Fixing the dirt under our feet

Nature Conservancy biocrust restoration is partnership effort

A shovelful of biocrust – the unseen forest under your feet. Photo courtesy of Anita Joy Antoninka

What looks like dirt in the desert and drylands is actually a forest under your feet. We’re talking about biocrusts – living organisms made of lichens, mosses, fungi, bacteria and green algae – that live on the soil surface on the Colorado Plateau and other places across the Southwest, according to Tracey Stone of The Nature Conservancy.

Biocrusts, also known as soil crusts, are vitally important for both nature and people. They reduce erosion and control dust, increase critical water storage, and sequester carbon, just like trees, said Stone.

“Biocrusts are the keystone element of the landscape out here,” said Sue Bellagamba, TNC’s Canyonlands regional director. “If we lose the biocrust, we see major impacts on the soil stability, vegetation and wildlife of the entire region.”

Long-term use has already severely degraded the land, greatly reducing soil crusts’ ability to do its work, officials say. With expected increasing drought in an already water-stressed area, the threat is intensifying.

Enter the scientists.

biocrust restoration
Colin Tucker assesses the biological soil crust community in a row of farm-grown biocrust.
Photo by Sue Bellagamba

“In an exciting new project, funded by a Wildlife Conservation Society grant through its Climate Adaptation Fund with support from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, TNC has joined forces with U.S. Geological Survey, Northern Arizona University, and Rim to Rim Restoration to test innovative methods for restoring landscapes by growing biocrust,” said Stone.

The idea is to transplant samples from other deserts – including the Mojave and Sonoran – where the biocrust is more adapted to hotter and drier conditions, and determine which ones will adapt better in the face of climate change, said Stone.

Once grown, the soil crusts will be moved to restorations sites in Castle Valley and Indian Creek. This is no small task, adds Dr. Anita Antoninka, research associate at NAU School of Forestry. “This is the largest-scale cultivation of whole biocrust communities ever conducted in the world.”

While scientists acknowledge the challenges, they are optimistic. “The scientific community has recently become quite good at growing biocrust quickly in a greenhouse and in test tubes, but our ability to grow biocrust that survives once it’s placed at restoration sites in the real world remains poor, says Dr. Sasha Reed, USGS scientist. “This project is so exciting because it would grow large amounts of biocrust in an outdoor setting, preparing the biocrust for success when used in areas needing restoration.”

Rim to Rim Restoration is also eager about the new challenge. “We are enthusiastic about helping find methods to grow and transport biocrusts to crust restoration locations that may lead to new ideas about how to reestablish plant communities dependent on biocrust communities,” adds Kara Dohrenwend, Rim to Rim Restoration program manager.

The partners hope this effort will pave the way for restoration on a large-scale as the globe faces warmer and drier temperatures.

Volunteers are still needed from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Nov. 1-2 at Dugout Ranch. Contact Kristen Redd at [email protected] for more information.