Friday, December 2, 2016

A Pioneering Geologist on Uinta Plants


Required reading for my recent trip to the Uinta Mountains included several reports from early exploratory expeditions. The Uintas are rich in this kind of literature—the great pioneering geologists Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden, Frank Emmons (working for Clarence King), and John Wesley Powell all passed through in the decade after the American Civil War. Their writing is scientific and filled with detail. But it's not boring, infused as it is with the excitement of discovery. Passing through the same landscapes, camping by the same rivers, pondering the same outcrops, I feel some of that excitement myself.

Though these men were geologists, they didn’t ignore plants. Usually they had a botanist along, or at least someone capable of collecting and preparing specimens. Those specimens that survived the rigors of travel were sent to experts, who studied and identified them, perhaps describing much-coveted “novelties”—species new to science. A plant list was included in the final report. The leaders themselves recognized the more common plants, and they often described the vegetation of the areas they passed through, in addition to geology, wildlife, natural resources, and any people they encountered.

In September of 1870, Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden led his US Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories into Brown’s Hole—the broad valley of the Green River in the eastern Uinta Mountains (now Browns Park):
“There is but little timber along the immediate valley of Green River—only a few bitter cottonwoods and willows; but on the hills there is a thick growth of the low piñon and cedars. … in the valley, there is a universal growth of the sage, (Artemisia tridentata,) greasewood, (Sarcobatus vermicularis, ) and Linosyris.
When I visited Browns Park 146 years later, also in September, I found the vegetation much the same. There were occasional stands of bitter cottonwoods (today’s narrowleaf and lanceleaf) along the Green River, and pinyons and “cedars” (junipers) covered the hills. In the valley bottom, sagebrush and greasewood were extremely common. But Linosyris? I had never heard of this “universal growth” plant. Yet there was nothing common I didn’t recognize. Did geologist Hayden really know what he was talking about? Was Linosyris a misidentification?

A google search revealed that Linosyris grows in Asia, Europe and Great Britain. There are no species native to North America. But when I looked at images, I realized Hayden probably was correct … probably he was just another victim of nomenclatural change.

According to Google, the three plants below are called "linosyris." What very common plant of the basins of the American West do you think Hayden saw? [1. Type specimen of Linosyris (Aster) grimmii from Turkestan, Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle; 2. Galleta linosyris (“goldilocks”); 3. Linosyris villosa, Russia, maybe today's Aster oleifolius.]

As botany students, we’re repeatedly assured that scientific (Latin) names avoid the horrendous ambiguity of common names. But then when we go out into the real world, we quickly learn that these names change too, as taxonomists study and reclassify plants. To make things worse, experts don’t always agree. Old literature is especially challenging.

But Hayden’s Linosyris puzzle was easy to solve. In the “Catalogue of Plants” at the end of the report was Linosyris graveolens, under Compositae (Aster family). graveolens and compositae were the final clues. This is our rubber rabbitbrush, Ericameria nauseosa var. graveolens, which used to be a member of the genus Linosyris.

Rabbitbrush is extremely common in Browns Park. It definitely qualifies as “universal growth”—especially in September when it’s covered in flowers.
Bright golden floral displays can’t be missed.
Rubber rabbitbrush in morning sun.
Stems have a felt-like covering of dense white hairs.
As you may have guessed, rabbits like rabbitbrush. In fact, many wildlife species benefit from its abundance. Birds and small mammals use it for cover. Deer, antelope, elk, small mammals and birds feed on the leaves, flowers and seeds. Rabbitbrush is visited by a wide range of native insects, especially in late summer and fall. It’s said to support more native bee pollinators than any other cold desert shrub in the Intermountain West (Waring 2011).

Typical of the Aster family, what look like rabbitbrush flowers aren’t flowers. They’re small heads of tiny flowers, each with reproductive parts—stamens and pistils. [The Aster family was originally called Compositae because what look like flowers are actually composites. Not that long ago, it was changed to Asteraceae to be consistent with naming rules.]
The pungent flowers explain the scientific name, Ericameria nauseosa. But they're not that bad. I would say resinous rather than nauseating.
Flowers are tubular, less than a half inch long. Stamens and pistils emerge from the tubes. Source.

