Researcher Finds Way to Fight Cheatgrass, a Western Scourge

The New York Times
By Christopher Solomon
Oct. 5, 2015

Cheatgrass could vie for the title of the most successful invasive species in North America. The weed lives in every state, and is the dominant plant on more than 154,000 square miles of the West, by one estimate. When it turns green in the spring, “you can actually see it from space,” said Bethany Bradley, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who studies biogeography, the spatial distribution of species.

The sins of cheatgrass are many. Its tenacious seeds lodge in the eyes and gums of livestock (not to mention the ears of pets and the socks of hikers). Even a moderate infestation in a wheat field can reduce yields by up to half.

Its profusion is a big reason today’s Western fires burn more land, more frequently and with more ferocity than in the past, scientists say. Unlike well-spaced native bunchgrasses, cheatgrass — its scientific name is Bromus tectorum, or downy brome — crowds tightly together and then dies early each summer to form dense mats of tinder.

After fires, cheatgrass thrives even as native flora struggle to return.

After more than a half-century of largely failed efforts to thwart the Sherman’s march of cheatgrass, a researcher may have a powerful new weapon against it.

Ann Kennedy, a soil scientist with the Agricultural Research Service of the United States Department of Agriculture, has discovered naturally occurring soil bacteria that inhibit the growth of the weed’s deep root system, its competitive advantage, even as those bacteria leave native plants untouched.

Ann Kennedy, a soil scientist with the Agricultural Research Service has discovered naturally occurring soil bacteria that are being tested as a way to kill cheatgrass while leaving native plants untouched.      Credit Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

Dr. Kennedy’s hunt for a cheatgrass killer has been nearly 30 years in the making. In 1986, she was investigating yellowed wheat in the Palouse country of eastern Washington State when she found some bacteria that appeared to inhibit the number of shoots that the wheat sent skyward, but not the wheat plant’s overall yield; the plant just made bigger kernels. Dr. Kennedy wondered if a bacterium could be used to frustrate weeds instead.

With help from undergraduates at Washington State University, where she is an adjunct professor, Dr. Kennedy tested 25,000 bacteria she took from nearby farm fields. Her goal was to find ones that satisfied a wish list of ideal attributes such as hindering cheatgrass while not affecting wheat. She likened the search to picky online dating.

The researcher finally settled on two strains of Pseudomonas fluorescens, a huge species of bacteria that is present throughout the natural world. Most of its strains perform beneficial functions in the environment.

In long-term field trials around the inland Pacific Northwest, including Hanford Reach National Monument in Washington State, Dr. Kennedy’s bacteria reduced the amount of cheatgrass in test plots by about half within three years of a single application.

“We get it down to near zero weeds within about five or six years,” Dr. Kennedy said, as other plants recover and grow more competitive. The bacteria also dispatch two other invasive plants, medusahead and jointed goatgrass. The latest findings will be published within the next year, she said.

July 15, 2015
These bacteria work differently than quick-killing herbicides, she said. Once a concentrated solution is sprayed on the land, successive generations of the organisms establish themselves in the soil, then colonize the roots of the cheatgrass.

Cheatgrass’s chief advantage is its roots: They can grow more than 30 inches deep. They grow later into the fall and earlier in the spring than those of native plants, monopolizing the soil’s water and nutrients. The bacteria produce a compound that inhibits normal root growth, however, removing this edge.

“It’s not a matter of if it works or not,” said Mike Gregg, a biologist with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service who is familiar with Dr. Kennedy’s work. “The question is, can we take what she has done at a small scale and do it at 10,000, 20,000, 50,000 acres?”

The bacteria are living, and if not applied under the right conditions, they “can croak,” said Jerry Benson, the owner and manager of BFI Native Seeds in Moses Lake, Wash., a habitat restoration firm that is working on protocols for applying the bacteria.

One of Dr. Kennedy’s strains has already been approved for use by the Environmental Protection Agency; a commercial product is expected to be released in the fall of 2016. Dr. Kennedy has even higher hopes for a second strain, now in the approval process.

Sept. 16, 2015
Interest is high because the need is urgent. Earlier this year, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell ordered a new strategy to address the wildfires — fueled by cheatgrass — that are torching huge parts of the West’s sagebrush landscapes. The resulting losses of habitat were a big reason the greater sage grouse was considered for the endangered species list. (The federal government declined to list the bird last month, citing new recovery plans by state and federal agencies.)

