City Creek Nature Notes – Salt Lake City

July 11, 2017

July 7th

The Cheat Grass Sea and Floods

(Continuation from July 6th). Before me at the Dry Fork pass are two miles of Cheat grass covered foothills that is two feet tall in some places. The cheat grass zone extends for a mile on either side of the ridge, crosses the salient’s ridgeline into City Creek and descends for another one-half mile. It is broken by the City Creek stream. On the western salient, the cheat grass begins again between a few hundred feet and one-half mile from the stream. Here, it is broken by the Gambel’s oak forest and chaparral. Then the cheat grass lands continue continues up and over the ridge to North Salt Lake beyond the west facing slope. For twenty-five minutes, I travel along the Bonneville Shoreline Trail as it winds around gullies and “noses”, and the Cheat grass sea is occasionally interrupted by remnants of native Wild bunchgrass, native Bluebunch wheatgrass and imported Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis). Eventually, the trail reaches the head of Perry’s Hollow, a small one and one-half mile canyon that empties near 11th Avenue above the City Cemetery. Although the heat is pounding, the clear air above the intensifying air pollution of a summer inversion layer clears the soul, and the views of the city and the lake beyond clears the mind.

Naturalist and Pulitzer Prize winner Wallace Stegner grew up in part in Salt Lake City. Checking old City Polk’s directories some years ago, I determined that he lived across from Liberty Park on 700 East Street and in his semi-autobiographical “Recapitulation”, he later resided in the Avenues not far from where I live. In his “Sound of Mountain Water,” he recounts his boyhood exploits in Big Cottonwood Canyon eight miles to the south of this pass. I like to imagine that Stegner also wandered the foothills that I jog through today. Although to my knowledge, Stegner never specifically wrote about Cheat grass, he grew up in Salt Lake City as this invasive arrived and took over the foothills. Cheat grass was not introduced into Utah until 1890, and by 1932, dominated in Salt Lake County (June 10th). In his youth, Stegner must have witnessed the cheat grass transformation of these foothills, and at times, I wonder if such experiences forged Stegner’s later resolve to preserve the outdoors.

From the 1920s through the 1960s, a core of Utah botanists and ecologists, including C. L. Forsling at the U.S. Intermountain Forest and Range Experiment Station in Logan and botany Professor Walter Cottam at University of Utah along with Stegner and Utah’s Bernard DeVoto dedicated themselves to creating a record of this western environmental catastrophe (Flores, 173). The Cheat grass invasion was not limited to Utah and included the other Intermountain states, like Arizona. In the 1960s, Stegner went on to write his famous “Wilderness Letter”, and Stegner and Arizonia Senator Stewart Udall’s key roles in the passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act are well known. Both of their youths corresponded with the demise of the western rangelands to the Cheat grass invasion, and this must have been part of their motivation to preserve pockets of pristine lands through the passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act. Thus, it may be because of the Cheat grass that infests City Creek Canyon and the ridgeline above the Avenues, that we enjoy the national system of wilderness areas throughout today’s western United States.

Sometime in the future, these Cheat grass lands above the Avenues will burn, and floods will again threaten the homes below, as they have in the past, e.g. – the 1945 Avenues flood (see August 19th, 1945) – in which a three foot wall of water mixed with 300 lb boulders came through the cemetery and down “M” Street in front of my residence (Craddock 1945, Salt Lake Telegram, August 8, 1945). Damage to the City was estimated at 300,000 USD in 1945, or about 4 million USD today. Depending on which part of the ridgeline burns, those cloudburst floods may not have this devastating effect of the 1945. After the 1945 flood, the city erected a flood dam across lower Perry’s Hollow to catch such future flood. An old quarry at 11th Avenue and North Terrace Hills Street was converted into a park, and a sunken soccer field doubles as flood retention basin.

Where did the Cheat grass come from? As discussed below, Utah’s early grazing resource exploitation era of the early 1900s brought the invasive Cheat grass to the state, and as a consequence, the livestock grazing industry bequeathed an annual, perpetual cost of between 20 to 40 million USD to Utah taxpayers in order to fight Cheat grass wildfires. Southern Utah ranchers are a core constituency group of Utah’s Sagebrush Rebellion, a movement that seeks to turn over all federal lands in Utah to state government. By taking title to federal lands, Utah grazing and other resource dependent industries hope to return to an era of higher extraction rates. Their political rhetoric of individualism and free-market economy principles harkens back to their nineteenth century roots. When I hear their arguments in media reports, I can only think of the Cheat grass fields on the ridgelines above City Creek Canyon stream and the 20 to 40 million USD of annual corporate welfare that ranchers receive in free fire suppression services. Through their cattle operator ancestors’ careless thoughtlessness that cost has been moved to Utah taxpayers. In order to understand the western Sagebrush Rebellion, one needs some historical knowledge to put their arguments into perspective. They and their ancestors have already ruined the Utah’s grass lands once before.