I took many photos of rabbitbrush in Browns Park … unintentionally. It was that common.
With dark dikes intruded into the ancient Red Creek Quartzite (more here).
With more rocks from the core of the long-gone Red Creek mountain range.
On a CO2 pipeline project (more here).
Approaching the Gates of Lodore on the Green River.
Rabbitbrush lined most of the roads in Browns Park, which isn't surprising since it thrives on disturbed sites. It often dominates initially, but in the absence of continued disturbance, becomes just a minor part of the native vegetation.
Above and below: rubber rabbitbrush along the Irish Canyon road, which cuts through the north flank of the Uinta Mountains near the east end of Browns Park.
Rabbitbrush is taking over the dugout where James Jarvie lived in 1880, his first year in Brown’s Hole.

In between Linosyris graveolens and Ericameria nauseosa, rubber rabbitbrush was called Chrysothamnus nauseosa. This is my choice of names because Chrysothamnus means “golden shrub”—which they certainly are! Rabbitbrushes are super difficult to classify, and experts surely will continue to rename them. Maybe someday some taxonomist will move rubber rabbitbrush back into Chrysothamnus, proving me prescient ;-)

Rubber rabbitbrush is the most complex of the rabbitbrushes, with 24 subspecies and varieties, many of which overlap or hybridize. Within these, there are multiple ecotypes, for example adapted to different soils. And within ecotypes there’s a “great deal of variability in morphological characteristics and chemical composition” (Scheinost and Ogle 2010). No wonder rubber rabbitbrush is so successful—so widespread and common. And no wonder rabbitbrush taxonomists struggle to classify them. In this case, maybe it’s best to use common names after all.
Rubber rabbitbrush and rainbow on my last day in Browns Park.


Anderson, L. 1995. The Chrysothamnus-Ericameria connection (Asteraceae). The Great Basin Naturalist, 55:84-88. Retrieved from

Porter, TC. 1871. Catalog of plants. in Hayden, FV. Preliminary report of the United State Geological Survey of Wyoming, and portions of contiguous territories. Washington: Government Printing Office. [Thomas C. Porter was professor of botany, geology and zoology at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania.]

Scheinost, PL, Scianna, J, and Ogle, DG. 2010. Plant guide for rubber rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa). USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service, Pullman Plant Materials Center, Pullman, WA. Accessed 2016, November 29.

Tirmenstein, D. 1999. Ericameria nauseosa. In: Fire Effects Information System [Online]. USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory. Nomenclature updated 2014. Accessed 2016, November 29.

Waring, GL. 2011. A natural history of the Intermountain West; its ecological and evolutionary story. University of Utah Press.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

About that pipeline in Jesse Ewing Canyon …


Near the end of my recent post about a geo-hike down Jesse Ewing Canyon in the eastern Uinta Mountains, I mentioned a pipeline. There was no way to miss it—it was clearly and emphatically marked.
Pipeline route down Jesse Ewing Canyon into Browns Park. Uinta Mountains continue in the distance.

Why is CO2 sent down Jesse Ewing Canyon, across Browns Park, over the Green River and up into the Uinta Mountains? In fact, why is carbon dioxide being transported at all?
CO2 crosses the Green in a pipeline suspended above the river.
Arrow marks pipeline route above Browns Park, after crossing the Green River.
My first thought was sequestration. Oil and gas extraction produces climate-warming CO2, and the industry is under pressure not to release it into the atmosphere. In Wyoming, we talk a lot about carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) … could this CO2 be going somewhere in the Uintas to be injected into suitable rock layers deep underground? Of course that would require Federal funding—sequestration is expensive!

Or could it be that this CO2 is being somehow put to use? That’s what I asked a candidate for the Wyoming state senate, a passionate advocate for research on economically-viable uses of CO2. But like me, he was puzzled and guessed Federally-subsidized sequestration. But we were wrong. The CO2 is being put to use, specifically for enhanced oil recovery (EOR). It's sent to an aging oil field to extract a bit more oil.

The CO2 originates at the LaBarge natural gas field in southwest Wyoming. After being captured and processed, it travels southeast to Rock Springs, then south through Clay Basin to the head of Jesse Ewing Canyon in Utah. Next it descends to Browns Park, crosses the Green River, climbs a bit higher into the Uintas, descends, crosses the Green River again, and finally arrives at Rangely, Colorado, after a trip of 177 miles.
Bold line is the Rangely pipeline route (BLM 1984).
At Rangely, CO2 is injected 6000+ feet underground into the Weber Sandstone. The Weber was once dunes and river sand, back during the time of the Ancestral Rocky Mountains 245-315 million years ago. Several hundred million years later, after the sand had turned to rock, the Laramide Orogeny (uplift of the modern Rocky Mountains) folded the rocks to produce the Rangely Anticline—an elongate dome with multiple layers of trapped oil.

