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"Don't Bust The Crust" - Restoring Disturbed Soil Crusts

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Biological Soil Crust

In the deserts of the southwest you can often see signs with slogans on them. “Don’t bust the crust,” they say, or “It’s alive.” These signs are referring to biological soil crusts, complicated communities that cover the very top layer of soil in dry places around the world.

“A lot of these soils can be covered in these biotic communities that are composed of mosses, cyanobacteria, lichens, fungal communities, so there’s this whole living organism that colonizes the top few millimeters of the soil surface,” said Dr. Nichole Barger, associate professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado. She studies soil crust communities across the West, including Utah, and says soils crusts are important for environmental health.

“As many of us know living in Utah and the West," said Barger, "these big dust storms can be a real problem. What the biological soil crusts are really good at doing is stabilizing those soils."

Aside from stabilizing the soil and preventing erosion, soil crusts also increase nitrogen (important for plants) and can help control water seeping into the ground. These crusts are important, but they are delicate and take a long time to grow. Destruction from cattle grazing or off-road vehicles can take decades to recover. Dr. Barger is working on ways to restore these areas faster, and she grows samples in the lab or in a greenhouse to reintroduce to areas that have been damaged.

“We’ve also collected, just straight from the field from small plots, and then added that inoculum to larger plots that are disturbed” Barger said.

The inoculated areas recover faster, and land managers might be able to use these techniques to speed up recovery in disturbed places.