Fitting a part into the whole: Learning the broader implications of my fieldwork

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a training: Interpreting Indicators of Rangeland Health (IIRH.) which helped situate the fieldwork I had been doing for months into a much larger context.

The purpose of this class is to learn how to assess the status of a given site relative to its potential. What this means is comparing a site to an ecological site assessment (ESA), or rather what that site at optimum potential looks like. For instance, before visiting a site, the ESA states that when operating at maximum potential the area that would have a variety of desert shrubs and be dominated by cool season grasses. Instead, when you go to assess the site, you note few mixed shrubs and an abundance of thriving invasives. Moreover, the area has become dominated by warm season grasses like Galleta grass when, in far healthier years, there was a majority of cool season grasses like Indian Rice. Besides this initial large species shift or “functional group change”, the site is also assessed along 16 other indicators which fall into three main categories: Soil and Site Stability, Hydrologic Function and Biotic Integrity. These factors are then given ratings and subsequently tallied to provide a numerical picture as to the overall health of the land.

These cumulative totals are used to help determine the amount of deviation from the sites potential. This conclusion then helps outline management guidelines. First, can the site be rehabilitated? Unfortunately, in some cases due to extreme mixes of outside factors such as drought or overgrazing- the top layer of soil or the A horizon is gone and thus the site can no longer be restored to previous speciation and potential. If, on the other hand, the answer is that the site can be rehabilitated then the current biological data will be considered in conjunction with management objectives and the original ESA. By using this multi-layered approach to understanding the optimal versus actual state of the land, Field Offices are able to build a more thorough and accurate long term management plan. Due to current extreme weather changing patterns, new understandings regarding management and increasingly imperative long term goals as soil health these long term plans are integral to continuing to ensure land health.

Personally, I found the IIRH training fundamental in situating my current work- a land intensification study using Assessment,Inventorying and Monitoring- in the larger picture of management. As a plant- oriented person, I often tend to focus on land health specifics as applicable to various species and the smaller zones in which they grow. While, that type of “spot treatment” is important– it is questionable if it is always applicable in the long term. An optimally functioning ecosystem is a complex web of interdependent factors where the health of one species is directly linked to the success of other organisms. By situating these ideas in a more, all encompassing approach to land management- it pushes field offices to work collaboratively as one must consider the impact of hydrology, rangeland management, soils and botany to fully and effectively the management of the land.

Learning to Love the Desert

There is no standard day here at the Uncompahgre field office. One day, you are driving in a UTV to the edge of the wilderness and the next you are struggling to create a shapefile in an air-conditioned office. In my first months at the BLM, I have been immersed in the Assessment, Inventory and Monitoring Program or AIM. Most of the time, we drive our Dodge Ram over bumpy, rock riddled dirt roads to a randomly chosen site in the Adobe Badlands of North Delta. In the first week, when I was introduced to the 40,000 acres where our 60 plots were randomly strewn- I had some trepidations. The area looked barren and over run by the last years growth of Galleta grass and some of the hills appeared to be man made deposits, they were so bare and perfectly rounded.

But on a closer look there is something to see: bits of fossilized shells from the time that this area was an inland sea, shadscale, Spanish Bayonet, charming woody aster and -if you’re there at the right time- blooming prickly pear and strawberry hedgehog cacti. Occasionally, the hills move as reintroduced Pronghorns run over them and spooked prairie dogs scurry into their holes. All it took to begin to see the life in this area, was spending time  trekking over its clay soils and through the dried up riverbeds, all the while stopping to examine the difference between the grasses.

Being in the desert has taught me to consider the details and then, the implications therein.  It took paying attention to something as small as the pebbles covering the ground. . What does the overabundance of snakeweed indicate? Why is this Wyoming Sage thriving here and nowhere else? Did you notice the suddenly round, riverine stones?

It is easier to love something that is large and colorful- charismatic fauna that is immediately visible and awe-inspiring in its presence like a towering redwood or the snow capped peaks of the San Juan Mountains.  It is harder to love a bare soil dominated by drought stressed plants with their subdued colors, stunted growth and struggling small flowers. Everyday in the field, we must look for the story in the landscape and, honestly, I have cheered when I saw a thriving shrub. The evolving relationship I have with the landscape as my knowledge of its ecology deepens is one of my favorite things about this position thus far.

We have just completed our 46th plot out of 60 and we will be taking a break because of the heat. I am surprised that I will miss the dry land of North Delta. Thanks for teaching me patience, honing my eye for detail and showing me- so clearly- the power of learning to appreciate an area of land based on the delicate balance of its ecology rather than the colors of its flowers.

Uncompahgre Field Office

Bureau of Land Management