The Rangely field is one of the largest in the US,with cumulative production of about 900 million barrels of oil and 700 billion cubic feet of natural gas” (as of 2014; source). Serious production began in 1933 and peaked around 1955. Since then, secondary (water) and tertiary (CO2) enhanced oil recovery have been used to coax more oil out of the ground.

CO2 enhanced oil recovery started at Rangely in 1986. It didn’t reverse production trends longterm—the Rangely is mature and most of the oil is gone. But there was a shortterm increase, enough to justify expenditures.
Originally from Chevron; found on multiple websites (see Sources).
Earlier, I hinted that extra financial incentives drive carbon sequestration … is that true for enhanced oil recovery as well? Is it really profitable to buy processed CO2 and ship it 177 miles? The Shute Creek (LaBarge) processing plant alone cost $70 million to build, and as of 2005, required $1 million per month to operate (CO School of Mines 2005). Not surprisingly, EOR is a balancing act strongly influenced by market forces.
“Enhanced oil recovery processes reverse the trend toward lower oil cuts for a short term, but even these processes become victims of dropping oil cuts. When this happens in a tertiary CO2 miscible project, the added burden of CO2 purchase and recycle costs makes competing with lower cost oil difficult. This increases the risk for early abandonment of once proved EOR reserves and a lower financial yield on the sizable EOR investments.” (Masoner and Wackowski 1994)
As of late 2015, CO2 was still traveling the 177 miles from LaBarge to Rangely (Smith 2016), suggesting EOR was still profitable.

Because so much CO2 has been injected into the Weber Sandstone (26 million tons as of 2010), Rangely is being counted as a carbon capture and sequestration project (IEA 2010). So the senate candidate and I were partially right in guessing sequestration … or were we? Maybe not. Enhanced oil recovery may well generate more CO2 than it sequesters! See Thomas W. Overton’s recent discussion in Power Magazine (April 2016):
“From where I’m sitting, if the point of CCUS is to reduce CO2 emissions, EOR is about the last thing it should be used for. On the other hand, if the point is to redistribute vast amounts of money, it’s off to an excellent start.”
Our CO2 pipelines (Wallace et al. 2015).


Biello, D. 2009. Enhanced oil recovery: how to make money from carbon capture and storage today. Scientific American (online).

Bureau of Land Management. 1984. Rangely carbon dioxide pipeline; public scoping document.

Colorado School of Mines. 2005. ChevronTexaco’s Rangely oil field operations.

Cramer, R. 2014. Vertical conformance, the challenge at Rangely.

Gibson, R. 2014 (July 8). Rangely oil & gas field. History of the Earth (blog).

International Energy Commission. 2010. Report to the Muskoka 2010 G8 Summit: carbon capture and storage; progress and next steps.

Masoner, LO, and Wackowski, RK. 1994. Rangely Weber sand unit CO2 project update: decisions and issues facing a maturing EOR project. Society for Petroleum Engineers.

Overton, T. 2016. Is EOR a dead end for carbon capture and storage? Power Magazine (online).

Reitenbach, G. 2016. When technology tails wag power dogs. Power Magazine (online).

Smith, T. 2016. Teamwork at Rangely. Geoexpro 12:74-77.

Wallace, M. et al. 2015. A review of the CO2 pipeline infrastructure in the US. US DOE.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Devils Tower—What’s on Top? (updated)

Devils Tower is so striking that Henry Newton and William P. Jenney featured it as the frontispiece in their 1880 Report on the Geology and Resources of the Black Hills of Dakota.
Devils Tower is a sheer rock monolith that stands 1200 feet above the Belle Fourche River in northeast Wyoming. It’s about a mile around at the base, and tapers to a summit the size of a football field. Getting to the top isn’t easy—the only legal way is technical rock climbing. Less than 1% of visitors to Devils Tower National Monument make to it the summit, so perhaps it’s not surprising that the most common question about the Tower is “What’s on top?” (The most common question overall is either “How do we get to Mount Rushmore?” or “Where are the bathrooms?)

