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70 years of montane forest change in Grand Canyon National Park

Montane forest at Grand Canyon NP (SCPN photo)
Montane forest at Grand Canyon NP (SCPN photo).

The first vegetation map ever created for Grand Canyon National Park was completed in the 1930s. The chance rediscovery of vegetation plot data collected to create that original map led to the rare opportunity to examine forest change in the park since 1935. In this video, ecologist John Vankat discusses the effort he lead in 2004 to resample these historical vegetation plots and shares his conclusions about forest development and the wide range of ecological conditions that characterize the ponderosa pine, mixed conifer and spruce-fir forests of Grand Canyon National Park.

For more information about this study, see the Post-1935 Changes in Forest Vegetation of Grand Canyon National Park project page.

      Duration:  06:09 minutes

Long-nosed leopard lizard at Petrified Forest National Park

Long-nosed leopard lizard (NPS photo)
Long-nosed leopard lizard (NPS photo).

In 2012, NAU researchers documented the first sighting of a long-nosed leopard lizard (Gambelia wislizenii) at Petrified Forest National Park. This large and uniquely colored lizard can measure up to 17 inches in length, two-thirds of which is tail! Watch this video to learn about this lizard's discovery and how biologists go about monitoring the health and abundance of herpetofauna in the park.

      Duration:  04:49 minutes

Revueltosaurus callenderi at Petrified Forest National Park

Revueltosaurus callenderi (from PEFO Site Bulletin)
Revueltosaurus callenderi (from PEFO Site Bulletin).

Petrified Forest National Park is a natural paleontological laboratory and new discoveries made there generate research across the globe. The 2006 discovery of a nearly complete Revueltosaurus callenderi skeleton in the park threw a wrench into the accepted theory of its origins more than 210 million years ago. In this video, National Park Service paleontologist Bill Parker walks us through his original discovery and describes how scientists use such information to try to solve these jigsaw puzzles from the past.

      Duration:  04:41 minutes

Archeology in the Expansion Lands at Petrified Forest National Park

Petroglyphs at Petrified Forest (SCPN photo)
Petroglyphs at Petrified Forest NP (SCPN photo).

The 2011 acquisition of 26,000 adjoining acres by Petrified Forest National Park has provided archeologists the unique opportunity to explore previously uninventoried areas rich with archeology. In this video, National Park Service archeologist Bill Reitze describes some of the new findings, including beautiful projectile points made from petrified wood and multiple petroglyph panels.

      Duration:  04:43 minutes

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Heiser Spring Restoration (See transcript below)

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NPS natural resource specialist, Paul Whitefield, describes the history and restoration of Heiser Spring at Wupatki National Monument (recorded in August 2010 and August 2011).

Duration:  08:24 minutes Expand panel for transcript / Collapse panel

Transcript for Heiser Spring Restoration (click here to read)

Note: Speaker is Paul Whitefield, Natural Resource Manager for the Flagstaff Area National Monuments (includes Sunset Crater Volcano NM, Wupatki NM and Walnut Canyon NM).

[Sound of birds chirping, the feeling of being outside]

I'd first like to make the point that riparian areas and seeps or springs are crucial to conserving biodiversity in the arid southwest. And that's why we focused all of this restoration effort on the Heiser Spring area. Almost anyone in my position would be striving [chuckles] towards doing this.

I'm Paul Whitefield and I've been working for the National Park Service for over 10 years.

There are only three springs in Wupatki National Monument, and Heiser is one of the three. And it's fed by a local perched aquifer, with a very local recharge area we think on a basalt mesa immediately upslope.

[Sound of birds chirping, of walking across desert gravel, brushing against bushes]

You see the gypsum salts where water's coming up and evaporating through the soil. Maybe between 12,000 and 8,000 years ago it would have been more like what we call a cienega. This was never the kind of roaring spring, it was probably mostly a hillside mud seep.

[Sound of walking away through the desert]

One of the crucial challenges of this project was, nobody described what the spring looked like when Anglo ranchers first arrived in the area in 1870s. So we had to sort of infer by looking at the other nearby seeps and springs what we would be restoring it to.

[Sound of restoration work in the back ground]

The active work on the funded part of the project began in 2007 and it lasted until 2010 when we finished the revegetation stage.

