Tall Forb and the Beginnings of Rangeland Science

Erosion caused by overgrazing.
Erosion caused by overgrazing, probably Davis County, 1930. Photo from Utah Historical Quarterly.

Mud flow from flood in Centerville, Utah, 1927.
Mud flow from flood in Centerville, Utah, 1927.

Great Basin Experiment Station entrance sign.
First named the Utah Experiment Station, it was referred to as the Great Basin Experiment Station from 1918 to 1930.

By the early 1900s, poor rangeland conditions combined with intense summer thunderstorms led to severe flooding and landslides in the valleys below Utah’s Wasatch Mountains. Farms, fields, roads, and the towns established along the base of the Wasatch Plateau were soon covered by boulders and many feet of topsoil hurtling down the mountain during the harsh seasonal floods. These destructive seasonal events continued well beyond the mid-1940s. Read more in the Utah Historical Quarterly article, "Been Grazed Almost to Extinction": The Environment, Human Action, and Utah Flooding, 1900-1940 (PDF, 2.2 MB).

In response to the outcries of local communities and officials, the Territorial Legislature passed a law in 1892 prohibiting sheep from watersheds within seven miles of a city. Nationally, Congress had set aside roughly 40 million acres as Forest Reserves and subsequently passed the Organic Act of 1897 “to improve and protect the forest within the reservation,... securing favorable conditions of water flows, and to furnish a continuous supply of timber for the use and necessities of citizens of the United States.”

In 1911, an area of the Wasatch Plateau (Ephraim Canyon) was selected as the site for a Forest Service range and watershed research station. Located in an aspen grove at 8,500 feet, the facility was charged to find ways to restore the watersheds and rangelands devastated by summertime storms.

First established as the Utah Experiment Station in 1912, subsequent names for this research area have been Great Basin Experiment Station (1918-30), Great Basin Branch Experiment Station (1930-47), Great Basin Research Center (1947-70), and now Great Basin Experimental Range (since 1970).

It became the training ground for many prominent range and watershed researchers, serving as a field station for numerous pioneering studies. Under the guidance of its first director, Dr. Arthur W. Sampson, the Station became a focal point for studies on rangeland restoration, plant vigor, and revegetation. These seminal studies led to the establishment of the disciplines we today refer to as rangeland management and restoration ecology.

Great Basin Experiment Station.
Great Basin Experiment Station.

Dr. Arthur Sampson .
Dr. Arthur Sampson.

For More Information

Some Champions of Tall Forb Science

Included among the many scientists who dedicated themselves to understand and restore the severely deteriorated Tall Forb rangelands are the following outstanding individuals. Select the subheadings below to expand or contract the description of the Champions of Tall Forb Science, or you may Expand All or Contract All.

 Arthur W. Sampson (1884-1967)

A young Art Sampson leaning against a tree with a plant collecting vasculum.
A young Art Sampson with a plant collecting vasculum. Photo © Utah State Historical Society.

Dr. Art Sampson is widely considered to be the father of “rangeland ecology.” He was born in Oakland, Nebraska on March 27, 1884. An avid outdoorsman, he pursued his study of botany and plant ecology at the University of Nebraska where he earned both his B.S. and M. A. degrees. By 1907, he had accepted an assignment as Plant Ecologist with the Forest Service in Oregon to study land management problems associated with improper grazing.

In 1912, Sampson became the first Director of the Great Basin Research Station in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah, a position he held until 1922. Starting in 1912, Sampson built log exclosure fences to protect his study plots from livestock grazing and determine the relationship between spring floods and overgrazing. Many of these plots are still around today.

Sampson was a true ecologist. He established quadrats inside and out of the study exclosures and gathered climatological, hydrological, and phenological data. He advocated deferment and rest rotational grazing and studied the relationship between plant succession, seed production, and grazing. He was an early advocate of the use of natives for revegetation, but soon realized that re-creating climax vegetation was impossible under the extensive soil loss conditions. Some of the first knowledge of natural and artificial seeding was developed from work conducted at the Research Station.

In 1923, Dr. Sampson became an Associate Professor at University of California Berkeley until his retirement in 1951. He authored three widely-used, major textbooks and numerous scientific articles about rangeland plants, management, and rangeland ecology. He was the recipient of numerous awards and honors. The Conservation award bestowed on him in 1958 by the American Forestry Association honored him as the “founder of the first school of range management in the world.”

 Dr. Lincoln Ellison

Dr. Lincoln Ellison.
Dr. Lincoln Ellison.

Dr. Lincoln Ellison was born on August 2, 1908, in Portland, Oregon. Soon after, the family moved to California, living in San Francisco, Burlingame, and Los Angeles before finally settling in the farming community of Arcadia.

Ellison graduated from Monrovia High School in 1926 and enrolled in the University of California Los Angeles. Over the next five years, he worked to earn his Bachelor of Arts in botany and spent summers working for the Forest Service. Lincoln earned his Masters and PhD degrees at the University of Minnesota. He arrived in Ephraim, Utah, in 1938 where he became Arthur Sampson’s successor and served as the fourth Director of the Great Basin Experiment Station.

