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A Forest of Ghosts

May 19, 2010

Back to the Henry Mountains. The ghost herd is a good story, but not personally compelling. I wouldn’t object to seeing the resident bison herd, but they’re not my principal interest. The most recent avian field study conducted in the Henrys was in 1956. Three ornithologists spent seven August days collecting specimens. A list of fifty-four species resulted from their work. It is, I believe, the only study of the birds of the Henry’s high country. The Henry Mountains are not only beautiful, but a question mark as well. What bird species are found there? Which species breed in the range? How abundant are the members of these species? Where in the range are they found? And when? No one can provide a complete or current answer.

Despite a week of rain, I arrived in the Henrys early Thursday afternoon. My goal for this summer is to identify and begin data collection in representative portions of the range. The ground was mostly dry and conditions were Spring-like at lower elevations. But as I climbed, conditions changed. The clouds lowered, the drizzle became more continuous, and it eventually turned to snow. It took roughly forty-five minutes to make the thirty mile drive from Hanksville to Star Springs in the range’s southern foothills. The next thirty miles took four hours to cover. As darkness fell I happened upon a pond that offered a secluded camp. The water was surrounded by burnt trees, monochromatic exercises in black and white. Even in the moonless dark and unceasing rain they glowed, their burnt fingers pointing upward accusingly.

Fire is a fact of life in the West. Forests grow. They burn. And the cycle repeats, hopefully not too often. This part of the Henry’s forest burned in 2003. Uncountable millions of juniper, oak, aspen, pine, spruce, and fir were consumed in a conflagration that almost completely incinerated 34,000 acres. As luck would have it, this is the area in which I began to search for survey sites. I drove for hours through the rain and snow, Thursday afternoon and for much of Friday. Every now and again I’d spot a living tree, a survivor, defiantly green and thriving. But mostly I drove past skeletons, thousands and thousands of skeletons. The carnage was somber and sobering.

And yet. Amid the bodies of the dead, there were unmistakable signs of life. Tufts of brilliant green grass sprouted from ash-blackened soil. Wildflowers sprouted in profusion, their rainbow colors in contrast to the lumps of charcoal and burnt fallen branches amongst which they grew. Sage was everywhere, low, close to the ground, pungent with life. New oak brush sprouted beneath the blackened bodies of their parent plants.

At 8200′ the weather finally forced my retreat. The roads were impassible, impossible, dangerous. But in four weeks the sun will shine brightly, grass and flowers will testify that spring has finally arrived in the high country, and I will return

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