[Sound of digging, soil being turned over]

A really unique aspect of the project area, for restoration planning, is that it has one layer of human culture upon another. It was probably utilized by hunter/gathers 6,000 years ago, and then the Sinaqua farmers around 7 or 8 hundred years ago, and then Navajo sheep herders in the 1860s, 1870s, followed by Anglo ranchers from the 1880s through the 1920s, then the Civilian Conservation Corp moved in in the 1930s, and the Park Service acquired it and started turning it into an operations area in the 1950s.

So the project had to be carefully implemented. We did a cultural resource inventory and there are archeological sites nearby that we had to be very careful not to run our equipment over...

[Sound of stakes being driven into the ground with a hammer]

...or, even do ground disturbing activities, you know, with hand crews. We had an archeologist monitoring our work and making sure that we did not impact those sites.

[Sound of hammering on wood or metal]

A lot of the infrastructure had been steadily removed throughout the 1970s and 1980s, but, the crucial steps of actually removing the spring boxes from the spring site itself was crucial to allow it to revegetate to a natural condition, and for wild life to start coming in and utilizing the spring site again.

[Sound of desert birds chirping and warbling]

There's one invasive species known as camel thorn, which had already invaded the site. And we were really concerned because it's very aggressive and will take over from all the native vegetation. So one of the objectives was to also treat this invasive plant, camel thorn, as part of the project, and that was also accomplished in 2008 and 2009.


Cottonwoods do occur at nearby Peshlakai Spring, and they are also on our target list for eventually replanting at Heiser Spring, too. So, we did not remove the old cottonwood tree, because they are crucial wildlife habitat.

[Sound of desert birds]

The long term trend in the localized perched aquifer that feeds the springs seems to have been steadily declining in flow, so the water table is at the lowest point that it's ever been measured at. It's about 3 feet below ground level, so we expect the flow at the spring to be quite gradual and driven by long term climate trend.

[Sound of desert birds]

The greatest challenge for us is the fact that we try to revegetate an area, and we can't water like you can farm. So there is no irrigation involved. All of the methods we've done, except for right at the wettest part of the spring are all like dry land farming. We collect seed, and we put seed down, and we hope that we get a good wet year while the seeds still viable, and that it germinates and establishes.

[Sound of trickling water]

These are very similar methods that the native peoples would have to use to grow corn, squash and beans in the area.

[Sound of desert birds]

From looking around at nearby wet places we determined that fragrant sumac and desert olive would be suitable for planting at the wettest part of the spring site itself. The Flagstaff Arboretum was a great partner in the project. They collected cuttings off of some nearby patches of those two species, and, uh, they were able to successfully root them out and they grew them for a year, and then delivered them to us. We planted them with deep watering tubes, so that we could irrigate, and then we put wire cages around them to keep deer and pronghorn antelope from browsing on them too heavily until they got taller.

I've been going out and making ground water measurements every month since we finished the demolition and replanting work. It's been very dry, I haven't seen a lot of our seed germinate. But, I'm hopeful that we'll hit a wet cycle and that that will start. But I have noticed that all the shrubs that we planted, even without watering, for over nine months, they've all doubled in size and they're all taking off on their own. And, just the aesthetics of the site, it looks so much better without all the fencing and buildings and all the demolition rubble.

[Sound of desert birds]

We're really hoping to create a wet place for animals to come in and get water. We're most hopeful that the pronghorn antelope will be able to utilize water at the area, eventually. They're a significant grassland species, and they seem to have been impacted greatly by habitat fragmentation and loss of natural surface waters throughout the Wupatki area.

[Birds singing and cooing]

Desert mule dear are prevalent in the area, but even other animals as common as foxes and jack rabbits, and cottontail rabbits. We were also hoping to provide some structural diversity, some purchases and some nesting shrubbery for a number of song birds species, such as morning dove, and black tailed gnatcatcher, canyon towhee, rock wrens, western king bird. We know that the larger trees are really important for providing perches for raptors.

[Sound of car driving by]

Under the General Management Planning framework, visitors won't have access to the spring site, but they will be able to enjoy the natural scenic view shed as they drive by now, instead of seeing and old Park Service trailer town and operations area. And then, maybe decisions about public use will be revisited during future management planning.

[Sound of desert birds]

With the Park Service being able to shift it's water supply over to a water well, and then to follow through by actually coming in and pulling out the rest of the abandoned infrastructure and replanting the area, shows the Park Service is shifting more and more to taking care of these disturbed areas, and, especially riparian areas, kind of get them back to a more natural state.

[Sound of desert birds]

Heiser Springs is a really good example of this changing approach in the resource management in the park system.

