Friday, July 31, 2009

Ferruginous Hawks struggling in Eastern Utah

Any of you who are birders might find this story in the Salt Lake Tribune interesting. Sounds like the Ferruginous hawk population living in the Uinta Basin near Vernal is struggling. There's been extensive development of the natural gas resources there and the long term disturbance has had a detrimental effect on the nesting activities of these raptors. Here's the link to the story. What's encouraging about the story is someone (the group Utah Wildlife in Need) is actually doing something positive for the birds.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Zion National Park's Horse Fire Update

In the previous post we talked about the lodgepole pines trees and how wildfire plays a role in their life cycle. Lodgepoles are a "pioneer" species, meaning they are the first tree to re-establish after a forest fire. We also discussed how the government's policy of forest suppression over the past 50-100 years has resulted in a forest make-up that is possibly more suseptible to pest infestation. Fire management has changed radically in recent years, and the Horse Fire in Zion National Park is a perfect example. I started following the progression of the Horse Fire two weeks ago on July 9th. Rather than aggressively put out the fire, the fire fighters on the Horse Fire have been letting the fire burn, in a controled fashion. Here's the goal, according to the National Park Service Website update:

"The fire is burning in a fire-adapted ecosystem and is achieving the resource benefits it is being managed for. Most of the area has shown a light understory burn, with little torching of larger trees. This will reduce the amount of dead and down fuel and provide an opportunity to regenaration of native plants. The reduction of fuels will also lower the risk of wildfire to adjacent private lands from future wildfires."

Although the fire has closed a section of the West Rim Trail for a couple weeks, its in the remote, northern portion of the park. Aside from some smoke settling Zion Canyon at night, there little adverse effects from the fire. Its cool to see a new approach being implemented! If you'd like to learn more about what's going on with the fire here a link to the NPS page.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Utah Field Guide - Lodgepole Pines and how the tiny pine bark beetle is transforming the forests of the American West

Why are the forests dying? I get this question almost every day on my raft when I'm working as a river guide. I guide on the Salmon River near Stanley, Idaho, in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, one of the prettiest natural settings in the United States. The surroundings are gorgeous, but there's no denying it, the forests around the river are dying. Everywhere you look, you see stands of red (starting to die) and brown (dead) trees clustered together in sad, lifeless clumps.

The die-off isn't limited to Idaho. You'll see it anywhere in the American West where lodgepole pines grow. The entire Rocky Mountain Region is suffering from the blight. Including Utah. The problem is particularly apparent in the Uinta Mountains along the Mirror Lake Highway, where the trees are withering by the hundreds in almost every campground. Who's the killer? And why isn't anyone doing anything about it?

The lodgepole pine forest is being killed by the Rocky Mountain pine bark beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae). That's right, tiny (1/2 centimeter long) beetles who burrow into the bark of the tree and kill the host from the inside out. In the Western United States and Canada bark beetles have killed 36,000 square miles of forest. Depending on the area, beetles have infested as much as 40% of the lodgepole trees in the forests, and may kill up to 80-90% of the mature trees before they're done. With 90% of the trees dead, the forests will look almost entire devoid of green, living trees.

Isn't there something we can do to stop the beetles? We'll dive into that later. But first lets get a little more familiar with lodgepole pines, how to recognize them, where to find them and why they're such an important part of Utah's mountain ecosystems.

Characteristics: Lodgepole pine trees (pinus contorta) are distinctly recognizable by their rail straight trunks and high thin crowns. Their trunks are popular for traditional fences on western
ranches and are often used to build cabins because they are so consistently straight. Historically in Utah, lodgepoles were used to support mine shafts and for railroad ties. The needles of a lodgepole pines are short (relative to ponderosa pines), about 2 inches long and grow coupled together with other needles. The needles are twisted or contorted, giving the tree its scientific name pinus contorta. The bark is thin and scaly, and ranges in color from orange-brown to gray.

Where to find lodgepole pines:
Lodgepole pines usually grow above 6,000 feet in elevation in mountainous terrain. In Utah lodgepoles pines can be found in the mountains in the northern half of the state. The Uinta Mountains have the largest and most widespread distribution of lodgepole. Stands of these trees will often be associated with a natural disturbance such as fire, or in areas where the forest has been cleared by people. Their cones need extreme heat to release their seeds. In nature this heat is only generated by wildfire, so fire is necessary part of the lifecycle of lodgepole pines. Their niche as the first species to establish after forest fires makes a "pioneer species" playing an important role in forest succession.

Now that we have a feel for what lodgepole pines look like and where they live, lets explore what's happening with the forest and the pine bark beetle.

Pine bark beetle infestation: Pine bark beetles have always been present in the Rocky Mountain environment. The populations ocilate on a boom and bust cycle, much like other insects. The most recent major infestation occurred in 1983. Beetles attack the tree by tunneling into the bark where they lay their eggs. Young larvae mature inside the tree before leaving it to find a new host for the next generation.

