I’ve been living and working with my trail crew 24-7 for the past five weeks. For the past few years my jobs have been incredibly solitary and autonomous (working as a backcountry ranger in Maine and working with dogs in Boston) This crew leading job has been a big change to say the least, but I’ve enjoyed adapting to it. We were camped in the most remote parts of Dinosaur National Monument on the Utah/Colorado border for the first month and now we are working up at 13,800+ feet on spalding peak in Mt. Evans Wilderness. I usually only blog when I’m thru-hiking (or obsessing about it) but I’m still living in my tent 7 days a week, working and exploring in the depths of the American West. This means I’m face to face with the subjects I often think and write about.
The Dinosaur NM project was a fencing project. I knew there was a potential for getting fencing work when I took this crew leader job, but I didn’t expect to be doing it for an entire month. Thru-hiking has left me a fervent loather of the barbed wire fence. They are everywhere in the west, new ones old one’s. Their two main purposes are to mark boundary lines (BLM, forest service, park service, private property and everything else) and to prevent cattle from crossing those lines. Some areas in the west have open ranges where cattle roam freely about, hang out in the middle of highways and whatnot, it’s great, but most areas are endless grids of fenceline. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog I’ve seen wildlife scarred and bloody from crossing fence lines. I’ve watched less athletic like animals like bear, buffalo, and pregnant elk pacing around remote fancelines, sometimes following them for miles, looking for places to cross. On the CDT I gashed myself open several times crossing fences, on the Grand Enchantment Trail some days it was an hourly hurdle. The constant presence of barbed wire fences leaves a sour flavor on the palate of those seeking to explore these american landscapes.
The reasoning behind the barbs on the wire of these fences has to do with the cattle. In the 1800’s farmers tried lining their properties with thorned Osage Orange shrubs to prevent cattle from destroying crops but they took many years to grow and proved a poor solution. Using smooth wire fences also was attempted but the cattle pushed on through them as they pleased.
Before the barbed wire boom there was a “law of the open range” which was more of an unwritten understanding of the west. Cattle roamed freely and were branded so they could be identified and the cattlemen went out on their epic cattle drives, sometimes hundreds of miles, from the vast wildernesses to cities where cattle were sold and hauled off on trains. An absence of fences was necessary for these journeys as well as for the cattle to graze and find water. It was the farmers who were advocates of the barbed wire and began fencing off their property which lead to hostilities between them and the cattlemen. In 1881 the “fence-cutting wars” began. Cowboys assembled gangs that went out at night cutting whatever fences they could find. This lasted for four years. Eventually fence cutting became a felony and the war was more or less lost. The barbed wire fence didn’t only entirely disrupt the way of life of the cowboys but it aided in the near extinction of the buffalo (disrupting grazing/migration patterns) which also in turn devastated many native american tribe’s way of life.
This all being said, the fact that I was going to be building barbed wire fences in remote high deserts for an entire month greatly disturbed me. Many of my crew members had similar feelings about fences and it was my job to motivate them to do the work. The fences we built were the boundary of the national monument and BLM land. Luckily we were building wildlife friendly fences; the bottom wire was smooth and the top wire coated in a white rubber which makes it easier for wildlife to detect and jump, but still a barrier for livestock. The middle two strands remain barbed. This made it a bit easier to justify to my crew. In some places we were building new fence like this, and in others we were repairing old fence and adding the wildlife friendly features.
To give readers an idea of how frequent wildlife deaths occur due to barbed wire fences here are some statistics I found from a 2006 research project by Harrington & Connover: The study analyzed 1,200 miles of fence along roads in Utah and Colorado: They found that one antelope died per year for every 5.6 miles of fence, one mule deer for every 7.8 miles of fence, and one elk for every 10.8 miles of fence. This adds up to one dead animal for every 2.5 miles of fence which is a disturbing statistic. This previous statistic doesn’t include their findings on the number of hooved animals found lying dead beside fences (previous statistics were for animals tangled in fences); one death per 1.2 miles of fence, an insane number. 90% of these deaths are young fawns separated from and abandoned by their mothers when unable to cross a fence line.