[Sound of desert birds]

Aquatic Macroinvertebrate Monitoring (See transcript below)

To download the MP3 (9 MB), right-click here
then select "Save link as... "

SCPN monitors aquatic-macroinvertebrates annually at Bandelier NM, Canyon de Chelly NM, Grand Canyon NP and Mesa Verde. In this October 2010 interview, SCPN aquatic ecologist Stacy Stumpf explains how aquatic macroinvertebrates are monitored, and why monitoring then is so important in helping parks protect these important water systems.

Duration:  07:29 minutes Expand panel for transcript / Collapse panel

Transcript for Aquatic Macroinvertebrate Monitoring (click here to read)

[Sound of running water, the feeling of being outside next to a stream]

Kelly Reeve: Stacy Stumpf sometimes devotes nine hours a day to gathering insect larvae from streams. And the water can be cold.

Stacy Stumpf: You warm up on the hike in, but once you get down there, it's like a refrigerator.

KR: Stacy is an aquatic ecologist with the National Park Service, and today he and his crew are canvassing a mountain stream in Bandelier National Park in New Mexico. Their goal is to collect as many species of aquatic macroinvertebrates in the stream as possible. These aquatic macroinvertebrates, which are mostly insect larvae attached to the cobbles and debris in the stream, so to ferret them out of their hiding places, the crew uses a three-pronged scraper to dig through the stream bottom. Any aquatic macroinvertebrates that they set free will float into the big net just downstream. And after they do this at five riffles, Stacy hoists the net and gets ready to use it to take samples from every type of habitat along the entire length of the reach.

SS: riffles, pools, leaf packs, algal mats, woody debris, any place that there might be a bug, we sample.

[Sound of walking through water...

Male voice: ...cobbles, fast and shallow...

Sound of wet net being lifted out of the water, water dripping back into stream]

KR: When he's done sampling, his net is full of wet leaves and sticks. He places handfuls of them in a sieve and then washes them off that he can pick out those aquatic macroinvertebrates.

[Sound of water being poured through the sieve, sieve shaken back and forth rapidly, more water being poured]

SS: So we're just trying to wash the leaves [sniffles] and all the sediments so that these guys get knocked loose. And then that makes it easier to pick it, because you can see [chuckle]...

KR: [chuckle] So cool !

SS: ...thousands of leaves. So...

KR: The aquatic macroinvertebrates in the sieve look like translucent worms crawling through the autumn leaves and dark brown debris. Some are as thin as pine needles and maybe an inch long, but they come in all sizes. And sometimes they just leave cases made up of small stones or sticks.

[Male voice: Whoa !

Female voice:

Male voice: ...look at him!...

Female voice: ...beautiful...

Male voice: ]

KR: Stacy places the aquatic macroinvertebrates he's picked into a jar of alcohol. And then, later, entomologists will identify the species of each bug.

[Female voice: Look at all those stone flies... ]

KR: Stacy and his crew will be collecting aquatic macroinvertebrates at the same site, year after year, to track changes to the communities. This is their forth year and they're doing the same sampling at 12 other sites in national parks on the Southern Colorado Plateau.

SS: To pick up long-term datasets on particular vital signs within the park is, I think, a rather unique idea. You know, in our eyes, we hope 100 years down the line people are still collecting this data in a similar manner, and they can compare it to what we did, that's pretty cutting edge and there should be a lot of information that can be gained from that kind of data.

KR: They're monitoring aquatic macroinvertebrates because they are a good vital sign of the health of the streams.

SS: They're something that's easily measurable and found in all streams on the Plateau where there's water. And so a lot of insect organisms lay their eggs in the streams. The streams provide the beginning life stages for these organisms. They're found in nearly every freshwater ecosystem so they're a really good thing to track.

KR: And they're also an essential link in the stream food web. They eat pieces of overhanging plants that fall into the streams, and they also eat the algae and bacteria that grow in the water. They're the primary food for most fish. And they are sensitive to changes in the water flow and pollution.

SS: Like in the Mancos last year, there was a fire upstream on a mulching company's property and they dumped a bunch of sediments and organic material into the stream. So we have three years of data from that season that shows what the community was like, and then we got in right after that to collect samples to see how that might have affected it. So when things like that happen, we can get out into the field, hopefully, in enough time to see how the communities reacted, and then use that dataset against our long-term dataset to see how it differs.

KR: Besides just collecting macroinvertebrates, the crew also evaluates the available habitats in the stream. The habitat data helps them understand how the stream itself is changing through time. So, at transects across the stream, the crew will measure the stream's velocity, its depth, the plants on the banks, and how much canopy there is.