“You want to know what’s on top? Let’s go find out!”
So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that my most popular blog post ever is Devils Tower—What’s on Top?, but I am. It’s not about rock climbing or spaceships, but rather plants and vegetation. How many readers really want to know that sagebrush, grass and wildflowers grow on the summit? I think folks land there by accident. In any case, it’s time for an update.

In 1941, George Hopkins parachuted onto the summit, where he hung out for six days in grass, sagebrush and rocks before being rescued. NPS archives.

This year, the National Park Service contracted with us to inventory plants and assess summit vegetation. In a sense the project is “almost” done. However, I have to finish the report and I hate writing reports. I’d much rather be blogging. A few days ago, I had a brilliant idea—do both at the same time.

This week I'm compiling information about summit plants that would be of interest to visitors. The Park Service will use it in interpretive materials available at the Monument and online, and may add it to employee training. So I’m wondering:
What would you want to know about what’s on top? What would you find interesting and memorable about plants on the summit? (please add Comments below)

Andrew and Cheryl commune with plants on top of Devils Tower.

This is what I’ve come up with so far (photos are for this blog post only, and not all are from the summit):

The top of Devils Tower is a rounded rocky hilltop. From the high point you wouldn’t know there were precipitous walls below if you hadn’t just struggled up one. Plants are common among the rocks—in fact plant cover roughly equals that of bare rock. Skunkbush sumac bushes and clumps of bluebunch wheatgrass grow scattered across much of the summit. In the northeast part, where the soil is deeper, there’s a small but vigorous stand of sagebrush and grass.
Andrew admires skunkbush and bluebunch wheatgrass among the rocks.

How do plants get up there? Wind is the most likely means of seed transport. But small mammals climb Devils Tower too—chipmunks, packrats, and deermice have been seen on the sides and summit. Maybe they haul a few seeds up there on occasion.

How can plants grow in rock? Over the long term, rocks are not as permanent as they look. They fracture, weather, and turn to dust. Dirt and debris slowly accumulate in small pockets, where seeds sometimes land. A few germinate; a few of these grow into plants. Their roots help break up the rock, one tiny bit at a time.

It may seem unlikely that seeds will land in just the right place and survive, but obviously they have. The top of Devils Tower is botanically diverse, with 53 species—impressive considering it’s only the size of a football field and really rocky.

At first glance, the summit looks dry and harsh—hospitable only to hardy drought-tolerant grasses and shrubs. But there are lots of favorable microsites. Thirteen plant species on the summit grow only in the shade of rocks and shrubs. Ferns grow in crevices with shade and soil … and a bit of flowing water when it rains.
Rocky Mountain cliff fern (Woodsia scopulorum). ©Adolf Ceska, used with permission.
In late spring, the summit turns green with grasses and wildflowers. Some of the showier species are sego lily, prickly pear cactus, harebell, western yarrow and wild onion. Common grasses include bluebunch wheatgrass, needle-and-thread, and blue grama. Shrubs are common too, especially skunkbush sumac and Wyoming big sagebrush.

Are any plants unique to the summit? No—all grow in the surrounding area too. However, Wyoming big sagebrush is much more common on the top of Devils Tower than anywhere else in the Monument (it’s extremely common further west in the basins of Wyoming).
Sagebrush grassland on top of Devils Tower; skunkbush sumac lower left.

Here are a few of the plants that greet rock climbers when they reach the top:

Plains prickly pear (Opuntia polyacantha) by Sally and Andy Wasowski.
When the large waxy yellow flowers of prickly pear cactus bloom, everyone notices. Otherwise it’s drab and easily overlooked, and painful when accidentally bumped!

Two different kinds of sagebrush grow on the summit: Wyoming big sagebrush and fringed sage. Sagebrush is not related to the sage we use in cooking, but was named for the sage-like fragrance of the leaves.

Wyoming big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata ssp. wyomingensis) by Stan Shebs. Its leaves are 3-toothed at the tip, as the scientific name points out (“tridentata").
Fringed sage (Artemisia frigida) also lives up to its name. The leaves look “fringed” because they’re divided into fine segments (NPS).