Dr. Kennedy acknowledges that her discovery isn’t a silver bullet. Though whipping up the bacteria “is like brewing beer,” she said, spraying 100 million acres of the West would be prohibitively expensive. What’s more, the cheatgrass could eventually return.

Instead, she and others envision tanker aircraft, like those that dump water on wildfires, treating miles of fire breaks with the bacteria, to clear them of the weed and slow the spread of fires.

Professor Bradley, of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, whose models show that cheatgrass could advance into northern Wyoming and eastern Montana because of climate change, said Dr. Kennedy’s bacteria also might help hold the line.

Asked if she worries that she might be replacing one problem with another by spreading these bacteria, Dr. Kennedy replied: “It’s in our soils. It’s just not in high enough numbers to do the job.” The bacteria naturally die after four years, she added.

Dr. Kennedy said that over the years she and colleagues selected for use only the strains that had entirely benign traits, screening them for their harmlessness on more than 250 grass plants in addition to insects, birds and rats.

She believes she has found solutions to other weed woes beneath our feet, too. “Really, there is a beauty to soil,” she said. “It’s just absolutely a wonder world of activity. You just have to go in search of it.”


A version of this article appears in print on October 5, 2015, on Page D2 of the New York edition with the headline: A Way to Cut a Weedy Bully Down to Size.

In the Shadows of Wolves and Man

Christian Houge


By David Gonzalez, New York Times, LENS, Jan. 16, 2013

“They say you don’t start living until you step out of your comfort zone,” the photographer Christian Houge said. “Art arises when you let go. It can be in the process, in the darkroom. But it can also be in the concept. The end product is about not having control.”

As if he needs a reminder: he photographs wolves.

His images – deep-toned close-ups sometimes printed on cowhide – have a visceral impact, showing piercing eyes, bristly fur, hunched shoulders and bared teeth. But the series Shadow Within is as much about humans as it is about wolves. Mr. Houge, who is based in Oslo, wants us to reconsider the impulses, fears and instincts we keep in check as man allows his own nature to be boxed in by nurture. It is a theme that runs through his other projects, from a nude portrait series to another on a distant, frozen island that houses the Global Seed Vault.

“I like exploring what culture does to us,” he said. “I see nature and culture being juxtaposed both within and without us. We are born as something much larger than ourselves. Then you have culture coming in with boxes, with identities, teachers, religion. Before all that, we are nature and we still have all this nature inside us. Well, some more than others.”

That’s where the wolf comes in. Growing up in Norway, Mr. Houge was well aware of the Norse legends and Viking lore in which wolves played a central role, as they did in other cultures. Then there are the fables and fairy tales – ostensibly for children — in which the Big Bad Wolf was always the dark, malevolent force. And as much as the wolf may be wise, it was also feared.

Perhaps too much.

In modern Scandinavia, he said, there has been a debate on how to deal with recent incidents in which wolves had been spotted on the outskirts of Oslo or how packs have killed sheep that ranged free on farmland.

All that played into his decision to turn his lens on the lupine. During the course of his research, Mr. Houge met a woman who studied wolves, and she invited him to a nature preserve. But before he could embark on his project, he had to take a safety course.

“Things can happen if you don’t understand their language,” he said. “Things can go very wrong.”

Christian Houge

He had to learn to let go.

“You have to face your fear,” he said. “They are in your face, and they have their tongue in your mouth, if they choose to come and greet you. This is how they get food from their parents when they are young. It is a sense of security, but it is their way of showing they’re in charge.”

In his various shoots, Mr. Houge has found the animals to have distinct personalities: from bullying and aggressive to loving and curious. They have tested him, too, pushed him down to the ground or huddled up close.

“The preconception of being a human in nature really shifts after an experience like that,” he said.

And that’s his goal: to get viewers to recognize in themselves what the wolves show openly, whether how they set boundaries or use nature.

“Humans can learn a lot from wolves,” Mr. Houge said. “The debate in Norway about if we should get rid of this animal is astounding. It says something larger about how brutal we are with nature. It’s mostly about how to make money.”