Notwithstanding the Cheat grass invasion of the western States, pockets of pristine grasslands remain. “Then and now” matched photographs made by University of Utah graduate student Gary Rogers in 1982 compared with geologist Karl Grove Gilbert’s 1901 photographs show many outlying areas in Utah’s west deserts, including the House Mountains (Rogers, Plate 12), at Fish Springs (Plate 9), in the Dugway Mountains (Plate 8) and east of Grantsville (Plate 5), escaped the Cheat grass invasion (Rogers 1982). The comparison photographs of these outlying areas show unchanged vegetation over an eighty-year period.

* * * *

Per Thoreau’s “Journal” on July 7th, 1851, he notes a pause in the blooming of flowering plants and that birds are singing less. He notes how the Moon causes shadows under elms. On July 7th, 1852, he notes loud bird song at 4 a.m. He describes morning dew in a fog and notes many cobwebs on grass. He describes many flowering plants of the summer season.

* * * *

Cheat grass on the ridgeline above the City may have played a central role in the Utah’s history and, in part, motivated the passage of of the 1964 Wilderness Act (1985). As explained during the spring on June 10th, cheat grass was not introduced into Utah until 1890, and by 1932, this invasive weed was present in all Utah counties, but was only dominate in Salt Lake County (id). What happened over those forty years to so widely distribute this weed? University of Utah biologist Cottam noted that in the 1940s, there were about 650,000 head of cattle and 3,800,000 head of sheep grazing on Utah rangelands (Cottam 1947, Fig. 1). Retired USDA ecologist Hull summarized the history of Utah ranching. From a maximum of about 9,000 grazing permittees in 1918, livestock grazing permit holders declined to about 5,000 in 1939 following years of extreme drought, and only three permittees had more than 600 head (Hull 1976 at 5). In 1936, the United States Department of Agriculture released its seminal “Western Range Letter” report announcing the virtual collapse of western rangelands from overgrazing in the western United States, including Utah (United States Forest Service 1936). The Report provided the factual basis justifying the passage of the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 that provided for the regulation of grazing on federal lands. But overgrazing since the turn of the century had already led to a cycle of grass fires that allowed the aggressive cheat grass invader to rapidly replace native grasses (Pickford, 1932; Monson and Kitchen, 24). Cheat grass re-burns at a higher frequency (Monson and Kitchen), and this created a feedback loop in which cattle would overgraze, cheat grass would be established and quickly burn, cattle would be driven to other allotments, and cheat grass completely replaces native grasses in expanding burn areas (Rogers 1982). The consequence today is that cheat grass dominates much of the state’s grasslands, including the ridgelines of the Salt Lake salient and its slopes leading down to City Creek Canyon’s stream.

Where Cheat grass overruns foothills and lowlands and then burns, rainfall runoff can increase by 9 to 100 percent, and this transports great mount of sediments to the valley floors that settle into sheets three feet deep (Nicoli and Lundeen 2016, Craddock 1945). Where overgrazing and invasive grasses occurred at the headwaters of the Wasatch Front Mountain Range canyons, fires are followed by similar increases in run-off that historically have sent great waves of flood waters and mud flows into cities at a canyon’s base (Hull 1976, Cottam 1947, Honker 1994, Honker 1999). Early Mormon settlers did not understand these relationship between overgrazing, fire, and floods, and by 1930, thirteen early Mormon towns were destroyed and may have been abandoned due to such overgrazing and fire induced flooding (Flores 1985 at 171). Utah overgrazing also caused desertification. Over 7,000 cattle were grazed in the Tooele valley during the early 1900s, within a few years, the valley was quickly denuded, and in the 1930s, after Tooele valley turned into the nation’s only dustbowl west of the midwest, the Soil Conservation Service speculated that the town of Grantsville would have to be abandoned (Flores, 172). After a large 2008 grass fire in Skull Valley west of Salt Lake City, created at 3 foot high alluvial fan (Nicoli and Lundeen). The greatest economic impact of the Cheat grass invasion has been on the sheep industry. Sheep stocks are presently only 10 percent of their peak in the 1930, and although cattle levels remain at historic levels, available permitted lands are greatly restricted. The cycle of historical overgrazing, Cheat grass invasion, Cheat grass fire, and subsequent flood also damages Salt Lake City.

