Don’t Tread on the Desert

On the cold deserts of the Colorado Plateau, Dr. Jayne Belnap, research ecologist for the National Biological Survey, scours the ground for footprints. Not for Coyote or dinosaur footprints, but for the markings of hiking boots and cloven hoofs. She’s looking for damage to the desert’s “cryptobiotic” crust – the dark brown, almost black layer of soil. Composed of bacteria, lichen, moss, and microfungi, this protective cover, just two to four inches thick, prevents wind and water erosion, absorbs moisture and provides nitrogen and other important nutrients to plants in an otherwise harsh environment. But a footprint or tire track can do the damage that the harsh weather can’t.