The idea of the lone wolf — the iconoclast who follows his own rules — may be admired in some cultures, but it’s a hard job in nature. Mr. Houge has seen how wolves that did not learn their place in the pack’s hierarchy trail behind the pack for months seeking to be let back in.

Christian Houge

“I feel one of man’s deepest wishes is to be part of something larger,” he said. “Hierarchies are strong in humans, even if we don’t talk about it. In humans we have social, cultural, fashion hierarchies. I hope some of this series inspires people to feel some of this, how they are part of whatever pack.”

Even one of the more often-cited traits admired in some circles loses its luster after a conversation with Mr. Houge. Corporate titans — or photographers — want to see themselves as the alpha male, a concept Mr. Houge dismisses.

“The wolf pack that has longevity is a family,” he said. “It is a pair, not one male, but a male and a female. If they are secure enough in themselves, they let the weak individual lead the pack. If one has a fantastic nose, even if it is weaker, they’ll let it run first to lead the pack to the kill. These weaker individuals feel part of something larger — it’s ‘We need you for the pack to be stronger.’ That’s a perfect example of how business should be led. Including people, not excluding. Without me, this would not be as strong.”

More images at:

New York Times article:

Christian Houge website:

Indescribably Cool

Years  by Bartholomäus Traubeck

A record player plays tree-ring disks. Year ring data are translated into music.

Modified turntable, computer, vvvv, camera, acrylic glass, veneer, approx. 90x50x50 cm.

A tree’s year rings are analysed for strength, thickness and rate of growth. This data serves as basis for a generative process that outputs piano music. It is mapped to a scale which is again defined by the overall appearance of the wood (ranging from dark to light and from strong texture to light texture). The foundation for the music is certainly found in the defined ruleset of programming and hardware setup, but the data acquired from every tree interprets this ruleset very differently.

Visit the website at:


Utah Book Festival

Craig  Childs, Greer Chesher, Jim Aton

Date:         Tuesday, October 29, 2013
Time:         4:00 PM
Location:  Charles Hunter Room, Hunter Conference Center,
                  Southern Utah University

Authors Greer Chesher, Craig Childs, and Jim Aton participate in a panel on western landscape as part of SUU’s symposium “The Art of Literature: A Celebration of Authors, Books, and Place.”

And it appears we all need new author’s photos.

The Green Man is Us

green man
England’s Green Man

When I was a kid, my British mother insisted we take down the Christmas tree before New Year’s Eve saying, “its bad luck to have an old tree in the new year.” This year, in contravention of Medieval European superstition, I have left my lime-green tinsel-branched tree standing. Although I consider myself a neo-pagan, atheistic heathen, I do celebrate Christmas. I do so to honor the multi-millennia human instinct to worship sun, trees, and planetary motion. But this year, I too, bow to trees.

Christmas trees, historically, came from this same impulse. Although Christmas-tree history was long ago mislaid amid myriad dusty files, we know the ancients venerated trees. From Roman evergreen boughs hung during the winter solstice Saturnalia festival to the pine, spruce and fir branches draped above windows and doors worldwide to deter witches, ghosts, evil spirits, illness and the like, people have long sought reassurance in mid-winter’s conifer green.

But long before December ensnared our imaginations with pine scent, trees enchanted people. European ceremonies performed today from dim memory—May Pole dances, Jack O’ The Green ceremonies, English tree dressing, Green Man Festivals—speak to a long history of arboreal reverence and respect—respect, that is, for trees that escaped the ax. Because, for as long as we have esteemed trees, we have felled them.

Humans clear-cut prehistoric forests worldwide as soon as they figured out how—stone axes, bronze, iron, steel—our technologies ever more efficient. Woodlands retain only a tiny roothold on once vast territories, and the trend has always been downhill. Except. Except for three small periods in human history when forests, joy of joys, vigorously rebounded.

We know forests convalesced AD 200 to 600, 1300-1400, and 1500-1750 because ice cores record plummeting CO2 levels during these periods. Of the CO2-absorbers—oceans, trees, and intact soils—only regenerating woodlands account for this change. The next question is, of course, what revived these forests? The answer isn’t very pretty, but gives us hope.