Because we were fortunate enough to be building less detrimental fence the biggest moral opposition to the work for some members was the cutting of the corridor which consisted of removing the vegetation within about five feet of the fence on either side. The vast majority of the vegetation was sagebrush which has no trouble growing back, but while hacking away at these plants the habitats of many birds, rodents and insects were destroyed so they had my sympathy and I did my best to put them on different tasks. The hardest part of my job for this first month was by far supervising work that my crew members were opposed to on various levels. Now we’re building stone staircases and closing social trails at high elevation and this is no longer an issue.
Fences in the west just kind of suck. Without them the national parks, national forests and wildernesses would get over grazed just like all the public and private lands that cattle currently do graze on. With the fences we have unwelcoming eye sores that are hazardous to wildlife and grid off our country. What a predicament! The solution is…go vegan? Without the cattle there’d be no need for the fences. I believe this, but..I’m stepping into an issue far to complex and riddled with subtleties to go on with. Ranching cattle has been a way of life in our country for generations and its not going anywhere. Fences suck. That’s my point. I don’t have solutions to offer. I will say that there are barbed wire fences in many places where they are not needed. It seems many landowners, parks, and other land management agencies use barbed wire when none is necessary. I recently took my crew on a cross country hike from some state land outside of moab and into Arches National Park. When we got to the remote park boundary there was no fence to be found. There were simple little cairns of rocks holding up “park boundary” markers. There was no physical barrier. It was great.
Even though the work was less than desirable (and I’m almost ashamed to have become an expert at it!) we were camped out in beautiful landscapes I never would have seen without the job. I’ve driven by and briefly visited Dinosaur National Monument in the past and my impression was that it was a respectable, oddly shaped, piece of grooved desert on the CO/UT border. Now that I’ve spent a considerable amount of time in parts of the park so remote that the senior staff has never even ventured there I’ve developed a greater appreciation for the place.
The first stretch of the project we spent camped near Zanobia peak, an angular mountain topped with a firetower manned. To get there we drove our vans and trailers two hours on rocky rutted old jeep roads until we couldn’t make it any further and from there we were shuttled about seven miles in ATV’s and park service trucks. From our worksite we overlooked the Green River and Yampa River valleys, as well as Lodore Canyon. The canyons in this area are tremendously deep, gouged like erratic knife marks in clay. One day we hiked to the firetower on Zanobia peak. We hiked up from our worksite and followed a barren ridgeline for a few miles to get there. All around us, above the deep red canyons were mountains marked by red and yellow cliffs and ridges of oddly piled rock formations. The valleys looked soft, soley vegetated by sage brush, then the hillsides become forested with juniper and piñon until they begin to peak out and are barren along the ridgelines. Cattle could be heard moaning somewhere far far below in the Zanobia basin. At the firetower the jolly yet hermetic watchman gave us a little tour of his stilted abode. Like the other fire towers I’ve been to, it was full of a queer assortment of old equipment and maps. The centerpiece was an ancient looking Osborne Fire Finder, a circular map with two metal sightings positioned on opposite sides of the map that rotate together, letting the watchman decipher the distance and azimuth of nearby fires.
Our second stint in Dino was even more scenic and remote than the first. We were camped on a high ridgeline that extends from Wild Mountain. To one side this ridge looked over Jones Hole, a picturesque canyon of sinuous white beige and yellow cliffs. On the other side it overlooks the Canyon of Lodore from the opposite side as our Zanobia project. Easy hikes along pristine ridgelines from our camp lead to towering cliffs that overlooked these incredible canyons that descend 3000 feet to the rivers below. Landscape is landscape, to attempt to translate into text is unsuited. I’ve fantasized about creating a zig-zagging cross country route for myself in this little traveled park, but these immense vertical cliffs that accompany almost every geographic feature seem problematic. Who knows, perhaps I’ll try.
Each morning we woke up a half hour before the sun crept cooly over the eastern ridges, most of us rising from our unsheltered sleeping bags into brisk morning air. If it weren’t for the location of this project I would probably be unemployed. I love existing in the desert. The fine pale dirt in my mouth, on my skin, on every inch of all of us as we did mind numbing work in the desert, carrying 70lb spools of barbed wire, one after the other, up and down steep slopes of sage and prickly pear, pounding T-post after T post, digging post holes into dense rocky ground, we all let some of the landscape in, and in some sort of desert fueled ecstatic misery we made it through a difficult month of work. In the future I hope my only work with barbed wire fences is personal, involving only wire cutters and a vendetta against the barbed gridlock of the west.
Nate Dawgy Dizzle