Toward an Understanding of Mountain Recreation Ecosystems and Key Services—Joshua Kesling

Jordan Pines Recreation Area with Moose, situated near the top of Big Cottonwood Canyon, Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest (Joshua Kesling 2024)

It is just before 6:00 am, and the sun has not yet greeted subalpine fir and quaking aspen tops, although they eagerly await the warm embrace. Freezing water races through riffle-pool sequences, flossing interstices full of non-vascular specialists. Lichen and moss thrive just above the water line. Despite the golden sun’s absence, moose traipse across moist ecotones, seeking fresh willow browse and the rushing channelized snowmelt. Normally, moose, black bears, and mountain lions, amongst other ground-dwelling species would flit through these riverine systems splaying into wetland complexes. These ‘so-called’ normal behaviors are endangered because dense human presence precipitates hurried and frenzied reactions. Similarly, public recreation sites are also invaluable and growingly endangered resources, as urban centers rapidly displace natural spaces. Our exposure to forests, mountains, grasslands, streams, and shorelines supports cardinal place-based identities, provides Indigenous connections to traditional resource sites, and grows environmental literacy, among others, so we must find ways to co-exist while accessing nature-based opportunities.

Big Cottonwood Creek sits in one of the busiest, most accessible, and largest National Forests in the Intermountain West. The Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest stretches across Northwestern Utah into Southeastern Wyoming, receiving tens of millions of visitors annually. This critical tributary and riparian environment provides hundreds of thousands with a myriad of well-known material benefits like drinking water, freshwater fish protein, and timber products. Mountain streams also provide visitors with numerous recreational opportunities, ranging from angling in subalpine areas to picnicking along rocky shorelines. Despite residing in one of Utah’s most protected watersheds, Big Cottonwood Creek is not immune to the gradual, often indirect, and unseen recreational effects. A protected watershed often disallows activities known to quickly worsen ecological quality, when compared to other uses. For instance, in the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, any form of contact with the stream’s water column is strictly prohibited. Although fishing occurs in great abundance, outdoor recreationists cannot wade, swim, in-stream walk, or engage in other activities with the potential to influence water quality integrity. Moreover, visitors cannot bring cats or dogs into protected watersheds because of concerns arising from water quality impairment related to urination and defecation. Finally, all campsites and campers must remain a minimum of 200 feet from Big Cottonwood Creek’s shoreline, so as not to threaten the water quality’s integrity.

Jordan Pines Recreation Area nestled next to a heavily trafficked roadway (Joshua Kesling, 2024)

In the subsequent post, I will explain some key qualitative signs of recreational overuse as they relate to riparian and stream ecosystems. Through a series of visuals depicting mixed “states”  of shoreline substrate and vegetation, I will delve into how discrete disturbances shape system integrity. Furthermore, the post will describe why probing human-wildlife interactions enhances our understanding of the complex and dynamic interactions occurring across mountain landscapes. Thank you for tuning into this commentary, I value your time and interest in this conservation work.