in the way of restoring the native range. The scientific community, in Utah at least, is far from unanimous on the benefits of native plants.

"A lot of people say, why not seed exotics if we can triple or quadruple production and put alfalfa in for deer?" he says. "But we still find out we're losing habitat. It's not about one month in the spring. We're talking about a year-round forage base. It's habitat, nesting habitat, concealment. I have no problem if private ranchers and the feds want to maximize seeding for forage, but only on small parts of the range. Not as a general policy."

'Stupid, idiotic, narrow'

Steve Monsen is not some kind of hippie. He's an elder in the Mormon Church and the owner of a John Deere tractor-style lawn mower, which he uses to keep his acre of lawn golf-course smooth.

But he has a reverence, an awe even, for native plants. This passion is not articulated for show: "A lot of things I do and see and learn and appreciate are hard to share with other people," he says. "It's like trying to explain to someone else why you have such a close attachment to your children or something."

It comes out in his fondness for field trips in his pickup truck. It comes out in his gruffness with those scientific peers who would still like to plant Utah's public range with four introduced species of forage grass.

"To me that's a stupid, idiotic, very narrow approach," he rumbles unhappily, his face growing pink at the thought. "That's like saying we should plant blue spruce in our high elevations, Gambel's oak in mid elevations, and in low elevations transfer everything we have to sagebrush or corn!'

Bouncing back toward the highway, he points out a native bluebunch wheatgrass. "See the green in the lower stem?" he says, sounding like a proud parent at a Little League game. "People say crested wheatgrass is such great forage. It's crap compared to this!" He pauses to avoid a huge bump in the road.

"With crested wheatgrass, have we set the stage for recovery? I say no, we haven't."

Back in Mount Pleasant, as we pass a dense meadow of introduced smooth brome and intermediate wheatgrass, he snaps, "See this? We have no grouse! We're losing insects. This guy probably loves it. He doesn't have weeds. He can graze it. But in a sense, he doesn't understand what he's lost."

I think about proclivities in families. That day at lunch, Monsen's son, Tod, a loan officer in Provo, told a story about wanting to win the dairy-science event at the state 4-H championships while he was in high school. He didn't even place in that event, but he won the horticulture event, which he hadn't even studied for at all.

A cheatgrass valley

Monsen takes me to the Tanner Creek watershed, a valley that looks like it's carpeted by a golden cloud 15 miles long and five inches thick. Bare, sandy hills break through the cloud here and there, dotted with charred remains of juniper trees.

It's a cheatgrass valley. It has burned four times in the last two years.

"This is typical of all the West Valley, of all the valleys in Utah," he says. "You can go from here clear to the Nevada line, and all across northern Nevada, and the whole southern half of Idaho, and it's just like this. From Rexburg on the north clear around to Boise and into Oregon. The Steens mountains. So we're talking about hundreds of thousands of contiguous acres."

He turns to me: "If you had the responsibility to manage this site, what would you do?"

Um. I run through everything he's told me. There is plenty of bare soil that hasn't been claimed by cheatgrass. But there's probably not enough native stock to replant the whole area. There's plenty of crested wheatgrass seed, but once that's established, you've closed the door on rebuilding a native community. And if the cheatgrass is left alone, it'll just spread. ...

Monsen has an answer, of sorts.

"We're at a transition in science. We know what we should be doing, but we don't have the wherewithall to do it. We need to get more seeds in production." And, he adds, "there are some land managers who don't accept the transition."

That's putting it politely. Two months ago, he had a shouting match with other scientists about what should be done with the site.

We drive down the valley to the abandoned Jericho sheep station, where the local ranchers would bring their sheep for shearing each spring until the mid-1970s. Monsen relaxes visibly.

"Watch where you step," he says cheerfully as we enter the rambling, wooden building. "Rattlesnakes love it in here."

It's dark and dusty inside, and the outside quickly assembles itself into blindingly bright splinters of light. I walk as carefully as a monk from window to window, staring at my feet.

Monsen is bursting with the happiness of a man with a good story to tell. In 1956, when he was a sophomore at Snow College, he was asked to bring in 1,000 head for shearing, because appendicitis, flu, and a bullet wound to the hand had claimed all the other likely shepherds of his cousin's herd. Monsen was from ranching stock, but his father had spent the years since the Depression as a policeman. He was nervous. He headed into the range, not even sure where the sheep were. He spent a week shepherding the herd past stands of halogeton, the weed of concern back then. Once the sheep were sheared by the imported New Zealanders, Monsen single-handedly baled the wool, herded the sheep onto trucks, unloaded them at the home ranch, and collapsed. A week later, his cousin gave him $500. A fortune.

