Wilderness, Much Closer Than You Think

Wilderness, Much Closer Than You Think: Courtesy Wilderness.net and Copyright 2009 Cordell Andersen, Photographer
High Unitas Wilderness, Utah
Courtesy Wilderness.net
Copyright © 2009 Cordell Andersen, Photographer

Wilderness, Much Closer Than You Think: Courtesy Wilderness.net and Copyright 2011 Paul Gooch, PhotographerRed Butte Wilderness, Utah
Copyright © 2011 Paul Gooch, Photographer

Courtesy Wilderness.net and Copyright 2011 Dusty Vaughn, PhotographerWellsville Mountain Wilderness, Utah
Courtesy Wilderness.net
Copyright © 2011 Dusty Vaughn, Photographer

Courtesy Wilderness.net and Copyright 2011 Mike Salamacha, BLM, PhotographerParia Canyon
Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Courtesy Wilderness.net
Copyright © 2011 Mike Salamacha, Paria Ranger, BLM, Photographer



The word conjures up romantic images of wide open landscapes teeming with birds, beasts, and plants. I imagine places untouched by human influence – truly wild and free. Places that are exotic and far away.

But wilderness exists much closer than you may think.

The United States Congress adopted the Wilderness Act with a nearly unanimous vote in 1964. Ours was the first country in the world to define and designate wilderness areas – lands valued enough to be set aside for the purpose of protection.

Currently, the Wilderness Act protects 757 individual wilderness areas across the United States – totaling more than 109 million acres. Thirty-three wilderness areas are found in Utah, and they protect a variety of unique landscapes from the red rock desert found in Red Butte Wilderness to the alpine forests of the High Uintas Wilderness. While the landscapes may look incredibly different from one wilderness area to the next, these lands share a number of qualities which can be described by adjectives such as peaceful, quiet, untouched, and pristine.

These areas protect some of the most unique and incredible landscapes that Utah has to offer, but that doesn’t mean they’re off limits. Our wilderness areas are just that – ours. They are public lands, accessible to anyone who wants to visit – so long as you tread lightly.

Areas that fall under its protection are described in the Wilderness Act as “lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition…” which “…shall be devoted to the public purposes of recreation, scenic, scientific, educational, conservation and historic use.” These amazing lands were set aside in 1964 with an eye to the future and because of it, should still be around for your grandchildren’s grandchildren to enjoy.

There is an ongoing effort to educate Americans about the immense value of preserving wilderness areas. For without education, they may one day be selfishly reclaimed and lost. One of these educational opportunities is coming to Logan on April 13th and 14th. The Arthur Carhart National Wilderness Training Center will be hosting a teacher training workshop in conjunction with the Stokes Nature Center and the Utah Society for Environmental Education. The workshop is aimed at teachers in grades 5-8, though anyone is welcome to attend. For more information, please contact the Stokes Nature Center at www.logannature.org

Not a teacher? The best way to learn about wilderness areas is to go visit one! Information, and photos of Utah Wilderness Areas, can be found at www.wildaboututah.org

For the Stokes Nature Center and Wild About Utah, this is Andrea Liberatore.


Photos: Courtesy Wilderness.net, Steve Archibald, (Individual Copyrights noted)
Text:    Andrea Liberatore, Stokes Nature Center, logannature.org

Additional Reading:
The Arthur Carhart National Wilderness Training Center:

Wilderness Investigations teacher training workshop:


Stromatolites in Hamlin Pool
Shark Bay, Austalia
Courtesy Wayne A. Wurtsbaugh

Exposed stromatolites in the
Great Salt Lake
Utah Division of Wildlife Resources
Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Program

Stromatolites in Shark Bay
(Hamlin Pool) during low tide.
Courtesy Linda L’Ai

Hi I’m Holly Strand.

Shark Bay in Northwest Australia is on my “places to see before I die” list. In a section of the bay called Hamelin Pond, colonies of microbes form hard, dome-shaped, deposits. Called stromatolites, these structures embody one of the oldest forms of life on earth. The fossil record of microbes in older stromatolites date back 3.5 billion years. Their antiquity, abundance, and persistence to modern times make stromatolites a fascinating subject for scientific inquiry.

