Sedona Westerners in the Red Rock News

November 18, 2011

Walking Respectfully on the Land


by Joan Scott

The dark crust on the soil in the photo, is called "cryptobiotic soil crust." A combination of soil bacteria, algae, fungi, lichens and often mosses, it holds soil in place, lessening erosion where it exists. Less developed colonies are slowly growing below and to the right of the main patch. The crusts are fragile, and walking on them is damaging. Photo by Joan Scott.

As the club editor this season for the articles that the Sedona Westerners Hiking Club sends to the Red Rock News, I recruit writers, and do editor-type things before submitting the articles. Since no one signed up for this week, it is an opportunity to dedicate a column to a topic other than the usual description of a good hike. I began to think about all the issues that come up as we hike on and through this red rock country, that have to do with “Walking Respectfully on the Land.” There actually is more that will have to be saved for another opportunity. This is a start.

Our rocky, dry, pinion-juniper “transition-zone” is more fragile than many people realize. Sandstone breaks and crumbles, and our gullies and washes are testament to the power of even occasional water. The erosional power of feet and bikes is obvious on heavily used trails. About four million visitors visit the area annually, and if half of them are out on the trails, the impact is enormous.

The view of Coffee Pot Rock from Airport Mesa on a day last winter on which it is best to observe the beauty from pavement or shelter. As we get snowy and wet weather, trails become muddy and dangerous. Letting them dry out before hiking is respectful care of the land and of ourselves. Photo by Joan Scott.

A small but important responsibility is to watch were we step when it is necessary to step off the trail. If you look down at undisturbed ground around desert shrubs off the trails, you will see, in many places, clumps of soil covered with a brownish-blackish, organic-looking top. This is “cryptobiotic soil crust,” a complex mix of soil bacteria, algae, fungi, lichens, and even mosses that is found in arid regions. These crusts are important stabilizers of soil, and help hold moisture. Though they hold soil in place, they themselves are extremely fragile. A footprint can destroy or damage a crust, creating one more destabilized spot where wind and water erosion control is lost. We know that natural restructuring of the cryptobiotic crust takes years; therefore, the Westerners try hard to avoid walking on it and urge all walkers to value its presence.

A concern voiced by Jennifer Burns of the Red Rock Ranger District, when I spoke with her prior to writing this article, is hikers and mud. Wet days create trail conditions that not only can be slippery (and dangerous), but muddy. Use of trails that are muddy creates ruts and ridges. The trails dry out fairly quickly, but northern exposures and hollows stay icy and wet longer. As hikers and bikers step or ride off trail in order to go around muddy spots, an ever-widening mess is created. Certainly, going around a messy, muddy spot on a trail is logical, but it is worth trying to step on rocks or sticks or grass clumps. Be aware of doing least damage. Consider the recent weather and the trail exposures when making plans, and be kind to yourself and the soil. And, Jennifer asks that we please observe trail closures and barriers.

Unfortunately, some persons have little respect for others or the land, spoiling the beauty around us with spray-painted graffiti on boulders and cliff walls. Just because it is a name or a heart, doesn’t make it OK, Some is downright obscene. The Westerners act as eyes and ears for the Forest Service while we are on the trails, and volunteers assist with requested graffiti removal projects. The Service does want the public to report graffiti, but asks that we do not attempt cleanup or removal on our own. Abrasive rubbing or certain chemicals can do further damage.

The Westerners always welcome new members. If you are interested in joining the club, log onto our website,, for membership information. You may also join at one of our monthly meetings. Our regular meeting will be on Thursday, Jan.12, beginning at 7p.m. at the Jewish Community of Sedona and the Verde Valley Center, 100 Meadowlark Drive, Sedona.