Just before each restoration, massive pandemics—smallpox, bubonic plague,typhus, cholera—decimated human populations, in some cases by ninety percent. Dogs nosed along empty town lanes. Farms stood deserted. Within fifty years, agricultural lands reverted to the wild. Trees long cropped by pigs, horses, cows, and farmers sprung from the soil. Everywhere the forest returned.

Now you know just how much I love nature, but I find great comfort in William Ruddiman’s research. It means we have a chance; something I have doubted for a long time. After a pandemic, people: burned less carbon, cut fewer trees, and, in their own absence, accomplished immense forest rejuvenation. Let’s see: burn less carbon, cut no trees, and recreate forests. We can do that! And I’m not talking about miserly, Ebenezer Scrooge forests; I’m talking majestic, obese, enormous, heroic, gigantic, native forests!

So, to echo Michael Pollin’s omnivores advice (“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”); I offer: “Plant trees. Anywhere you can. As soon as possible.” It’s time we worshipped trees again.

ghost forest

Artist Angela Palmer’s Trafalgar Square project, Ghost Forest: ten massive tree stumps from what remains of Ghana’s tropical rainforest. The exhibit sought to raise public awareness of connections between deforestation and climate change.
This image haunts me.
I couldn’t help but think how immense forests once stood not only in the Amazon, but where London now stands. Although I understand we must assist other countries with avenues to prevent deforestation, we too have obligations: to reforest our own denuded lands. The Ghost Forest is everywhere beneath our feet.

Winning Entry

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947)

I was thinking again this morning how odd a beast is art. An idea springs into one’s mind, rolls about in there like a sandstone block in a flash flood until sufficiently rounded, then has to be arm wrestled onto the page, honed and sanded and polished until the thing somewhat resembles a lumpy, almost distinguishable, marble. And for what?

I think, for the artist, there is a certain relief in that the nagging thing has been ectomized, and a definite let down in that it appears not quite in the way envisioned or hoped. Art is a concrete approximation of an ephemera, and not always a close one at that. And then there is the this-matters-to-me-I-hope-it-matters-to-you thing. I’ve blogged about this before. One sends something into the Universe, and the damn thing doesn’t bother to write home. Has this thing that struggled to be born made the slightest difference? Does it matter to anyone? Does it need to? Well, of course, it doesn’t, but one hopes…

Which brings me to the two latest Postcards from the Universe, one in the form of a winning contest entry (and a nice little check), and the second in the form of a real, live person who wants to use what I’ve written to talk to other people. I love it when that happens. Art lives.

Here is my winning entry in the Z-Arts! Writing Contest, Adult Non-fiction Category, and a nice note from a Zion National Park guide: “I’ve read through the winning entries and am so impressed with the quality of the writing. Thank you to Z-Arts for organizing this annually. I found one of the writings really poignant and would like to contact the author, Greer Chesher, to see if I can get permission to use his writing in one of my interpretive programs. Thank you so much!”

The contest theme was Canyon Voices. You can read all the winners at the Z-Arts! website.

Canyon Voices

Long ago, I lived in what were then the wilds of New Mexico. Only an hour from Santa Fe, the Pajarito (Little Bird) Plateau’s thick ponderosa forests concealed from the unsuspecting world not only the Los Alamos National Lab, but native tribes, their ancestral tufa-built homes, and living traditions. My best friend, a young native runner from nearby Jemez Pueblo, was the second-youngest son of a man old even then. One afternoon, sharing a bowl of posole and deer meat scalded with more red chili than my Michigan-bred mouth had ever encountered, my friend’s father told me how, if a hunter does things right, the deer will offer itself to the hunter. Puzzled, I took a much needed break from my tongue-blistering to look his way. He, looking at the floor, continued, “when the animal gives its life for the hunter, he should be there, breathe in the deer’s last breath, give thanks.” I looked from him to my friend, unsure if this message was meant for me or his son. “If you don’t honor this gift, it will be taken. The deer won’t come.” He rose then, headed out, but before leaving reached into a pottery bowl next to the door, pinched a bit of its powdery contents between weathered fingers, and nonchalantly tossed it into the corner fireplace. The pollen offering streaked golden through filtered light. I sat motionless, silent, eyes wide.

