ryptos, unlike the region's black-footed ferret, bald eagle, and Mexican spotted owl, haven't made the endangered species list. But some scientists liken the urgency of protecting desert plant communities -- and the soils that sustain them -- to the urgency of saving rainforests. Cryptobiotic crusts are a critical component in global climate. Because they're dark-colored relative to underlying soils, they decrease light reflectance by more than 50 percent. When reflectance is high, more warm air rises from the earth's surface; according to some experts, this in turn drives away cooling clouds, increasing the atmosphere's temperature and reducing local rainfall.
These processes take place anywhere crusts are prominent: in Nevada's Great Basin, Arizona's Sonoran Desert, the inner Columbia Basin (the dry sides of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho). In the cold deserts of the Colorado Plateau, which stretches across corners of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah, cryptos form exceptionally thick mats, often representing more than 70 percent of the living ground cover. Heat isn't a prerequisite for cryptos, but a lack of competing vegetation is: They grow in Alaska and have been studied in the Antarctic.
"You can't underestimate crusts' ecological value," Belnap says. "They stabilize soil, reduce wind and water erosion, hold onto moisture, keep out exotic species, fix nitrogen and carbon, protect native species and enhance the soil food web."
Belnap and I could have entered Canyonlands proper to examine healthy crust, but sitting in a tire track on state land helps her make a point about jurisdiction. Moab is insanely popular with outdoor enthusiasts: More than a million visitors descended on the town last year, fanning out into Canyonlands and Arches national parks, Dead Horse Point State Park, and more than a million acres of BLM land. Careless hikers damage crusts within the national parks, but outside, the problem is far worse. BLM lands get pounded by individual "fun hogs" on bikes and in Jeeps. There are no gated entryways, or information booths with pamphlets cautioning visitors not to damage the soil. The agency has only two rangers to patrol 1.5 million acres in southeastern Utah. And increasingly, these lands are open for use by ranchers, miners, and seismic exploration companies.
A year after thumper trucks rolled near Canyonlands, another convoy set off over the high desert of Dome Plateau, northeast of Moab. The route of the trucks brought them within a few miles of Arches National Park, and over hundreds of acres of cryptobiotic crust. Belnap had submitted an official comment letter to the BLM: The region's delicate soil, she warned, could take 250 years to recover from the pounding of seismic equipment (to say nothing of the damage caused by subsequent drilling and construction of roads, waste pits, and pipelines that attend successful exploration).
Still, the project got a green light. Belnap's comments made their way into the press, and the dustup in the desert made the evening news and the op-ed page of the New York Times. The story had a lot of natural drama: snarling trucks ripping ancient junipers from the ground, thunderous iron plates vibrating against the red earth, a strikingly beautiful landscape of slickrock and delicate arches. SUWA and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) filed an appeal of the BLM's decision, and 10 days after the project got underway the government ordered a halt. An internal review board at Interior concluded that the BLM had inadequately considered the impact of heavy equipment on Belnap's favorite substrate -- cryptobiotic crust.