Basically, stromatolites are layered structures formed primarily by cyanobacteria. This photosynthesizing bacteria changes the pH of the water causing calcium carbonate to precipitate over a mat of bacterial filaments. The minerals, along with grains of sediment in the water, are trapped in a layer of goo that surrounds the bacterial colonies. Then the lower layer bacteria grows upward and penetrates the most recent mineral and sediment layer. When this process is repeated over and over, a stromatolite is formed.

For over 2 billion years stromatolites dominated the shallow seas and formed extensive reef tracts rivaling those of modern coral reefs. However, today, stromatolites are relatively rare. You will usually find them growing in extreme environments, such as hypersaline water or thermal springs.

While Shark Bay boasts a stunning example of a modern stromatolite colony, you don’t have to go all the way to Australia. When lake levels are low, you can easily see them in the Great Salt Lake. They span hundreds of square kilometers in shallow shoreline waters. Some say that the Great Salt Lake contains some of the most extensive areal coverage of living stromatolites in the world.

One of the best places to view them is from the shore near Buffalo Point on Antelope Island. When conditions are clear, you can see them underwater at the mouth of the Great Salt Lake Marina.

More than just memorials to ancient life, the stromatolites also play a vital role in Great Salt Lake ecology. They are the principal habitat for the brine fly larvae and pupae. In turn, brine flies are a critical diet for goldeneye ducks, American avocets and many other water birds.

Thanks to Wayne Wurtsbaugh, from Utah State University’s College of Natural Resources for his support in developing this Wild About Utah episode.

For Wild About Utah, I’m Holly Strand.


Photos: Courtesy Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Wayne A. Wurtsbaugh and Linda L’Ai
Text: Holly Strand

Sources & Additional Reading:

National Park Service. Stomatolite Fossils. http://www.nps.gov/care/naturescience/stromatolite.htm [Accessed August 16, 2011]

Schopf, J.William. Anatoliy B Kudryavtsev; Andrew D Czaja; Abhishek B Tripathi. 2007. Evidence of Archean life: Stromatolites and microfossils. Precambian Research, 158. No. 3-4 pp. 141-155.

UNESCO Shark Bay Western Australia http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/578 [Accessed August 16, 2011]

University of California Museum of Paleontology. Cyanobacteria: Fossil Record http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/bacteria/cyanofr.html [Accessed August 16, 2011]

Walter, M R. 1983. Archean stromatolites – Evidence of the earth’s earliest benthos
Earth’s earliest biosphere: Its origin and evolution. Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press.

Wurtsbaugh, W.A. 2009. Biostromes, brine flies, birds and the bioaccumulation of selenium in Great Salt Lake, Utah. Pp. 1-15 In: A. Oren, D. Naftz, P. Palacios & W.A. Wurtsbaugh (eds). Saline Lakes Around the World:Unique Systems with Unique Values. Natural Resources and Environmental Issues, volume XV. S.J. and Jessie Quinney Natural Resources Research Library, Logan , Utah. URL: http://www.cnr.usu.edu/quinney/files/uploads/NREI2009online.pdf

Cryptobiotic Soil Crusts

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Cryptobiotic Soil Crust
Photo Courtesy & Copyright 2009
Mark Larese-Casanova

Hi, this is Mark Larese-Casanova from the Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.

Looking out over a Utah desert, we might see relatively few plants- perhaps some sagebrush, maybe a few junipers or Joshua trees, or even some small wildflowers or cacti. What is less noticeable, though, is the living soil crust that holds this entire landscape together. It’s not just sand, but rather an important and vast partnership between bacteria, lichens, algae, and fungi. These soil crusts are often referred to as ‘cryptobiotic’, which means ‘living in suspended animation’. This is a fitting description, considering that water can be so rare in Utah’s deserts.

Cyanobacteria, which is often called blue-green algae, is the backbone of cryptobiotic soil crust. Vast networks of long, microscopic filaments of cyanobacteria and fungi grow in length when they are wet, and leave behind a casing that literally binds the soil together. So, what might otherwise be loose sand not only is less likely to be washed away by water or blown away by wind, but also is able to hold much more water for plants.

Cryptobiotic Soil Crust
Photo Courtesy & Copyright 2009
Mark Larese-Casanova

Cyanobacteria is also extremely useful to desert landscapes for its ability to take Nitrogen out of the air and make it available to plant roots in the soil. Desert soils typically have relatively low nutrients, so this is especially important to desert plants.