The August 7th, 1945 cloudburst flood that ran down Perry’s Hollow and through the Avenues is exemplar of a western fire and cloudburst flood. Such floods caused by the concurrence of two two rare events – an earlier Cheat grass fire that denudes the foothills followed by an unusually severe summer cloudburst rain storm over the denuded area. The first element is fire. There have been many fires over 100 acres in size over the last 100 years either in City Creek or on the Avenues ridgeline. On July 29, 2008, 180 acres burned in lower City Creek Canyon (Salt Lake Tribune and KSL, July 31st, 2008). On July 22nd, 1992, 150 acres burned on the Avenues-City Creek ridge near Tomahawk Drive (Salt Lake Tribune, July 23, 1992). A series of July 7, 1953 photographs at the University of Utah Digital Archives collection shows a fire in the 50 acre range under Ensign Peak. On July 2nd, 1951, a forest fire “covering a wide area” raged in City Creek Canyon for three to four miles above the Salt Capitol building (Salt Lake Telegram). In 1944, the near 400 acre grass fire in Perry’s Hollow preceded the 1945 flood. On July 13th, 1912 Salt Lake Tribune reported a large fire burned between City Creek and Dry Fork Canyons. The August 20, 1898, Salt Lake Tribune reported a fifteen square mile fire that swept up City Creek towards Bountiful. Craddock described state of Perry’s Hollow after the 1945 grass fire and flood, citing the historical pattern of overgrazing that led to the Cheat grass invasion of Salt Lake’s foothills (Craddock at 58):

Inspection of the flood-producing watersheds revealed the plant cover to be in a seriously deteriorated condition notwithstanding many years of protection from livestock grazing and conscientious attempts to control fires. Three stages of impairment were observed.

* * * *

Roughly 10 percent of the watershed – including extensive slopes in the lower portion of the basins and parts of the ridge tops, roads, and mined areas – are virtually devoid of vegetation and litter as a result of grazing abuse in earlier years, old and new mining activity, and both old and recent fires.

* * * *

Fully 80 percent of the area, including all but patches of headwater slopes and portions of lower benchlands, was burned last fall. This fire killed many of the native bunchgrasses which had reinvaded the area since its closure to grazing (Craddock at 58).

The second element is cloudburst rain: With respect to Perry’s Hollow and the fall of 1944, USDA forester George Craddock estimated that about 300 acres of 388 acres in Perry’s Hollow burned (Craddock 1945, Salt Lake Telegram Aug. 8, 1945), and when coupled with a severe cloudburst storm that deposited 3.5 inches of rain in 15 minutes in the summer of 1945 (Craddock 1945), a three foot wall of water came down M Street (Salt Lake City Telegram, August 8, 1945). An incredible 2,400 cubic feet per second came out of Perry’s Hollow in 1945 (Craddock). In comparison, the 1983 snowmelt flood of City Creek peaked at 331 cubic feet per second. Craddock estimated that in 1945, runoff from East and West Valley View Canyons (at the top of North Terrace Drive) that did not burn did not show any increased runoff.

In a 1946 report on northern Utah cloudburst floods issued in response to the Perry’s Hollow flood, Wooley listed numerous cloudbursts that flooded the City through the Avenues, from City Creek Canyon, and along the west-facing Salt Lake salient north of the City (Wooley 1946). Summer cloudburst floods included: June 13th, 1854 (city streets flooded), September 11th, 1864 (heavy flooding of North Temple from City Creek), August 25th, 1872 (downtown flooded), July 23, 1874 (downtown flooded from City Creek), August 1, 1874 (Lindsey Gardens areas flooded as in 1945), August 8, 1884 (North Temple flooded from City Creek), July 26, 1893 (cloudburst flooded basements in city), July 19, 1912 (1 inch feel in 1 hour filling South Temple with sand and mud from above), July 25, 1916 (cloudburst sent 10 foot wall of water into city along with mud, boulders and cattle), July 30, 1930 (cloudburst over Emigration, Red Butte, and Parley’s Canyons washes out highway north of Salt Lake and washes away three homes with damages of $500,000), August 13, 1931 (Four to 12 inches of water swept through streets and 12 feet of debris washed over road near Beck Hot Springs).

Once established, it is almost impossible to restore Cheat grass infested lands to their original state (Monson and Kitchen 1992). Partial restoration can be achieved with great effort and expense (Monson and Kitchen 1992, Pellant 1996). The land must be burned, disced to twelve inches in depth, chemically treated, and then reseeded with native grasses (Pellant 1996, Young and Clements 2009 at Chaps. 10-12). Remediation is generally restricted to flat lands where disc equipped tractors can be run, but the discing operation has been done experimentally on slopes of thirty degrees in inclination (Monson and Kitchen 1992). Retired USDA researcher Hull complains that conversation groups do not understand the economic value of grasslands and the need to restore grasslands using chemicals (Hull 1976 at 19). Professional land managers Young and Clements assert that herbicides and reseeding have successfully resorted western Cheat grass infested lands, but they claim that Congress refuses to expend funds necessary to chemically restore the rangelands due to pressure from environmental groups (Young and Clements at 178).