This memory returns unbidden as I sit beside southern Utah’s Virgin River watching pollen, the color of sunlight, puffed brightly by the wind. It is as if the trees, knowing we’ve forgotten how to honor the land, do our work for us, without asking. A perpetual offering. Overhead, Canada geese honk their way downriver, sounding like ungreased wheels or a swinging door’s rusted hinges. Yellow warblers call from riverside willow winding down like a spun dime. Unexploded cottonwood pods swell and cliffrose flowers unfurl beyond our hearing. Fish swim, owls glide, rodents burrow, microbes reproduce—so much of this canyon’s daily life goes on beyond our keenest perception. Yet where would we be without it? Our physical and other-than-physical lives depend on so much we cannot see, smell, or taste, on the canyon’s unheard voices.

But perhaps, in ways still beyond our understanding, we can feel them. Richard Nelson, in his book, The Island, wrote, “As time went by, I also realized that the particular place I’d chosen was less important than the fact that I’d chosen a place and focused my life around it. Although the island has taken on great significance for me, it’s not more inherently beautiful or meaningful than any other place on earth. What makes a place special is the way it buries itself inside the heart, not whether it’s flat or rugged, rich or austere, wet or arid, gentile or harsh, warm or cold, wild or tame. Every place, like every person, is elevated by the love and respect shown toward it, and by the way in which is bounty is received.”

Gibbs Smith said in his book, Blessed by Light, “the Colorado Plateau chooses its people.” Although not from here, these writers remind us of our place, of what we forget to hear; they toss the pollen.

U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass wrote, “Thoreau read Wordsworth, Muir read Thoreau, Teddy Roosevelt read Muir, and you got national parks. It took a century for this to happen, for artistic values to percolate down to where honoring the relations of people’s imagination to the land, or beauty, or to wild things, was issued in legislation.”

Four influential people speaking, writing, changed the world. But it took a century. We don’t have a century to protect what’s left. But we do have thousands, millions of people who can be influential, if we speak of what the land tells us. Barry Lopez wrote, our job “…is to undermine the complacency of how most people relate to the landscape.”

The canyon speaks for itself, but quietly and of paintbrush in bloom, the drip of springs, the shockwave of rockfall. It’s ours to speak in a language the canyon can’t, to beings who may not hear. The canyon cannot protect itself. Only we can do that. We are the canyon voices. Are you one of the chosen? Do deer offer themselves? If you are lucky and this place proffers itself to you, the question becomes, what will you do with this gift? Speak.

Many thanks to Niles Ritter, Luci Brantley, Charlotte Vaillancourt, Gigi Krause, and Chip Chapman for making the awards ceremony so lovely.

Job Hazard

One of reading’s delights is that one will discover a Great Book. Great Books are defined by the individual, not the mob, and each person’s Great Book List will vary by personal idiosyncrasy.  I’m listing books as I find them, and will probably, at some point, add my All Time Favorites, books some of you have taken on, including Waterlog by Roger Deakin, Sea Room by Adam Nicolson, and Where Rivers Change Direction by Mark Spragg. Perhaps I’ll even explore here some books that set my way of thinking, and which may be awfully personally eccentric like Alfred Crosby’s Ecological Imperialism, William McNeill’s Plagues and People, or William Ruddiman’s Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum.

However, one of reading’s job hazards is that one finds a Personally Great Book, reads it with relish, and then it ends. I hate it when that happens.

My latest disappointed-it-ended book is actually two books and a “long-form” piece, all by Alexandra Fuller. Her first book, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, details her upbringing in then Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe during the 1970’s Civil War with an absolutely crazed and wild mother driving her to school with an Uzi sticking out the jeep window; her second, Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness, is a prequel exploring her insanely bizarre mother’s upbringing in Colonial Kenya; and the long-form piece Falling, the story of her husband’s nearly fatal horse accident and their subsequent divorce (Alexandra’s not the horse’s).

I loved Alexandra’s writing, and the ways her stories overlapped mine: crazy mother, crazed upbringing; horses; the outdoors; being far from doctors, cities, and other people; a British family background (are all ex-pat British mothers crazy?); the importance of place. Parts of the books were jaw-dropping astonishing, and parts laugh-out-loud funny. I was so sad they ended—reading them was like inhabiting a world. Luckily, unlike Roger Deakin, Alexandra is still alive and we can hope she publishes more.