In many Utah deserts, cryptobiotic soil crusts can cover up to 70% of the ground surface. Old soil crust can often look like small mountain ranges with black or white peaks inhabited by lichens or mosses. The little valleys in between the tiny mountains of crust are perfect spots for the seeds of desert plants to grow. Over time, the above ground crust can grow up to ten centimeters, or four inches, thick!

However, cryptobiotic soil crust grows at an alarmingly slow rate of about one millimeter per year. So, any soil crust that is disturbed can take a very long time to recover. Depending on the amount of moisture a desert receives, it can take anywhere between 20 and 250 years for soil crust to grow back.

Next time you’re out in the desert, kneel down and have a close look at the telltale peaks and valleys of cryptobiotic soil crust. If you bring a magnifying glass, you just might be able to see some of the lichens and mosses. Be sure to stay on trail, though, and whatever you do, don’t bust that crust!

For Wild About Utah, I’m Mark Larese-Casanova.


Images: Courtesy and copyright Mark Larese-Casanova
Text:     Mark Larese-Casanova, Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.
Additional Reading:

US Department of Interior. 2001. Biological Soil Crusts: Ecology and Management. Bureau of Land Management Technical Reference 1730-2., http://www.blm.gov/nstc/library/pdf/CrustManual.pdf
Rosentreter, R., M. Bowker, and J. Belnap. 2007. A Field Guide to Biological Soil Crusts of Western U.S. Drylands. U.S. Government Printing Office, Denver, Colorado., http://www.soilcrust.org/


Utah’s Oolitic Sand, Photo Courtesy and Copyright Mark Larese-Casanova

Hi, this is Mark Larese-Casanova from the Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.

Imagine if prehistoric brine shrimp were responsible for one of the finest examples of architecture in Salt Lake City today.

Okay, so it may be a bit of a stretch, but let me explain. In a previous episode of Wild About Utah, I discussed the life cycle of brine shrimp and the important role that they play in the Great Salt Lake Ecosystem. Well, as the billions of brine shrimp feed on bacteria in Great Salt Lake, they excrete waste in the form of tiny fecal pellets. These pellets, along with sand grains and other bits of debris, eventually settle to the bottom of Great Salt Lake.

In shallow areas of the lake, where wind and waves routinely mix the water, these small particles gradually accumulate layers of calcium carbonate, forming an oolite (spelled o-o-l-i-t-e). This is very similar to how a pearl, also layers of calcium carbonate around a small particle, is formed within the shell of an oyster or mussel. The main difference, aside from a pearl being much larger, is that oolites are typically oblong, rather than round. The beaches on the west side of Antelope Island are a great place to find oolitic sand, which will look and feel as though you have a handful of tiny pearls.

Utah’s Oolitic Sandstone
Photo Courtesy & Copyright
Mark Larese-Casanova

Around 50 million years ago, large fresh- and salt-water lakes covered parts of Utah, and in these areas, vast amounts of sediments, including oolites, were deposited. Over time, these oolites were compressed and cemented together into limestone.

A quarry near Ephraim in Sanpete County supplied oolitic limestone for the construction of the Governor’s Mansion in 1902 and the original Salt Lake City Public Library in 1905. The Library building, located at 15 South State Street, eventually housed the Hansen Planetarium and is now home to the O.C. Tanner flagship store. The building underwent an extensive restoration just a couple of years ago, and now serves as a shining example of neoclassical architecture in our capitol city.

The truth is, there are tens of millions of years separating oolitic limestone from our modern-day brine shrimp. So, we can’t exactly say that prehistoric brine shrimp were responsible for the existence of the O.C. Tanner building. But, it’s fun to imagine precious gems from around the world housed in a beautiful building constructed from the ‘pearls’ of Great Salt Lake.

Historic OC Tanner Building
(formerly the Salt Lake Library
and later the Hansen Planetarium)
Photo Courtesy & Copyright
Mark Larese-Casanova

For Wild About Utah, I’m Mark Larese-Casanova.

Images: Courtesy and copyright Mark Larese-Casanova

Text:     Mark Larese-Casanova, Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.
Additional Reading:

Utah Geological Survey http://geology.utah.gov/utahgeo/rockmineral/collecting/oolitic.htm

Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Program