Keep an Open Mind

Vernal, Utah isn’t well known for it’s tourism. It could be someday; it is close to attractions like Dinosaur National Monument, Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, Sheep Creek Geological Loop, Red Fleet State Park, the Uinta Mountains, Nine Mile Canyon, Fantasy Canyon, and the Book Cliffs. ATV and dirt bike trails are popular here; it’s a bit like Moab without the traffic. It’s also a mecca for paleontology. Just look around town, there are dinosaurs everywhere. There are also crude oil tankers and lifted trucks around every corner. For nine months now, I’ve been a Jeep in a sea of lifted trucks. If Vernal is well known for anything, it’s as the crude oil center of Utah.

Fantasy Canyon

This place doesn’t get a lot of love from outsiders, but for those willing to take a closer look it has a lot to give. As a botany intern with the Bureau of Land Management, I was able to take that look. There are nearly 50 unique plant species that evolved in this area and can only be found here. Many of those species rely on the region’s oil shale, which is also the source of local economy and culture.

White River Beardtongue (Penstemon albifluvis) only grows in oil shale. It is much more showy when in flower, but always a cool find due to it’s rareness.

A federally threatened species of Sclerocactus

A native bee pollinates Pallid Milkweed (Asclepias cryptoceras).

The plants don’t have to be rare or unique to be cool. My internship focused on the Seeds of Success program, so I collected from the common species that can hopefully be useful for future reclamation projects.

This Small-leaf Globemallow (Sphaeralcea parvifolia) was guarded by Phidippus octopunctatus. At 2.5 cm long, this is one of the largest species of jumping spider.  There’s no common name, so.. now calling it the Tuxedo Spider, thanks to males like this keeping it classy.

Sand-dune Rubber Rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa var. turbinatus)… challenges of life on an active sand dune

Vernal has grown familiar and comfortable for me. I finally memorized the labyrinth of unsigned dirt roads into a mental map. I also appreciate the ability to drive on main roads for 80 miles without seeing another human. I will miss the familiarity, the species, and the people I worked with closely. To future interns, I say keep an open mind and this place will grow on you.

A Bittersweet moment. Yes, the Green River was really that green. -Gates of Lodore, Dinosaur National Monument, CO.



The many-faced desert

There are many faces to this desert. The vast expanse of the Vernal Field Office allows me to cruise through several ecotones on a daily basis. It is so vast, in fact, that I have managed to put 20,000 miles on the work truck in just a few months.

Perched high above Nine Mile Canyon, the site of many infamous petroglyphs

Cruising the top of the Book Cliffs

Just outside town, looking back at Vernal and the desert beyond

Red Fleet Reservoir

The ephemeral beach of Vernal… it’s ocean front property every few million years. This sand dune is actually one of my favorite locations. It hoards several species I’ve yet to find anywhere else in the basin, including a grass-like rhizomatous ephedra.

Occasionally there are other methods to roam the hills, like hiking and boating.

In the Uinta Mountains, on the hunt for Heliomeris multiflora

I joined two rafting trips on the Green River. They were seek-and-destroy missions, patrolling the shores for invasive species like Teasel (Dipsacus fullonum).

The purpose of all this exploration is to locate new populations of desirable species, and to bolster previous collections with genetic diversity from different climate zones.

A population of Cleome serrulata, one of our priority species to collect for reclamation. It does well in disturbed areas, as exemplified by this roadside patch.

Cleome lutea is a highly desirable species for pollinator habitat, yet we could only collect small amounts due to the short window of time where seeds are ready to pick.

The exploration doesn’t stop when the week ends. Outside of the internship, the local area has provided many opportunities.

For the total eclipse, I traveled just a few hours North to Wyoming’s Wind River range. I selected a gnarly Jeep road to filter out the tourists, but was followed by 50 other Jeeps and ATVs with the same idea. We all wondered if it was worth showing up for a two-minute spectacle. However, the moment of totality turned out to be an entirely different experience from a partial eclipse. Doubts were erased by a 360 degree sunset at noon, and the eerie glowing ring visible to the naked eye.

On Labor Day weekend, I explored a bit closer to home. At the heart of the Uinta mountain range is the ceiling of Utah, King’s Peak.

View of along the Henry’s Fork trail leading up to King’s Peak

View from the cliff edge on top of King’s Peak. The horizon is hazy and obscured from the smoke of dozens of wildfires that were active throughout the West.

I have also stayed in town and had the opportunity to check out local events of Vernal.

There is a local shooting range. I happened to be in town on the day of a range festival, so I took advantage of the rare opportunity to fire some large caliber revolvers I’ve been meaning to try, and a Desert Eagle just for fun.

