Saturday, August 18, 2012

Behind the Rocks at Moab, Utah


The author's Nissan Titan truck at Behind the Rocks, Moab, Utah - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

A Springtime Visit Behind the Rocks Offers Some Surprises

On April 15, 2012, I drove from Moab, Utah to Behind the Rocks. There, for one long weekend each year, that area is the hub of activity for the 24-Hours of Moab off-road bicycle race. It had been six months since my October 2011 visit to the event. Half way between the two races was a good time to assess the environmental impact of annual off-road bike racing Behind the Rocks.

Behind the Rocks is a sandy-soiled mesa ten miles south and two miles off-road from Moab, Utah. In spring, summer and fall, since the 1890’s, cattle Highly eroded area at Behind the Rocks, Moab, Utah - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)had grazed Behind the Rocks. Before its first ecological breakdown, the fragile mesa endured decades of overgrazing. Only its 5500-foot elevation has kept the area from cactus infestation, as happened in the upper section of the nearby Spanish Valley. Under the trampling hooves of range cattle, indigenous cryptobiotic soil deteriorated and blew away. Whatever natural vegetation may have existed prior to a century of grazing, the mesa now supports a combination of weedy and grassy areas.

Kane Creek provides the main runoff channel for the entire mesa. Although the spring flow can be intermittent or nonexistent, summer thunderstorms sweep huge amounts of soil down Kane Creek. Increased movement of soil amplifies streambed erosion. Where small watercourses once meandered, sandy arroyos with straight-sided banks now stand. Some areas have lost all their soil, leaving expanses of bare rock.

Multiple vehicle tracks on a sand dune at Behind the Rocks, Moab, Utah - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)For the past seventeen years, hundreds of off-road bicycle racers and fans have camped, played and ridden Behind the Rocks each October. Each year, self-appointed guardians of the local environment lament supposed damage done by the 24-Hours of Moab Race. Some hike cross-country in order to photograph a few bicycle tracks that stray from the designated course. The real issue is not only about damage by errant bike racers. It is also about the monitors tramping across a fragile landscape in order to “get their shot”.

Driving across the deserted landscape that day, I could not locate the bicycle race venue. Without its tents and bicycles to identify it, I drove on by. Soon, I came across an open area eroded by off-road vehicles. Along the fringes of the area, I could see how vegetation had once held the soil. Within the eroded area, there were only traces of native vegetation. Although I saw no off-road vehicles Behind the Rocks that day, evidence of vehicular traffic was everywhere. One nearby sand dune had hundreds of tracks leading to its summit.

The author, Jim McGillis at Behind the Rocks, with the La Sal Range in the background - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Getting out of my truck, I surveyed the 24-Hours of Moab Race venue and the La Sal Range beyond. Admittedly, there was little vegetation where the main tent had stood. Only after leaving my vehicle did I realize the damage that I was causing. Looking down, I saw that the wide tires on my truck had crushed whatever soil-crust had formed since October 2011. Otherwise, the race venue looked quite similar to much of the surrounding landscape.

During my earlier discussion with 24-HOM race promoter Laird Knight, he had told me about their environmental amelioration techniques. Each year, after all trash, facilities and vehicles depart; Knut & Sons roll their enormous water trucks around the empty venue. A generous sprinkling of water turns fields of dust into fields of mud. As the sun dries the mud, it forms a crust almost as strong as natural cryptobiotic soil. Unless churned by wheels, hooves or feet in the off-season, Laird said, “Racers and visitors to the next 24-Hours of Moab Race can expect to see the area look much as it has for the past eighteen years”.

Plush Kokopelli and Coney the Traffic Cone, Behind the Rocks, with the La Sal Range in the background - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Rather than seeking to end the one family event that helps to regenerate the environment Behind the Rocks each year, environmentalists should concentrate on overuse by off-road vehicles. The Bureau of Land Management should place an immediate ban on driving in watercourses and sensitive dune areas. If not, the remaining soil on the mesa will continue its slow-motion disintegration down Kane Springs Canyon and into the overburdened Colorado River.

Behind the Rocks combines both fragility and stability in one location. With respectful usage, the mesa will regenerate or at least maintain itself. If scoured down to bedrock, Behind the Rocks will lose its appeal as a place for human recreation. With care and cooperation by all interested parties, Behind the Rocks will remain a remarkable place to bike, hike or even to trail-ride in a Jeep.