A few quotes:

The land itself, of course, was careless of its name. It still is. You can call it what you like, fight all the wars you want in its name. Change its name altogether if you like. The land is still unblinking under the African sky. It will absorb white man’s blood and the blood of African men, it will absorb blood from slaughtered cattle and the blood from a woman’s birthing with equal thirst. It doesn’t care.” Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight

Alexandra Fuller’s mother with her best friend, Steven Foster.

This is the Tree of Forgetfulness. All the headmen here plant one of these trees in the village. They say ancestors stay inside it. If there is some sickness or if you are troubled by spirits, then you sit under the Tree of Forgetfulness and your ancestors will assist you with whatever is wrong.’” Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness

And I love, love, love a Katherine Mansfield quote she uses:
The mind I love must have wild places:
a tangled orchard where damsons drop in heavy grass,
an overgrown little wood,
a chance of a snake or two,
a pool that nobody has fathomed the depths of,
and paths threaded with flowers planted by the mind.”

You can find Alexandra’s “long-form” composition, Falling, on Byliner at

I Read


A lot. Years ago I deliniated a time every day to stop everything else and read. I decided that, at 9 p.m., unless engrossed in something endlessly fascinating, I’d head to the arms of my current read. And I’ve been faithful.

The problem is no matter how much I read I’ve discovered a good book is hard to find. I rarely leave them, but I recently walked out on one mid-paragraph. I could stand it no longer! I even flung it across the room, and it by a celebrated author! So here’s only my second post on a really good book I truly loved. It is the only book I’ve ever read that, as soon as I finished, I wanted to begin again.

In 1977 a young woman in her 20s, Robyn Davidson, led and rode her four camels from Alice Springs, Austrailia west to the ocean. National Geographic funded her (a whopping $4000), and she wrote a story for them published in 1978. It took her nine months to travel the 1,700 miles. Although it wasn’t her original intent, she wrote a book on the trip called Tracks.robyn 2

I know you’re thinking, “Oh, well, of course you liked it. You tried something similar. But I probably won’t find it interesting.” Okay, fair enough.  I admit I found her mixed feelings about the trip extremely validating, and her experiences similar–even though my trip was short lived. But the book is very well written, engaging, and NOT WOOWOO! I have become tired of writers involking god or spirituality or some outside power as explanation of certain states. I found Robyn’s take on such experiences refreshing. Here’s a sample:

“…I now had enough to provide a structure in which I could learn to learn. A new plant would appear and I would recognize it immediately because I could perceive its association with other plants and animals in the over all pattern, its place. I would recognize and know the plant without naming it or studying it away from its environment. What was once a thng that merely existed became something that everything else acted upon and had a relationship with and vice versa. In picking up a rock I could no longer simply say, ‘This is a rock,’ I could now say, ‘This is part of a net,’ or closer, ‘This, which everything acts upon, acts.’ When this way of thinking became ordinary for me, I too became lost in the net and the boundaires of myself stretched out for ever. In the beginning I had known at some level that this could happen. It had frightened me then. I had seen it as a chaotic principle and I fought it tooth and nail. I had given myself the structures of habit and routine with which to fortify myself and these were very necessary at the time. Because if you are fragmented and uncertain it is terrifying to find the boundaries of yourself melt. Survival in a desert, then requires that you lose this fragmentation, and fast. It is not a mystical experience, or rather, it is dangerous to attach these sorts of words to it. They are too hackneyed and prone to misinterpretation. It is something that happens, that’s all. Cause and effect.”

That’s all.

A Bit of a Riff on Rockville

Alma Cox by Michael Plyler

Below are my thoughts and answers to questions posed by Utah State graduate student Tori Edwards on southern Utahand Rockville’s sense of place and history of human/landscape interaction. Would love to hear your thoughts and comments.

Tori Edwards: I’ve been intrigued with the idea that the pioneers who settled Springdale andRockville didn’t appreciate the beauty of the landscape around them, and I’m trying to figure out where this idea came from. I know that the area was very difficult to derive sustenance from, as evidenced by journal entries from early settlers in St. George. I also know that there was some resentment among the early settlers when Zion was established as a National Park, so I’m wondering if the idea originated around this time.

