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Don't Spoil the Soil
Page 4

Contrails fade against the cerulean sky and wrens scatter and regroup on the limbs of thirsty junipers. For three hours Belnap has been lecturing me about crust: how it spreads to start new colonies, how it takes nourishment from dust. "Usually the dust input here is low," she says. "In six months, we get less than a teaspoon. But now we're in a drought and our dust traps are overflowing." Dust is full of soil nutrients -- nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, magnesium, and calcium -- that attach to fine particles. "You want to capture those nutrients from the dust, not lose them because some idiot stomps the crust."

Like a boot print in the dust, Belnap has left an outsize mark on local land management. Ten years ago, soil crusts did not figure in environmental assessments; because of Belnap's research, they do now. Cryptos are in Forest Service ecological site descriptions and are included in the agency's long-term monitoring programs.

Belnap may know more about soil crusts than any other researcher in the nation, but she admits the science is in an embryonic stage. "I'm just an egg floating around out here!" she guffaws, waving her hand in the air.

Belnap earned a degree in marine biology at the University of California at Santa Cruz, studied community ecology at Stanford for her master's, and then wrote a doctoral thesis at Brigham Young on the effects of pollutants on soil crusts. "BYU was the crust capital of the universe, but only a handful of people had studied the ecology of crusts when I got there," Belnap says. "People had no clue what I was talking about."

Now, 15 researchers, including five doctoral students, work with Belnap, although none of her dirt diggers stays for long. "They all switch to plants after a couple years with me," she says, sighing. "Figuring out cryptos is just too hard." Indeed, no one has yet definitively worked out the relationship between crypto's constituent organisms, how they chemically affect the soil and plants around them, or even how to grow them indoors for any length of time. "Scientists," Belnap points out, "are mostly trained to look at big things -- climate, plants. Today, most biologists still don't understand that soil is the driving force in the desert."

The question of drivers -- the ecological, geological, or biological factors that shape a natural community -- still fascinates Belnap. In rainier places, she explains, closely competing animal and plant species control community structure. Birds, for example, can hold sway through what seeds they eat, where they perch after they eat, and how fast their digestive system works. Rodents do the same by eating some seeds and burying others. But there are few such animals in the desert, and most plants here are wind pollinated. Belnap believes that soil calls the shots, which is why protecting the crusts is so crucial to the desert's survival.

Photo of oil rigsStill, the idea that soil crusts will galvanize wilderness supporters and keep thumper trucks from fragile landscapes doesn't get a lot of traction in the environmental community. Cryptos have achieved nothing like spotted-owl status. Dirt just isn't charismatic enough. Even Belnap doubts that her data on cryptos can stop the drilling: "Only a very few times has science mattered in our recent public debates." More typically, the Bush administration commissions scientific studies and then, when results run contrary to the interests of industry, ignores them. "We're drowning in data that show grazing is harmful, but no one in this administration listens," Belnap says. The pattern holds for issues as far-reaching as global warming and as local as snowmobiles in Yellowstone. "I want to keep the argument for defending this landscape philosophical, not scientific," she continues. "Is it okay to not use a landscape? This is a cultural issue, not a scientific issue."

In her dusty white Ford Explorer, Belnap and SUWA's Thomas careen through part of the proposed Wilderness Area, around red-rock buttes and buttresses, hoodoos, fins, spires, and balanced rocks that, on an empty stomach, look like cinnamon rolls. "Once the American public knows about this place they won't destroy it," Thomas says, her chin set. "We're behind in letting people know about the beauty of the Redrocks region. But they're going to feel just as strongly about this area as they did about Alaska."

It's tempting to compare the battle to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with the battle to protect Redrocks. But while the Alaskan landscape has become iconic, with its pristine vistas and majestic-looking caribou, southern Utah remains to most Americans an arid land dominated by vultures and crabby miners. Still, wilderness advocates are counting on a growing constituency for the region's "lovely and terrible" beauty and for its recreational opportunities. This past June, the Outdoor Industry Association, whose members are part of an $18 billion industry, threatened to take its biannual Salt Lake City conventions -- which pump $24 million a year into Utah's economy -- out of state unless Governor Leavitt showed more support for wilderness designation. Within weeks the governor pledged to protect more wild lands, although he refused to say how many acres ought to be set aside.

Turning Red Rock country into an amenity for the spandex crowd might save the Moab area from drilling rigs. But that prescription won't work for places that lack free-spending hikers and bikers. Fifty miles north of Moab, in the Book Cliffs region, the BLM has already approved a vast seismic exploration project. Who's going to keep thumper trucks out of this area? "Book Cliffs will go," Belnap says, shrugging. "Most people see the region as a barren desert. It's just not heart-grabbing like Redrocks." Refraining from advocacy, Belnap does the only thing she can. For her, understanding soil is a moral imperative, critical to the desert's conservation. "As we learn more about it, soil crust will be way more important than even I think," she says in a mark-my-words tone. "Without it, the desert system could slowly unravel."

Seated now in her office, Belnap leans back in her leather chair and drinks yogurt from a container. "I happen to like the way this place looks without roads and pipelines and electrical wires. But it's a binary situation: I can't have it my way at the same time they have theirs."

She smiles, resigned to the struggle, and pegs her empty cup at the corner trash can. It drops in with a satisfying clunk.

BioGems: Save Utah's Redrock Wilderness

Last-Chance Outdoor Adventures in the West

FAQ: The Bush Energy Plan & America's Public Lands

The Bush Record: Energy & Public Lands

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Photo: Kevin Zacher

OnEarth. Fall 2003
Copyright 2003 by the Natural Resources Defense Council