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A case of Keystone

It is now late fall, we celebrate Thanksgiving weekend with friends. I have a tradition of celebrating the holiday in remote places since being away from family in Massachusetts. My feet have tan lines from the warm season vacations. I can still wear my sandals on a stroll through Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park. The park is positioned on the southern border of Utah and extends into Arizona. Plants are usually sought out, viewed, photographed, or admired for their flower but this day most plants lie dormant. The rough mule ears (Wyethia scabra) crack in the wind, brown but rooted, maintaining their real estate in the hummocked sand.

Chaco sandals in the coral pink sand dunes

Erin’s sandals (and toes) in the coral pink sand dunes

Our Friendsgiving family: Erica, Jon, Rachelle, Keith, Maggie, me, and Erin

Our Friendsgiving family: Jon, Erica, Rachelle, Keith, Maggie, me, and Erin in Buckskin Gulch

Yucca and rabbitbrush species in a heavily grazed area

Yucca and rabbitbrush species survive in a heavily grazed area

Something i am noticing this November weekend i seldom have before is the amount and diversity of keystone plant species, a species representing the final stage of plant succession, the elders, or the age of a plant community. I begin the walk into the dunes toward a steep, sand hill photographing a Utah juniper (Juniperus osteosperma) and single needle pinyon pine. The single needle pinyon pine (Pinus monophylla) is the only pine in the world with one needle (check out Jason’s post from September 2011 for more information on pines). They are also the primary commerce which pine nuts are harvested in Utah. Upon inspection, the nuts stuck to the cones still on the tree have dried with age. Meaty, ripe pine nuts are harvested in early fall for consumption. Stands of juniper and pinyon pine are referred to as pygmy forests because of the short height of the tree species. Pygmy forests blanket drier climates and can contain other types of ‘miniature’ trees too as with the Hans Jenny Pygmy Forest Preserve in California. The plant community in Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park is dense with these trees, some charred and standing dead from a past fire event.

The distance, drawn out by the orange red sand grains of the dunes from which the park gets its name, shows stands of tall ponderosa pines (Pinus ponderosa). The giant pines are uniquely strange towering in the sand. Without owning a clinometer, a tool used to measure height, i can estimate these trees to be nearly 80 feet tall. The Ponderosa pine needles (or leaves) are bundled in clusters of mainly three, less commonly in two. From the description in the Utah Flora, the plant bible, a Ponderosa or yellow pine needles and buds are thought to produce abortion in cattle. Produce abortion?

The keystone shrubs thick in the understory are big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata), old man sage (Artemisia filifolia), rubber rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus nauseous), sumac (Rhus trilobata), Mexican cliff rose (Purshia mexicana), and banana yucca (Yucca baccata) or possibily the restricted narrowleaf, coralpink, or Kanab yucca (Yucca angustissima). The rich green of the pines to the soft green of the sagebrush and rabbitbrush contrast so magnificently with the ‘coral’ coloration of the sand (coming from a mildly, colorblind individual).

Impressive, towering stands of ponderosa pine in the Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park

Impressive, towering stands of ponderosa pine in the Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park

The striking contrast of sagebrush and ponderosa pine in the park

The striking contrast of sagebrush and ponderosa pine in the park

Ponderosa pine cone buried in the sand

Ponderosa pine cone buried in the sand

Also in the dune habitat are tall, dainty stands of giant dropseed (Sporobolus giganteus) and Indian ricegrass (Oryzopsis hymenoides). The giant dropseed grass can reach heights over 9 feet some of which could be buried by the blowing sand of the dune habitat. The Indian rice grass draws art in the sand as the dense seed heads are blown by the wind as they drop to the ground. Indian ricegrass is Utah’s state grass. Seed heads were crushed and used as a flour by Native Americans.

Dune habitats are unique to the landscape no matter when i come across them. I have been to similar flowing, habitats in Death Valley National Park in California during the 100 year bloom of 2005 and in the west desert of Utah working for the Department of Defense for a number of years. The constant shifting occurring to create them force plants to adapt and stretch their necks to stay afloat like algae as kelp in the ocean.

Indian ricegrass drawing art in the sand

Indian ricegrass drawing art in the sand

Erin and Amos take a break and pose amongst the giant dune grass

Erin and Amos take a break and pose amongst the giant dune grass

Threatened tiger beetle, photo courtesy of the US Fish and Wildlife Service

Threatened tiger beetle, photo courtesy of the US Fish and Wildlife Service

These dunes are managed as multi-use by the Utah Division of Natural Resources. Off highway vehicles (OHVs) roar in the distance as we hike to a hill worthy of sandboarding. I found it disappointing to see the (multi-)use of the ponderosa pine tree population as public bathrooms beneath the canopy. Our friend providing the accommodations told us of the possibility of the park closing down due to a threatened tiger beetle found in the dunes, listed under the federal Endangered Species Act. The implications would be enforced by the US Fish and Wildlife Service on park run by employees of the Utah Division of Natural Resources. More information can be found on the park’s website, including an option for public comment. The consequences of the action could certainly affect employment in the park but also limit traffic and toilet paper piles so the tiger beetle could fill its role as part of the ecosystem. It’s a tough decision and battle. Whatever the result, someone is going to lose.

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