Greer: That is a big topic! One of the initial reasons for the Pioneer Voices Project was to discover if there was a link between early settlers and Zion’s natural environment. Each interview followed the same format, and most questions were about memories of “nature” interactions. The people I interviewed did not recount strong “nature” associations except Evan Cox who seems to be one of those people who feels connected to nature. Although the project’s original intent was to find and expose pioneer nature associations, so little was found that the final book changed to recounting memories of lifeways and family.

I think some of the dichotomy you’re investigating comes from individual differences. People originally came here for a different purpose than they come now. Zion now attracts people 1) who come to tick off another scenic view/American Icon, etc., or 2) have a personal connection with “nature.” The people who came in the 1800s were 1) sent whether they wanted to come or not, or 2) were looking for some place to make a living. The mindset was very, very different. Though things were not as desperate as often portrayed, things were critical (this was not the horrible harsh desert vs. man, but the land still had to provide). A flashflood, a summer without rain, etc., were life-defining. I don’t think, for the most part, from the talks I’ve had with folks, that the area’s beauty was paramount. I think they noticed, I think they appreciated, but I don’t think, unless they had that special nature connection, that they felt what many coming now might feel. Just like in any modern community anywhere—some people connect to the land, others don’t. I did not get the impression Mormonism conveyed land management precepts (and that was a questionnaire question). When all one’s food and livelihood comes from the land, I believe people will do almost anything without regard for what problems it might cause to the “environment,” or even to their own livelihood in ten years.

In the research I did for the Grand Staircase—Escalante book, I found an interesting dichotomy between ranchers interviewed in the 1930s and their modern descendants. At least ONE rancher interviewed in the 30s (WPA, etc.) stated in detail how he realized cattle had destroyed the land. He recounted how his predecessors had found tall, lush grass covering the “desert,” and how without knowledge or seeming concern, they had systematically grazed everything beyond recovery. This may have been because settlers were not familiar with the desert’s fragility. He felt responsible and felt the entire area should be made a national park as it was beautiful and now mostly unusable for much else. (The Escalante area was horribly destitute in that time; it’s amazing people survived there at all).

What I witnessed in Southern Utah when I arrived in the 1980s (and still see vestiges of today) was a total defense of past practices by men who inherited them, regardless of any refuting science. This was saddening as it seemed better land management practices could improve the degradation, and thus, husbandry. But what prevailed was a staunch, unrelenting defense of a total way of life which may have been bolstered by feelings of an assault on community, faith, lifeway, etc. That was when acts of willing destruction of wilderness values and “nature” occurred regularly, and which can still be seen in the strong reaction to environmental groups, restrictions, legal challenges, etc.

By the mid-1900s, I think people also began to realize they could make a living from visitors. I don’t see where that made them more inclined to bask in or preserve the area’s beauty, i.e., no one proposed more preservation, but more development. In researching a Bryce book, I discovered that initially, there was support for creating national parks in Utah from Utahans, but that quickly reversed. There was a fight to create every park in Utah even in the early 1900s. There has long been a sense of “it’s OURS” here, and potential loss doesn’t seem to revolve around destruction of what’s natural, but around loss of potential use. Notice that MOST of those who fought for park establishment (not just here) were not from here. It was often the amazement of new eyes that fueled park creation. It may have been something as simple as long-term habituation that dulled the area’s amazement to inhabitants, and certainly to those born here and for whom a week-long wagon trip to St. George was a looooonnng way. They didn’t really know the rest of the world didn’t look like this!

As to your specific questions:

Tori: “The question is about the pioneers who settled Southern Utah, and their attitudes regarding the environment. I’ve been intrigued with the idea that the pioneers who settled Springdale and Rockville didn’t appreciate the beauty of the landscape around them, and I’m trying to figure out where this idea came from. I know that the area was very difficult to derive sustenance from, as evidenced by journal entries from early settlers in St. George. I also know that there was some resentment among the early settlers when Zion was established as a National Park, so I’m wondering if the idea originated around this time. But there are also conflicting ideas I’m trying to figure out: 1) The early pioneers settled the area with the principle of stewardship ingrained into their minds–to take care of the land they were given.”