Dr. Ellison was an early ecological pioneer. He studied plant community composition in subalpine settings and formulated his principal ideas about the relationship between plant succession and grazing. The relative composition of grasses versus forbs is an issue which Sampson and Ellison held differing viewpoints. Sampson favored the viewpoint that grasses predominated and Ellison favored the view that forbs predominated.

Ellison sought to reveal the true Wasatch Plateau flora before it had become altered by livestock grazing. He searched for, identified, classified, and established study sites capable of recovery. He also identified successional plants to achieve restoration. His aim was to restore rather than revegetate the denuded mountains. He realized that the key to successful restoration was soil replacement. However, many of his revegetation and soil replacement efforts mostly failed. He came to believe that the Wasatch Plateau’s soil might be preserved, but could no longer be fully restored. Nevertheless, he believed that subalpine watersheds could still be protected and restored by seeding sites with native species with the best soil-moisture relationships. These challenges remain and continue to this day.

Dr. Ellison died in an avalanche on March 9, 1958, while skiing on Mt. Ogden.

 Mont E. Lewis

Mont E. Lewis Botanical Area sign on the Manti La-Sal National Forest with Mont Lewis's picture on it.
Mont E. Lewis Botanical Area sign on the Manti-La Sal National Forest. Photo by Teresa Prendusi.

Mont E. Lewis was born October 1, 1906, in Holden, Utah. Lewis earned his Bachelor of Science (1931) and Master of Science (1936) degrees from the University of Idaho and completed some graduate work in range ecology and plant taxonomy at Brigham Young University. He began his Forest Service career in 1936 as a junior range examiner on the Manti National Forest. He still held that position in 1937.

Mont became a well-known expert and authority for range and forest ecosystems, especially within the Tall Forb community type, conducting extensive monitoring and restoration studies. He was the first proponent for recognizing Tall Forb as an official rangeland Community Cover Type by the Society for Range Management (SRM). Advancing up the ladder, Mont Lewis remained on the Manti National Forest as the Mt. Baldy district ranger (1940-43), and later as the Joes Valley district ranger (1943-50). In the later part of his career, he assumed a new position at the Regional Office in the division of range and wildlife and retired in 1971 as chief of the Branch of Studies and Training, Division of Range Management.

In 1971, after 35 years of service, Mont Lewis took on a new role for an additional 15 years as full-time Curator of the Forest Service Intermountain Regional Herbarium until he was 86 years old—all as a volunteer! Each summer, until his declining health interfered, Mont returned to the Wasatch Plateau and continued his botanical and rangeland studies in the Tall Forb communities, including some initiated by Dr. Arthur Sampson in 1912, making them among the oldest continuous range studies known. He died May 17, 1997 at age 90 in Ogden.

Mont was an authority on the genus Carex, and he had several species named after him including Astragalus montii, the Heliotrope milkvetch. In 1996 the Mont E. Lewis Botanical Area was dedicated by the Manti-La Sal National Forest in his honor.

 Dr. Alma Winward

Al Winward.
Al Winward in Albion Basin. Photo by Teresa Prendusi.

Dr. Al Winward retired Regional Ecologist for the Intermountain Region, Forest Service in Ogden, Utah. Al received his Bachelor of Science degree in Range Science from Utah State University and his Ph.D. degree in Forestry Sciences from the University of Idaho.

Dr. Winward’s ecological legacy spans over 35 years, as a university professor at Oregon State University in the 1970s and 80s, followed by several decades as Forest Service Regional Ecologist. He approached his work as the Rangeland Ecologist with the Forest Service in Ogden with an unmatched enthusiasm and passion. Dr. Winward’s ecological expertise in riparian, Tall Forb, aspen and shrubland ecosystems is renowned. He is one of the foremost authorities on the taxonomy and ecology of sagebrush. He has authored almost 100 scientific and technical articles on such topics as sagebrush taxa and ecological relationships, ecosystem inventory and analysis, rangeland shrub genetics and variations, plant community and habitat types, and grazing effects to rangelands.

While with the Forest Service, Al was a consummate teacher, scientist and communicator conducting range research, teaching rangeland management, practicing rangeland ecology, and implementing applied technology in furtherance of sound management. He helped establish over 100 reference areas (Research Natural Areas) within the Intermountain area to monitor short- and long-term management effects. Al was also instrumental in developing the first riparian vegetation classifications in the West. He developed the Riparian Greenline, Riparian Cross Section, and Woody Plant Species Regeneration interagency monitoring procedures, now in use nationally.

Dr. Winward had a special place in his heart for the Tall Forb plant communities of the Intermountain west, shining a light on their protection, management, restoration and research needs to land management officers. His love and reverence for these subalpine wildflowers meadows was deep and infectious, as many of his students and colleagues came to know.

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