Now, though. Look at this place. Every window frames its own view of devastation. Cheatgrass outside one. A corral choked with tumbleweeds out another. A bare hill, a sitting duck for weeds, out another.

A quiet fighter

In the operatic world of Utah environmental politics, finding Steve Monsen is like finding a rock in the middle of a stormy sea. He's come by his environmental ethic through decades of observation; he's the quiet guardian of both a rich seam of history and of a biological crisis. He's respectful of both the human and ecological cultures here, but he can raise tenacious, well-documented hell when he wants to.

He can say: "It's obvious grazing was the culprit in most situations. That doesn't mean you can't still graze areas. But I do feel very sincerely there are many areas we should not have any grazing on at all." And there's no reason not to believe every word he says. I mean, he is as moderate as you can get; this is a man who drives out of his way to proudly show me some of the finer architectural efforts of the early pioneers.

He doesn't want to change the world. He just wants to change the range. He's even got a plan to do so, and here in this deserted monument to sheep ranching, he delivers it to me:

The most damaged ranchlands - those already infested with knapweed and, in Idaho, skeletonweed - should be aggressively restored and planted with wheatgrass. The ranchlands that are teetering on the edge of knapweed invasion should be taken out of operation, and the ranchers compensated, like the farmers who took highly erodible lands out of operation in the 1980s under the Conservation Reserve Program.

"Right now, that's the best way to allow them to heal, and it's the cheapest thing for us to do," he says. "It may be 10 years. It may be 50. I don't know, it could be 100 years. That's a lot cheaper than trying to restore them, because I think that we have weeds on the scene now that we aren't going to be able to contain.

"I think we have a window of time right now. We may be able to prevent these weeds that are displacing cheatgrass. The ranchers see they're losing ground. In Montana and Colorado and the Dakotas, there's many ranchers there that are just completely out of business because of weeds. I mean, they're just walking away."

Lisa Jones freelances from Paonia, Colorado.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Lisa Jones

High Country News Classifieds
    Are you a supporter of public lands and interested in a career in the nonprofit sector? Grand Teton National Park Foundation is hiring a Development...
    Ranch General Manager for a large family-owned Ranch on the island of Molokai, Hawaii. Diversified operations include: an agro-tourism educational retreat center, renewable energy and...
    POSITION SUMMARY: The Communications and Project Coordinator will support the Executive Director (ED) in campaign and administrative related tasks. The Coordinator is responsible for research...
    A timely, damning, and ultimately hopeful investigation of housing in the United States. Essential reading in the West.
    Status: Full time Reports to: Conservation Program Manager Salary Range: $60,000-65,000 Duration: Position is funded for 12 months, with the expectation of annual renewal Benefits:...
    The Vice President of Conservation will arrive at a time of remarkable growth and opportunity within the organization. Guided by the bold and ambitious goals...
    Help us inspire and empower people to protect America's wild snowscapes! We are a small, mighty and growing team dedicated to our work and looking...
    The EAC's Executive Director provides overall leadership for the operation of the organization. The Executive Director is responsible for implementing programs and policies set by...
    These carefully researched stories reflect a deep and abiding understanding of Ute culture and history. These authintic, colorful legends also illustrate the Ute's close connections...
    High Country News seeks an organized and collaborative Fundraising Associate to drive donor discovery and the cultivation and acquisition of mid-level and recurring gifts. This...
    GYC is hiring! Please see our careers page for more details greateryellowstone.org/careers
    Tranquility & land are becoming more and more rare. This land is a haven for peace, where nature beckons & flourishes. Enjoy the mountain views...
    is a Denver-based mail order surgical instrument sharpening service established in 2009. Specialties include surgical scissors, dental elevators, trocar sets, and gynecological biopsy forceps.
    California Coalition for Rural Housing (CCRH) seeks a strategic and visionary Executive Director: View all job details here- https://bit.ly/CCRHED
    Thrilling new crime novel by ex-HCN editor Ray Ring : A rural White horsewoman and an urban Black man battle White supremacists in a tough...
    Field seminars for adults in natural and human history of the northern Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
    Popular vacation house, everything furnished. Two bedroom, one bath, large enclosed yards. Dog-friendly. Contact Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
    Native plant seeds for the Western US. Trees, shrubs, grasses, wildflowers and regional mixes. Call or email for free price list. 719-942-3935. [email protected] or visit...