What makes this infestation different from previous ones is how large and widespread it is. Biologists believe there are several factors contributing to the scale of this infestation. One factor is the current make-up of the forest. Pine bark beetles only infest mature lodgepole pines. We've already mentioned that lodgepole forests tend to develop in places where there's been some disturbance, whether that be a wildfire, or a man-made, such as logging. The suppression of forest fires may be playing a role in this current cycle. Because there have been less frequent fire events overall in the American West in the last 50-100 years, there are more mature trees in the forest for the bark beetles to attack. This is a result of larger trees not being burned in fires, but also a lack of fires releasing seeds from cones. So, there is effectively more food and habitat for these beetles than during previous cycles. Another contributing factor may be a prolonged and widespread drought. The trees natural defense against the beetle is sap. Trees bleed thick, viscus sap in an effort to flush the beetles out of the their bark and prevent them tunneling into the tree. Drought conditions prevent the trees from producing as much sap, thereby reducing their natural defense system against the beetles. Warmer weather has also aided the beetles in their expansion. Week-long periods of extreme cold weather can kill entire generations of pine beetles, but a long run of warmer winters has allowed the pest to survive.

What can be done about this outbreak? Unfortunately, not much. Typically outbreaks last for one to three decades. A long period of bitter cold temperatures could cause the outbreak to collapse. But much more likely, it'll be matter a the beetles running out of food - meaning most of the trees will be dead.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Mountain Bike Race at Solitude in Big Cottonwood Canyon

The Chris Allaire Memorial Mountain Bike Race is being held tomorrow, Saturday, July 18 at Solitude Mountain Resort in Big Cottonwood Canyon. The race is the Utah Open State Championship. The racing starts at 8:15AM and continues through the final starting time at 11:00AM.

Fore more information call Ed Chauner (801) 942-3498 or online at

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Free Weekend in Utah's National Park!

Have you heard about the National Parks System's Fee Free Weekends? The National Park Service is waving the ENTRANCE FEE to the National Parks in over 100 different parks this weekend (July 18th and 19th) and again for the weekend of August 15th and 16th. Here's the link to the NPS site. In Utah the parks that are included are some of the state's (and the country's) best. Here's the list (with photos for inspiration!):

Arches National Park

Bryce Canyon National Park

Canyonlands National Park

Capitol Reef National Park

Cedar Breaks National Monument

Dinosaur National Monument

Hovenweep National Monument

Zion National Park

Golden Spike National Historic Site

Natural Bridges National Monument

Granted a lot of the smaller parks don't charge a entrance fee anyway, but Arches, Bryce, and Zion all normally charge a hefty fee, so this is really awesome deal. With five national parks in southern Utah, you could save a Benjamin over the weekend. Note: only the entrance fee is being waived, you'll still have to pay for camping, tours and concessions. If you're going to go camping in the one of the parks check out our guidebook Moon Utah Camping for a complete guide to every campground in Utah's national parks and the state as a whole.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Mountain Biking in Park City (with Video)

With temperatures heating up to normally sweltering mid-summer levels in most of Utah, its time to seek relief in the mountains. One of my favorite mid-summer escapes from the Salt Lake City is a quick drive up to Park City to mountain bike one of the many excellent single-track trails. Expect temperatures to be at least 10 degrees cooler in the mountains than down in town.

Depending on where you live, Park City can be a great day trip, or a destination in itself. If you're traveling from far away, there's tons of lodging options in PC, but there's also great camping opportunities. Check out our guidebook Moon Utah Camping for complete information about the campgrounds in and around Park City.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Wildfire closes the West Rim Trail in Zion National Park

A wildfire, named the Horse Fire, is currently burning in the high country of Zion National Park near the West Rim Trail. The fire is approximately 1.5 miles southeast of Lava Point. The fire was started by a lightning strike on the 4th of July. The National Park Service has closed the trail from Lava Point to Potato Hollow. The small fire has burned 20 acres and is being managed by a multi-agency team including the park service, BLM and Utah state officials.

Here's the view down into Zion Canyon from Lava Point, where the fire is burning.

If you've got a trip planned to Zion, don't panic. This is a small fire in the northern part of the park. Unless you're planning on backpacking the entire length of the remote West Rim Trail, the fire probably won't have a significant impact on your visit. Zion Canyon (the main attraction in the park) is still open and as accessible as ever. The park service expects some smoke may settle into Zion Canyon at night, but doesn't predict it will be a major concern. If you'd like read the official park service report on the fire you can see it here.

If you're heading to Zion, pick up a copy of our camping guide, Moon Utah Camping. The book has all the info you'll need for camping in the park as well as recommended hikes in Zion Canyon.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Rare Guilty Pleas In Artifacts Sting - follow-up story

Here's a link to the follow up story on NPR about the artifacts raid in Blanding, Utah. Very sad really.

