As you leave the "ranching influenced zone" at the edge of Canyonlands National Park and go deeper in, you can see the land dying. All the symptoms are there: bare, crusted ground, old shrubs and trees, dead, gray, decadent grasses and, of course, huge amounts of nonnative plants.
Last year was a big year for Russian thistles (tumbleweeds). Though tumbleweeds are a western icon, they're really native to Eurasia, not the American West. Like many of us in a nation of immigrants, Russian thistles may be here to stay. Given a chance, Russian thistles will cover the landscape and at Canyonlands National Park the landscape is covered
As a lover of rangeland plant dynamics it was interesting to see, among the tumbleweeds and general decline, small areas where stands of "mostly dead" (that's not the same as "all dead") grasses had come back for another try, reprieved for a time, but still doomed. Seedlings are rare, and the death rate over time outstrips seedling reproduction 10-to-1. This park is younger than most so the decay is still progressing.
The kindly, courteous park ranger I spoke with blames the tumbleweed invasion on the presence of roads. The Park Service theory is that during dry years, the runoff from the highway grows Russian thistle, which then blows away, scattering seeds with every tumble. In wet years, up they come.
"That's exactly the problem," emphasizes Jim, who persevered through seven years of predatory political action, litigious attacks, slander and libel to protect the family’s multigenerational heritage. "Ranching is not a job; it's a culture. It is a unique western American way of life and a national cultural treasure worthy of preservation. This [defamation] case is more about the truth, values and science than about money."
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Summer 2005 Contents