[Sound of running water...

Male voice: What's your depth ?

Female voice: ...point zero, six, I'm on a rock...

KR: And how many do you do? How many transects? Just the one?

SS: Eleven.

KR: Oh!]

KR: And then, finally, two crew members will walk the length of the stream picking up 400 pebbles and calling out their diameters to the person recording the data on shore.

[Sound of running water and walking through water

Female voice: ... seven...

Male voice: ...thirty-five...

Female voice: ...thirty- two... ]

KR: So you do a lot of work [laughs] at each reach.

SS: Yes ! Yeah, it takes about nine hours to complete.

KR: Fieldwork on these streams is not always so uneventful.

SS: [Laughs] We got caught in a flash flood in Coyote Gulch, that ended up being the beginning of a death march, through the desert, in the dark. I think we got up on the rim probably around 8:30, and it was 12:30, 1 o'clock when we got back to our cars [laughs]. We had wandered so far out of the way before we realized where we were, and we forgot to take a GPS point of where we parked the truck, so that was our downfall. We were all guessing for a good couple hours where we were. When you're lost, and it's dark, and you're wet, and you have no dry clothes, in your head, you're thinking, well, if we have to sleep out here it's going to be a really, really long night. So... [laughs].

KR: For Stacy, aquatic macroinvertebrate sampling also has other benefits.

KR: Do you have a favorite site?

SS: Oh, it changes from year to year [laughs]. I really like working on [pause] in Glen Canyon on the Escalante. Those streams cut through some of the most beautiful and scenic canyons in the Southwest. Plus they're not as hard to get into, like Grand Canyon [laughs]. There's more reward with little effort [laughs] compared to Grand Canyon.

KR: But ultimately, Stacy says that helping national parks protect their streams and rivers is really the most satisfying part of the job.

SS: We're providing the parks with information that they would otherwise not have. And, you go to a lot of parks, and they're so understaffed that if there is data that's collected in the park, it's in spreadsheets on someone's computer, or in a filing cabinet somewhere, and no one can do anything with it. So we have a program in place across the Park Service now, where we can actively collect data, analyze it and provide useful information to the parks.

KR: Without that data, national parks might not know if the health of their streams is declining. But, with the long-term monitoring data, they can spot problems and then try to fix them. The goal is to keep the limited water in the Southwest clean and healthy for all the life in the national parks.

[Sound of a babbling stream... ]

Integrated Upland Vegetation Monitoring (See transcript below)

To download the MP3 (7 MB), right-click here
then select "Save link as... "

The SCPN monitors vegetation and soils in 9 of the 19 parks of Southern Colorado Plateau Network, with plans to add three more in the future. Since 2007, the Southern Colorado Plateau Network has been annually monitoring vegetation and soils in national parks on the southern Colorado Plateau, focusing on the ecosystems of greatest concern to park managers. In this interview, recorded in August 2010, SCPN botanist Megan Swan describes the objectives and methods used in monitoring upland vegetation; and George San Miguel, natural resource manager for Mesa Verde National Park, explains why monitoring is important to natural resource management.

Duration:  06:04 minutes Expand panel for transcript / Collapse panel

Transcript for Integrated Upland Vegetation Monitoring (click here to read)

Kelly Reeve: It's a hot August morning on a remote mesa top in Mesa Verde National Park. And six National Park Service botanists are getting ready to catalog the ancient trees in this small plot of forest.

[Sound of walking through forest

Female voice: To be a tree, it has to be at least 15, centimeters, so... ]

KR: These pinyon pine and juniper trees may be as old as the pottery shards that we find littered on the ground. Their rough branches and gnarled trunks keep getting in the way as the botanists draw out 50 meters of measuring tape to mark the plot.

[Female voice: We'll do transect "C" first... ]

Megan Swan: I think that you have some plots that are, favorites, some that are kind of nemeses [laughs]

KR: That's Megan Swan. She's the head botanist for the crew. She has been returning to measure the plants and soils in the same plots, every year.

[Sound of hammering

Female voice: ...the pinyons, it's best if he nails it first, and then you measure directly blow, below or above... ]

KR: In each plot, the crew spends three to six hours tagging and measuring the diameters of the trees and the amount of tree canopy; identifying the understory plants and estimating their extent; measuring the amount of bare soil; and testing how well the soil can resist erosion.

