Trampled Underfoot: Miracles of the Soil Are Threatened by Straying Hikers

It seems as if soil causes the least concern in an ecosystem, apart from the third-grade lecture about not littering.

But unlike most national parks that ask you to take pictures and leave only footprints, the Arches National Park asks you to take pictures and leave nothing.

They don?t ask you to take off your shoes or wear plastic bags, but they do have signs asking you to stay on designated trails. This warning is for the safety of a microorganism called Cryptobiotic soil.

Cryptobiotic soil consists of black patches on top of brown soil, covering 75 percent of the 130,000 square mile Colorado Plateau.

Cryptobiotic soil is made of algae, lichens, fungi and Cyanobacteria which coexist perfectly. It preserves desert environment by providing the soil with nitrogen, retaining water, preventing erosion and stabilizing the soil.

Brad Martin, a sophomore at the University of Utah, said he could have easily stepped on 10 to 20 patches when wandering away from the designated park trails on his hike in the Arches. Martin had never heard of Cryptobiotic soil, or noticed the black patches.

Stepping on the black patches will destroy the organism. Although it can recover its visual appearance in one to five years, it will take up to 250 years to become beneficial to the environment again.

Since Arches gets about nine inches of precipitation per year, Cryptobiotic soil provides most of the water vascular plants need. The sheaths covering the organisms swell up to 10 times their dry size to store water.

The Cyanobacteria convert the nitrogen in the air into a form that the vascular plants can use. Also, thick masses of Cyanobacteria convert the earth?s carbon-dioxide-rich atmosphere into an atmosphere with oxygen.

Cryptobiotic soil binds soil particles with its strands of fungi. Roots of its fungi and algae prevent wind and water from washing or blowing away the soil.

Cryptobiotic soil is well adapted to growing in harsh circumstances, but poorly adapted to disturbances. Domestic livestock grazing, air pollutants, tourist activities and military functions are some of the things that can disrupt the organism, leading to a reduced diversity of organisms, soil nutrients, stability and organic matter.

Many tourists cause harm because of ignorance, rather than neglect. Martin claims he would have stayed on designated trails had he known of the organisms dying under his feet.

Rachel Cerny, a sophomore majoring in Spanish at the U, would have also stepped over them and not on them if she had known what those black patches were. She wandered away frequently in her trip to Moab.

“I would?ve stayed off the [undesignated] trails, if there was no way I could?ve avoided them,” Cerny explained.

Cerny understands the importance of the ecosystem because she enjoys scuba diving as well.

“The diving classes really stress that you don?t touch the coral,” Cerny said.

The coral will be destroyed if you touch them, she continued.

For her, it is important that people who enjoy nature leave it so other people can enjoy it as well.

According to the Arches National Park Guide, campers and hikers can avoid harming these organisms by staying on existing trails, walking in wash bottoms or on slickrock when there is a need to go off the trail, camping on slickrock or previously disturbed areas and, of course, by avoiding walking on black patches.

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