Monday, June 25, 2012

I Live in a Smile

My essay on the Snake River Plain appears on Orion Magazine's The Place Where You Live page. Map of Idaho, courtesy Idaho State University Dept. of Geosciences.

The Snake River Plain cracks a smile across southern Idaho. It curves down from the Centennial Mountains on the east toward Nevada, then turns up northwest toward Oregon. I followed the Plain to Boise a decade ago to work as a federal ecologist, one of thousands of new Idahoans flooding the Plain and loving it to death.

The hot spot that now powers the geysers of Yellowstone poured the Plain’s foundation. As the Ice Age thawed, Lake Bonneville escaped down the Snake River. The megaflood blasted out house-sized chunks of lava and cut laugh lines into the Plain.

Serene mountains outline the edges of the smile and help me navigate unpaved roads on the sagebrush desert. My car kicks up silt that nearly matches its Champagne Gold paint.

Formed from fire and shaped by water, the Plain is dominated by wind in spring. This is when I study the effects of federal vegetation improvement projects on sage grouse habitat. In less disturbed areas, sagebrush is skirted by duvets of plush moss, attended by native grasses, and dotted with purple larkspur and lupine. In summer, yellow rabbitbrush shines. The grouse and I startle each other when I walk too close to where they hide from legal battles over the status of their species.

In more disturbed areas, ragged cheatgrass spears up among the native plants, ready to carry wildfire. The cheatgrass coalesces into scabs after fire removes the sagebrush. Much of the lower elevations have been scabbed over.Sterile green bandages of non-native wheatgrass plantings protect against the invasive cheatgrass. The plantings fade to monochrome gold in summer.

Sage grouse congregate among more recent lava flows around Craters of the Moon. The flows are impossible to plow, so settlers did not sink roots into the lava. It is tough on boots, tires, and hoofs, which leave the land to the grouse. I conclude that sage grouse would benefit from the application of more lava. The Craters operate on a longer time frame than federal funding cycles, but an eruption is due.

I worry about the Plain. The Plain cracks a smile.


  1. Awesome. You polished this into a gem.

  2. Thanks, Rangewriter!

    Your comments and suggestions improved it greatly.


  3. It's a tragedy what has taken place over the last century to this area. One need only look at the sterile CWG expanses in Jarbidge, which - when agency was honest, was cultivated to heighten stocking. Now we see CWG, Siberian, and Godzilla-'native'-cultivars replacing native grasses and for a under the auspice of preventing cheat and fire - which is rediculous. One need only look to its history, walk across a planting or two, and take a look at a fire map to see they do neither, but they do serve their historical purpose: heightened above-ground biomass gives Brackett and Simplot the pretense to abuse that land in perpetuity. Our relationship with the sage is an unhealthy one, grouse show that. It will not be long before it all changes - and the real range-fires erupt in Washington. Let's hope that out of that political blaze we can wrangle a more humble approach to our relationship to the Safebrush Sea.

  4. Brian,

    I can see you're also a sagebrush hugger.

    Happily, we know much more about maintaining our native ecosystems than we did in the past. Sadly, as more people move to Idaho, more and more demands are put on these precious resources.