This certainly seems like a case where the government is singling out a particular town to make an example for everyone - and to set a precedent. It's sad to see people's lives being destroyed over digging up artifacts. At the same time, they were caught because they were selling the artifacts for profit, which makes them look a lot less innocent.

As someone who loves the outdoors and enjoys seeing intact remnants of the Anasazi and Pueblo cultures in southern Utah, I'm both surprised and impressed the federal government is actually doing something about illegal harvesting and selling of these precious treasures. It only takes one visit to a defaced petroglyph site to feel deeply disappointed in our modern human race (notice the unappealing effect the bullet holes have on the petroglyph panel above). There is a very finite number of artifacts, petroglyph panels, and preserved ruins in the Four Corners Region. I believe we should make every effort to protect these sites so that others may see them in as pristine condition as possible. On that note, I think this is a significant step towards sending a message that it's not okay to steal from this national treasure for personal gain. After all, federal land belongs to the American Public as a whole, not to individuals.

On the other hand, it's easy to understand the outrage of Blanding locals as the Federal Agents barged into their community and arrested two dozen of its members. I'm sure there's a feeling among locals that these are their artifacts. They're living there every day, they know the land better than anyone. Boundaries between private and public land probably feel arbitrary to locals who know that almost nobody except the local community will ever visit many of these sites. Most of the artifact sites are unmarked and it takes an intimate knowledge of local landscape to find them. Something you only have if you live there. Blanding is a small community in the middle of large, barren, arid landscape. Making a living on the high desert is difficult. And frankly, times are tough. Just ask the makers of the artifacts themselves, it was an economic downturn of one kind or another that forced them to leave the region in the first place. One drive through town on US Highway 191 and you'll understand it takes a certain resilient, perhaps defiant personality to survive there.

There's the two sides of the coin as I see them. I like to hear what other people think. Weigh in on the comments thread to this blog.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Blanding, Utah in the National News for illegally selling Native American Artifacts

The small town of Blanding, Utah made the national news today. Here's a link to the story on National Public Radio site, 17 people were arrested for removing and selling Native American artifacts found on federal and Indian lands. One suspect, Dr. James Redd, committed suicide the day after the arrests. Blanding locals were not happy about the way the arrests were made, when dozens of armed FBI officials wearing body armor stormed in and handcuffed suspects as old as 73 years of age.

Blanding is near Hovenweep National Monument in the far southeast corner of Utah. The area is rich in Native American artifacts and history. According to Bruce Adams a Blanding local quoted in the NPR story, artifacts can be found on every farmer's field and trail in the area. Removing them from public lands however, is against the law.

If you'd like to visit the Blanding area and see the rich culture and history found there, consider these three camping options. In the town of Blanding there are two RV campgrounds, the Blue Mountain Trading Post RV Park, and the Blanding Gofer Camp Park. These campgrounds are in town right off US Highway 191 and very close to the Edge of the Cedars State Park and Museum - a musuem protecting and displaying pre-Columbian Pueblo Indian ruins and artifacts. Better yet, consider making the drive down to Hovenweep National Monument and staying at the excellent national park style campground in the monument.

Here's a detailed write-up of the Hovenweep campground from my Moon Utah Camping Guidebook

Hovenweep National Monument

Hovenweep National Monument is one of the best kept secrets of the Four Corners Region. Hovenweep is a Ute/Pauite word meaning "deserted valley." What's so impressive about this particular deserted valley is the structures left behind by its ancient inhabitants. Towers, multi-room pueblos, and small cliff-dwellings leave a record of a culture that thrived in this canyon as little as 700 years ago. While the monument is a substantial drive from just about anywhere, it offers a more intimate view of ancient ruins than you'll find in the more heavily visited Mesa Verde National Park. Hikes of varying length access six different groups of ruins. The Hovenweep Campground is a short distance from the main Little Ruin Canyon and enjoys views to the east of the Sleeping Ute Mountains across the border in Colorado. Juniper and pinyon pine trees grow between well-designed and maintained sites. The parking aprons are gravel. Like the park in general the campground appears to get little use because it is so far out of the way. The campground features a small amphitheater overlooking a shallow ravine. The eight-mile round-trip Holy Ruins trail leaves directly from the campground. The trail leads to a complex of ruins that stradles the Utah-Colorado border.

Campsites, facilities:
There are 31 sites for tents and RVs up to 36 feet in length. Semi-covered picnic tables, flush toilets, drinking water, and a dish-cleaning station, aluminum and plastic recycling, garbage service and fire grills are provided. Leashed pets are permitted.

Reservations, fees:
Reservations are not accepted. Fees are $10. Open year-round.

From Blanding drive 15 miles south on Hwy 191 and turn east (left) on Rte. 262. Follow Rte. 262 for nine miles. Continue straight towards Hatch Trading Post. Follow the road as it bends south, following signs to Hovenweep National Monument. Nine miles after Hatch Trading Post turn north (left) again and continue to the park entrance.

GPS coordinates:
N 37 22.999' W 109 04.254'

Hovenweep National Monument, 970/562-4282,