The 3-parted leaves of skunkbush sumac suggest poison ivy, and indeed, the two are close relatives. But this sumac is not at all poisonous. In fact, its twigs  have long been used to make a citrus-flavored tea. The appealing fragrance explains the scientific name—Rhus aromatica.
Skunkbush sumac (Rhus aromatica) by Joseph A. Marcus.

Harebells look delicate, but they’re actually quite tough, surviving even where there’s very little soil. They grow in cracks on the sides of the Tower, and among rocks on top.
Harebells (Campanula rotundifolia). The scientific name refers to bell-shaped flowers and small round leaves.

One of the more common plants on the summit is rock spikemoss, but it’s rarely noticed. It’s a close relative of the resurrection plant, and behaves in a similar fashion. Rock spikemoss grows and produces spores during favorable conditions in late spring and summer. Then it lies dry and dormant, looking quite dead, as it awaits “resurrection” with next year’s spring moisture.
Rock spikemoss (Selaginella densa) is not a true moss but rather a relative of ferns.

No one expects to find trees on top, but there is one. A ponderosa pine has managed to survive on minimal soil and water in a crack. Never underestimate a plant!

• • •

One more question—what do you think about including scientific names? Botanists like them, as they’re information-rich. But others find them off-putting.

Here’s the current list of summit plants. About thirty were known prior to this project. After systematic careful searching—three visits scattered through the growing season, 20 person hours in all— the known vascular plant flora now stands at 53 species.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Back to the Misty Mountain

Is this the way?

This month’s gathering of tree-followers coincides with an unfortunate event in American history, culminating months (or was it years?) of depressing “discourse” on both sides. Is it time to leave? They say the Canadian immigration website crashed Tuesday evening, overwhelmed by US traffic. But I don’t want to leave, I like it here! I think I will go back to the Misty Mountain instead, if I can find the way.

The Misty Mountain is metaphorical—a composite of wild places and other patches of nature. I moved there forty years ago after paying off my student loan, but at some point I fell off, landing on the Human Highway. Is it possible to return? We’ll see.

The journey started at Hutton Lake, with a visit to the serviceberry I’ve been following since January. It grows in an unexpected forest along the south side of the lake, on the shady north side of a ridge of steeply-tilted sandstone.
A cool but sunny calm day (yes, calm!) in the Laramie Basin.
Dry brown November landscape, with greasewood and grass.

The prairie dogs are all hibernating, maybe dreaming of tasty green herbaceous plants.

I reached the ridge and hiked along the crest, then descended to lake level and strolled through the tiny forest.
Bare aspen, cottonwood and serviceberry trees, with tilted sandstone.
Lots of buds on the aspen trees ... they're ready for next year!

Fossilized ripples on a 100-million-year-old beach. It was uplifted and tilted when the Rocky Mountains rose.
Aspen sapling survives on rainwater that accumulates in cracks.

My serviceberry tree was bare of leaves and berries, looking pretty much as it did back in January when we met.
My tree and more ripples.
Lots of buds.

Then a large brown object swooped down from the sky and landed in a cottonwood tree nearby. Who hoo hoooo is this?!

Click on photo to view (center).
Did I wake her? I thought she preferred to fly at dusk.
It was an eared owl of some kind (“ears” are tufts of feathers), maybe a long-eared. Do you know? I think this is too slender an owl to be a Great Horned, but I’m no expert. [UPDATE: great horned owl after all.] She hung out while I photographed the serviceberry, changing her perch occasionally. When I left, she was still there, watching.

I headed back, past the tough little serviceberry on a pedestal (more here) ...
... and past castles rising from lakeshore muck. Are these homes of fairy creatures?
I wish! But no, just dead aspen saplings from years back, when the lake was lower. Now they're wrapped in salt-encrusted decaying aquatic plants. The lakeshore has a rich aroma this time of year.

Next I met a muskrat.
He was much more cautious than the owl and quickly dove, leaving a circle of ripples. I sat on the bank hoping he would return. Finally he did, staring at me just long enough for another photo before diving and swimming off again. I left so he could continue whatever business he had going there.
Cautious muskrat watching me (center of photo).

This is my November contribution to the monthly gathering of tree-followers hosted by The Squirrelbasket. Read the latest news, and consider joining us ... it’s always interesting.

I come down from the misty mountain
I got lost on the human highway
Take my head refreshing fountain
Take my eyes from what they've seen.
—Neil Young, 1978