Greer: From the interviews done on the Pioneer Voices project, I do not believe this to be true, as I’ve stated in more detail above. That was one of the goals of the project, and you might want to scan the interviews to see if I’m misrepresenting this, but as I recall, when asked, people stated there was no land-management guidance from the church. Biological evidence from all over Utah certainly supports the claim that the land was used as much as possible, probably changing it forever.

Tori: “2) The descendants of those early pioneers defend their ancestors, saying they did appreciate the beauty of the area, as evidenced in Pioneer Voices of Zion Canyon.”

Greer: I think again, you are looking at two overlapping ideas: appreciation and preservation. As we know, one can appreciation something and still destroy it. I appreciate an ice cream cone, and now I’m going to eat it! We cannot really know what someone thought, the feelings they had unless they express them in some way. For example, they wrote it down, they said it aloud, they made art of it, they created a monument, etc. So the pioneers may have “appreciated the area’s beauty,” but unless they physically expressed that in some way, we cannot know. One way they might have expressed it was by setting aside a “do not use” area. As far as we know, they did not. But then, it would have been astonishing if they had. If you study the national park idea you’ll realize that Zion was one of the first areas set aside under this “new idea” of national parks. I did a program for the Chicago Humanities Program a couple years back—and Ken Burns has done a similar program on America’s Best Idea—national parks. So the folks in Zion in 1909, when Mukuntuweap was set aside as a monument, had NO IDEA what was going on. The NPS wasn’t even created until 1916; what was this national monument thing?? What it was, was CHANGE, that awful beast, and regulation in a largely unregulated area. You must remember that everyone interviewed from then on looks back from a perspective of knowing what national parks are, what they’re for, and what they represent (both ideologically and financially!). Everyone who has lived here since 1909 or thereabouts has benefitted financially from the park, whether it’s in direct payment for services or in something as seemingly intangible as perpetually high property values.

Tori: “Also, Stephen Mather, who helped establish Zion as a national park, reported that the people who lived there at the time were good to work with, and generally cooperative. If there was animosity, and if Mather believed the settlers didn’t appreciate the beauty of the land, I would think he would have stated so.”

Greer: I don’t. One must consider the source: Mather was an extremely successful business man, a political animal, and a consummate public relations expert. He would not have said otherwise. In that year, he was trying to gain support not only for this park, but the National Park Service and every other national park being created then or in the future, and for unpopular regulations being implemented. This was part of a much larger and more important movement then only just getting started. He had to make the case for this park locally AND nationally. This went, as these things still do, waaaaay beyond the local.

Tori: “Yet, it seems to make the most sense that the idea of the settlers not appreciating the beauty of the area would have originated around the time of the Park being established. The reason I say this is because of a quote in Pioneer Voices (p. 83):

 “There was an erroneous rumor that went around for years. You used to hear that ‘the natives, they don’t appreciate the park, we’ve got to get in there and preserve it so they don’t destroy it. They want places to farm, they don’t want a park to look at.'”

Greer: Well, there’s always truths in statements like this, aren’t there? Which truths? There is the truth in the original statement, that people did resent the park, they did want places to farm (remember, it was a totally different economy then), they didn’t see the value in this new-fangled park thing, whatever it was (they had NEVER been to or heard of a national park!). And then there is truth in the idea that some people didn’t have that view. Look up esp. J.L. Crawford’s interview. His mother (grandmother?) sold the farm to the park and moved; J.L. says she both resented (losing the trees she’d planted and nursed all those years) and understood it. And there is truth in a descendant stating previous versions of the story are flawed, “My ancestors did too see the beauty! They weren’t heathens!” (i.e., and thus, neither am I).

I’m unsure your question is the right question, or that there is an answer. I think what we can say with some confidence is that reactions and interactions with “nature” are hugely complex and certainly intertwined. We, as humans with feelings and as animals trying to survive, have intense and often opposed needs from the same plot of land. These needs shift over both long and short time periods: from physical sustenance to the comfort of a known place, a “home,” to a need for adventure and a foe to test oneself against, to the crucible of a nature spirituality and personal regeneration, and not insignificantly, a biotic sanctuary for the other-than-human and a gene pool for the future. A lot of demands from one little landscape!

One last tiny clarification, I do not think the destruction of southern Utah’s natural environment was wanton, but rather an unintended consequence.