That night, I also turned out to be in right place at the right time for the championship race at the local speedway.

The Labyrinth to Success

The Seeds of Success field season has begun by scouting sites where we may find large populations of our priority species.  Sites were carefully selected on a map, based on data such as previous seed collection locations, herbarium specimen locations, and desirable climate adapted traits.  However, the plants didn’t read the map.  Blooms shift based on a myriad of precipitation and seed bank characteristics, so may not reoccur or be found in anticipated locations.  This is where the scouting comes in to play.  The majority of my time has been spent navigating a maze of backroads. Each day, I delve deeper into the labrynth of nameless dirt access roads. It consists of named but unsigned roads, numbered signs that don’t appear on maps, roads on the map that no longer exist, and roads that are drawn on no map but mysteriously exist anyway.  By the end of the season in November, they shall exist in a mental map.

The end of the road for our Beeplant site. Just imagine the size of the flood that ate the road! We may have to bring in the UTVs and camping gear on the second attempt.

When I do leave the truck, the desert rewards a keen eye. The landscape may appear barren from a distance or while it passes by at 70 miles per hour, but in fact quite a bit of diversity can exist within feet of the tires.  Many of the species are unique to this area, so are especially rewarding to come across.

The flower is beginning to open on this federally threatened Sclerocactus in the Uinta Basin.

Uinta Basin Spring-Parsley (Cymopteras dushesnensis) is one of 50 or so species that are endemic to the Uinta Basin.

Field Excursions

This month focused on the creation of a priority species list for this season’s seed collections.  It consisted of a delicate balance between native plant communities of anticipated future reclamation needs, competition with invasive weeds, erosion control, pollinator habitat, seed market needs, and the overall needs of the Colorado Plateau Native Plant Program.  Inclement weather and completion of the priority list have been limiting factors for ventures into the field.  As the rains have receded, roads dried, and the list solidified, the desert has become more inviting to field work.  In an effort to maximize my time at the Vernal Field Office, I have expressed interest in accompanying the field excursions of a variety of specialties, including botany, paleontology, and law enforcement. Recently I took part in surveys for reported fossils as well as endemic species of yucca, cacti, and beardtongue. In addition to exploring career paths and learning BLM methodology, these field days were valuable opportunities to orient myself in the varied landscape and become familiar with the flora. As the season progresses, my time in the field will be increasing. I am about to start scouting potential seed collection sites, and will continue to pursue field excursions with multiple specialties.

Asteraceae through the loupe

Old Growth Sclerocactus alongside the next generation

Close-up of Sarcobatus vermiculatus (Greasewood)

View from the survey location of a potential gravel pit site

Native Pollination in action, this Astragalus chamaeleuce has a Bombus visitor

This herd was on a site as we surveyed it for the presence of Sclerocactus, a threatened native plant. As domesticated horses have escaped captivity or been abandoned on public land, some survive and reproduce to create feral herds. Feral horses can be detrimental to native sensitive plant species by trampling vegetation, overgrazing, and altering soil properties. Their impacts differ from native large ungulates and livestock because they aren’t limited by hunters, natural predators, or grazing permits.

Where is Vernal?

The right seed, in the right place, at the right time.  This straight-forward goal was synthesized by the Colorado Plateau Native Plant Program, at a conference in Monticello, Utah. It assimilated a broad range of presentations, including the latest research on local plant genetics intertwined with climate variability, new conservation technology, and agronomic requirements for successful seed production. This simplistic goal resulted from a conversation of the various stakeholders involved with collection and production of native plants for habitat restoration.  Often, the center stage of this conversation was Vernal, UT.

I have been an intern with the Bureau of Land Management in Vernal now for several weeks. During that time, I was able to attend the conference in Monticello and see where Vernal lies in the big picture of native plant restoration.  When I first arrived in my new habitat, the local flora was covered with two feet of snow after what had been an unusual winter.  However, I have learned it is a botanically interesting region due to roughly fifty endemic species associated with local geology, especially the oil-shale.  The energy sector also finds this area very interesting. Consequently, there are abundant future reclamation needs. The anticipated demand for native seeds played a key role in Vernal’s place at the conference.

While the snow melted, I compiled data to answer the question of “what seed?” I have become acquainted with the local flora of the herbarium and their locations on a map. However, I got my first taste of the field today, checking on seedlings of a milkvetch species that is endemic to a particular bend of the Green River.  The tiny seedlings were exciting to find and identify, being that they are so unique to that location. The landscape was enamoring, and I look forward to a season of discovering its hidden gems.

A view of the Uinta Mountains

Endemic Astragalus species

Endemic Astragalus species

Budsage… enamoring landscape in the background