MS: It's really an extensive amount of information that we're getting and then we can put that information together to get sort of an overall picture of what's going on on the landscape.

KR: Megan and the rest of the crew sample 110 to 140 plots in nine national parks on the Southern Colorado Plateau every year. The idea is to use the data they collect to track the health of upland ecosystems over the entire region, over a really long period of time.

MS: Yeah, 50 or, 75 years from now, I'd love it if, you know, this project was still ongoing and doing well, and [pause] I certainly wouldn't be here to see it. I mean, hopefully it will go on for a long time, and I think that the longer it goes, the more good information that we'll get out it.

KR: George San Miguel is the natural resource manager for Mesa Verde National Park. He has a particular love of the pinyon-juniper woodlands in the park.

George San Miguel: At Mesa Verde, in areas where there hasn't been any disturbance, such as a fire, or a road access, or some other kind of development, they remain very much pristine. You can walk through the old growth pinyon-juniper woodlands and not find any weeds or any strange oddities in them. They're very old, and so you'll come across these great big trunk trees, that really stand out on the landscape.

KR: These old growth pinyon-juniper trees may have been alive while the ancestral Puebloan people were living in the cliff dwellings. But, the park has only recently begun to really systematically study, and manage, the woodlands.

GS: When people think of Mesa Verde, or they see a photograph of it, they think of the pinyon-juniper woodland as the natural backdrop to the world famous cliff dwellings. But Congress, in its wisdom, in establishing Mesa Verde, also said that one of the purposes for the park was “the preservation from injury or spoliation of all timber, natural curiosities, or wonderful objects within the park and for the protection of the animals and birds". And so, there you have it - one of the purposes of the park is preservation of the timber, which is of course an old expression for the woodlands.

KR: George is worried about the pinyon-juniper woodlands. Only small areas of old-growth pinyon-juniper exist in the west. And unlike other trees out west, pinyons and junipers are easily killed by fire. And fire has been increasing across the west. Pinyon pines are also sensitive to drought - they just can't survive without enough water.

GS: ...and the early part of this decade was extremely, excruciating to witness. We suffered the worst drought in recorded history during the early part of this decade. We are definitely showing that, with a warming climate, we saw a big die-off of pinyon trees, which are a very important part of the ecology of the park. Changing climates means more disturbances, whether they are minor disturbances, or major disturbances, like a wild fire, all of those kinds of things in combination are leading to a very altered environment. That means that the communities are not recognizable in some places...

KR: One of the first steps in protecting pinyon-juniper woodlands is to measure all the changes to the plants and soils that are occurring over time. Megan and her crew are doing this now. If they find a problem, park managers, like George San Miguel, can try to find solutions to heal the damage.

MS: Well, the purpose of our program is to provide good scientific data to park managers. So, in that case, we'll be presenting that information to the relevant natural resource managers in the parks, and they'll be able to use that data to decide the course of action that they want to take, individually, and also region-wide.

KR: The inventory and monitoring program that Megan Swan is a part of doesn't just monitor plants and soils. They also keep track of other signs of ecosystem health, like birds, water quality, aquatic macroinvertebrates, and springs. And this effort isn't just taking place over the Southern Colorado Plateau. It is part of a nation-wide effort across all national parks to systematically inventory and monitor important natural resources in the parks for decades to come.

[Sound of crew working in the woodland, sound of hammering]

KR: For the crews on the ground collecting all this data, that means that they get to visit the same spots every year.

MS: And yeah, I think that, we get to go to a lot of neat areas in the parks that the average person doesn't get to go to, and so it is sort of neat to be doing these same backcountry hikes year after year. You do kind of feel at home, I think.

KR: And like in any home, the crew has to monitor the plants and soils, for wear and tear over time, so that the parks can protect them for the future.

Glen Canyon - Mulitple camera locations

(click on image for a larger view)

Click here to see a complete list of live webcams at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Photos are updated every 10-15 minutes.

Grand Canyon National Park - Yavapai Point (looking northwest)

(click on image for a larger view)

Grand Canyon National Park Yavapai Point Webcam (looking northwest)

Click here to see a larger image, current weather, and air quality information for Yavapai Point.

Webcam is maintained by the NPS Air Resources Division. Photos are updated approximately every 15 minutes.

Mesa Verde National Park - Spruce House

(click on image for a larger view)

Mesa Verde National Park - Spruce House

Click here to see a complete list of live webcams at Mesa Verde. Photos are updated every 10-15 minutes.

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