In 2015, there were about 780,000 cattle and 285,000 sheep in Utah, or about one-fourth the level reported by Cottam in 1947 (Utah Department of Agriculture and Food 2016 at 46). In 2012, Utah had 3,412 cattle operators and 2,838 beef operators, although the overlap between these two groups is not known (id, 45). In 2014, Utah’s agriculture production and processing sectors directly and indirectly contribute about 15 percent of the state’s gross state product, or 21 billion USD out of a total gross state product of 140 billion USD (Ward 2016). Direct cash receipts from raising cattle was about 750 million USD (id), and the manner in which sector analysis is reported prevents allocating a portion of related direct and indirect economic activity from that cattle production annual sales of 750 million USD (less than 0.5 percent of state GSP) to the 21 billion USD of activity for the entire sector. Prorating total direct and indirect economic impact to the 21,000 directly or indirectly employed in beef production (Ward) suggests that approximately 6,300 persons (750M/21B x 21,000) are directly or indirectly employed in cattle and beef production, again a small fraction of Utah’s total laborers.

With respect to the public costs of Cheat grass, based on a 2013 estimate, the State of Utah and the federal government spend 83 million USD per year fighting wildfires in Utah (see June 10th; Stambro et al, 2014, Chap. 9). Although the percentage of those expenditures that could be avoided if native grasses had not been supplanted by fast-cycling and hot-burning Cheat grass, fifty percent seems a reasonable working estimate. Utah’s grazing resource exploitation era of the early twentieth bequeathed an annual and perpetual legacy of, for first-order discussion purposes, of between 20 to 40 million USD.

There was another unexpected environmental change, which might be counted as either a public cost or benefit, depending on one’s point-of-view. On their 1847 arrival in Utah, the Euro-American colonists found massive populations of now extinct Rocky Mountain locusts (Melanoplus spretus) (March 6th). The locust infestations continuing until the turn of the century, but the locust’s population’s disappearance coincides with the massive cattle grazing operations begun in the 1870s. The modification of Utah’s rangeland habitat is a likely causal factor in the locust’s extinction.

Cattle operators have disproportionate political power in the state. As part of gerrymandering in Utah in 1980s, pie-shaped districts were created that radiate from the urban core in downtown Salt Lake City to rural ranching areas in southern Utah (Daley 2016). The United States congressional district that I reside in encompasses cattle operators in Blanding the southeast corner of the state, but my neighbors who live a few miles away, share another congressional district that includes ranchers outside of St. George, Utah in the southwest corner of the state. The purpose of this gerrymandering was to dilute Democratic voters and assure that ultra-conservative, hyper free-market views dominate Utah’s political power (see Daley). Southern Utah ranchers have long been a vocal minority behind the “Sagebrush Rebellion” that seeks to transfer all federal lands in Utah to state control (Flores, 173 and n. 49), and legislation to affect that transfer periodically resurfaces, e.g. – Utah Senator Orin Hatch in 1980 and the state’s 2012 Utah Transfer of Public Lands Act (Utah Code Ann. Secs. 63L-6-101 et seq., Deseret News, March 6th, 2017). Elite Utah urban politicians often rely on southern Utah ranchers and their complaints about grazing regulations as a cultural symbol of some supposed past golden-age in which markets and individual rights operated free of alleged over-reaching governmental rules.

In response to ranchers’ needs to continually expand operations and the increasing expense of fighting rural fires, the State has adopted a catastrophic wildfire reduction strategy (Utah Department of Agriculture and Food 2013). Utah’s Department of Natural Resources funds demonstration projects to rehabilitate grazing lands with natives when invasive grass caused range fires occur. Typically, rehabilitation occurs in southwestern Utah fire-burned areas and at the interface between the cheat grass ocean and newly expanding residential subdivisions.

For Brian Head, Utah, wildfire abatement came to late. In 2013, the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire, and State Lands and Iron County submitted a 10 million USD proposal to treat 8,875 acres (approx. 1,125 USD per acre) to the Department of Agriculture and Food, and thus, to create a one-half mile wildfire-protection buffer around that ski town (Utah Division of Forestry, Fire, and State Lands and Iron County, 2013). In June 2017, a homeowner, who attempted to clear fire prone grasses around his cabin using a private burn, started a fire that consumed 72,000 acres (Cedar City Spectrum, July 11th, 2017).

* * * *

On July 7, 1953, the west side of Ensign Peak burned in a grass fire covering approximately 20 acres (Porschatis 1953). In an editorial dated July 7, 1889, the Salt Lake Herald opposed an order by the District Court compelling the City to dispose of surplus land on the dry North Bench, the present day Avenues, even though the land will not include water rights (Salt Lake Herald).


Create a free website or blog at