By Lizzie Wasilewska
Today is the anniversary of one of the most biologically and geologically unique parks in the U.S.: Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. In addition to its famous desert dunes, Great Sand Dunes includes grasslands and wetlands; lakes, rivers and streams; tundra; and forests that spread from the desert’s edges to the peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The range of tree species found in its forests — cottonwood, aspen, pinion, spruce and more — is just one example of this landscape’s fascinating diversity.
The ecosystems and landscapes in Great Sand Dunes are constantly changing. Winds rapidly and dramatically reshape its dunes, which often rise to about 750 feet. On a slower scale, streams reshape the dunes: They redistribute sand, expanding and diminishing the dunefield’s territory in different areas. As the dunes gradually stray from their origins, they can influence other regions of the park. For example, when dunes wash over forests, they suffocate the trees, leaving “ghost forests” composed of the trees’ skeletal remains.
Great Sand Dunes’ forests are also susceptible to wildfires: before the addition of the preserve, they experienced an average of 1.3 wildfires per year. Researchers have developed fire management strategies for Great Sand Dunes, evaluating its natural rate of fires and seeking to prevent human-caused fires. These strategies balance the natural needs of the environment with the preservation of its cultural landscape by often permitting the controlled spread of wildfires, while also trying to conserve the numerous cultural sites and artifacts that lie in the path of fires.
Wildfire management strategies and ethics tie into a larger environmental question: When should humans help threatened ecosystems? In 2011, across the state border from Great Sand Dunes, a wildfire in New Mexico burned across more than 150,000 acres of the Jemez Mountains and 27,000 acres of Valles Caldera National Preserve. The wildfire — which was the second largest in New Mexico’s history — undermined the environment’s soil and prevented vegetation from regenerating. American Forests Global ReLeaf stepped in by planting hundreds of acres of trees across the Valles Caldera, with the goal of stabilizing the soil and encouraging natural regrowth.
Other times, it might be best to let forests fend for themselves. In 2010, lightning sparked a fire in Great Sand Dunes that burned thousands of acres. Managers decided it was best not to extinguish the flames entirely, as that would risk obstructing the forests’ natural immunity to and reliance on wildfires. Today, the Great Sand Dunes ecosystem is healthy, and we hope to see many more happy birthdays in its future!