USU roadwork leads to biocrust rescue plan

By Zenaida Sengo • The Times-Independent

Utah State University was carving out its new scenic location when sheets of intact biocrust and native cacti were discovered and rescued for conservation purposes.

The crust-laden soils surrounding the in-progress road to USU’s future campus stem west off the current T-intersection of Mill Creek Drive and Highway 191, next to the cliff band below Behind the Rocks recreation area. The work will lead to a new four-way intersection.

The harvested plants, which include mostly biocrust and cacti, will then be deposited at the Mayberry Native Plant and Propagation Center to be re-grown and used for restoration projects in the area. Kara Dohrenwend, owner of Wildland Scapes Nursery (adjacent to the site) and director of Rim to Rim Restoration, USU’s Executive Director Lianna Etchberger, the Utah Native Plant Society, the U.S. Geologic Survey, the National Park Service, and a handful of volunteers were there with shovels and buckets harvesting viable specimens for transplanting off the property owned by the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration.

“This is such an excellent place to harvest. Every shovelful is filled with crust,” said USGS ecologist Colin Tucker, the lead scientist operating the biocrust farm at the Mayberry Center. Tucker was on site visually combing over the crust fields with a cover frame and documenting “the community composition. We want to estimate what proportion of the crust patch is filled with mosses and lichens versus other materials like plant litter and rocks,” said Tucker. “We’ve had less success growing lichen for conservation. There are areas in and around Arches (National Park) where a high diversity of lichens can be seen growing atop the mineral gypsum. There is still a lot we are learning.”

The biocrust will be added to the existing growing facility at the Mayberry Center and watered when temperatures are cool, which Tucker said has been the most successful technique for getting the crusts to take hold. “All of the locations (for crust harvesting) are future construction sites, such as municipal and housing developments and off-road vehicle use areas,” said Tucker. “Adding the crumbles at Mayberry is a simple but big task. We will need a lot of volunteers to do it.”

Design plans for the future USU campus in Moab, which pledge to utilize architecture in keeping with the native character of the land, can be accessed through USU’s website, as well as the projects section of SITLA’s website, Etchberger said, “I’m happy about this project we’re working on SITLA property. They were happy to approve the harvest. It fits nicely with our building project, to have minimal disturbance at the site with sustainable design, including rainwater harvesting and permaculture landscape similar to the permaculture garden at our current location.”