Great Basin Station in Ephraim Canyon was where ‘range science’ developed
By Collin Overton
Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part article about the contributions of and future plans for the Great Basin Station in Ephraim Canyon. It was formerly known as the Great Basin Environmental Education Center. The facility is owned by the U.S. Forest Service.
In a converted ecology lab 8,900 feet up in Ephraim Canyon, former range scientist Richard Stevens points out an old photograph of a downtown area swamped with mountain water.
“This is all Manti, 1910,” he says.
It’s hard to believe he’s talking about the place where the town of Manti is now located. Logs, boards and trees are strung across Main Street, while locals wade through the muck and look out at the destruction. Another photo of Mt. Pleasant from the era resembles a similar swamp with a washed-out fence and the main streets turned to mud.
Before the introduction of range science, such a scenario was an all too common in Sanpete County. For decades, overgrazing on the Wasatch Plateau resulted in almost irreversible damage to the soil and mountain watersheds, causing massive flooding and threatening life in the valley.
What came out of it was a U.S. Forest Service initiative that ultimately gave birth to a discipline, one that researchers across the West and the world would use as a model for restoring grazing lands.
More than that, it introduced a new way of life and memories for hundreds of central Utahns, especially for former researchers like Stevens.
One of the first known settlers who toiled on the Wasatch Plateau was a former U.S. Army major by the name of Anderson.
President James Buchanan sent Anderson, along with roughly a third of the U.S. Army to Utah in 1857 to quash the so-called Mormon Rebellion. The conflict was short-lived, and in 1861, the troops were called back east to fight a bigger rebellion—the Civil War.
When Anderson retired, he decided to stay in Utah. He converted to Mormonism, married a local girl and settled in Ephraim, where he became a prominent leader in organizing settlers during the Black Hawk War of the late 1860s.
By 1872, Anderson was managing a sheep herd and had established a permanent camp on a part of the plateau now named for him: Major’s Flat. As the Native American tribes who once terrorized settlers left the area or moved to reservations, the plateau was open for the taking.
The Danish, Scandinavian, English and American settlers of the Sanpete Valley suddenly had a new place to make a living, especially the ones who raised sheep and cattle. What resulted was a livestock craze with settlers taking advantage of the open range and public land.
Especially when the railroad came.
Close to the turn of the century, the first trains came through Price and on to the Sanpete Valley, bringing new economic opportunity—and thousands of sheep. Stevens’ family alone owned five herds, each containing about 1,000 ewes and additional lambs. Multiply that by the hundreds of livestock-owning settlers and you perhaps have an idea of the volume.
By the hundred thousands, the sheep grazed the whole distance of the plateau, all 50 miles to Salina Canyon, then back again.
Whitney Ward, associate professor of outdoor leadership for Snow College, said people in the valley could see plumes of dust rising from where the herds were grazing. Not only that, residents swore they could count the number of sheep bands on the mountain by the number of dust clouds on the horizon, according to the book “Great Basin Station: Sixty Years of Progress in Range and Watershed Research” by Wendell M. Keck.
Ward oversees what is now called the Great Basin Station, formerly the Great Basin Environmental Education Center. His role includes leading educational programs there in the summer.
“The difference between sheep grazing and cattle grazing is cattle just kind of mow the lawn where sheep will eat everything down to the ground,” Ward said.
Over time, the overgrazing diminished plant life on the plateau, notably on the watersheds that impeded water from flowing down the mountain. This meant trouble when high-intensity storms hit the Sanpete Valley in July and August. With little vegetation to hold the excess water, the valley begin to see massive flooding every year, especially in 1888 and 1910, Stevens said.
By the turn of the century, residents of the valley had had enough, Ward said. Around 1902, citizens petitioned the federal government to provide a solution. The mayor of Manti even rode a train to Washington to urge the U.S. Forest Service to do something, Stevens said.
In 1911, the Forest Service appointed a 27-year-old recent graduate of the University of Nebraska named Arthur Sampson to investigate causes of flooding.
“Sammy,” as he was known, was an athlete in every sense of the word. In college, he wrestled, boxed, pitched horseshoes and ran long-distance, and once broken a record for sprinting to the summit of Pikes Peak.
As a graduate student, he would hike 7 miles and climb 3,000 feet up a mountain to change the record sheet on temperature recording instruments.
After finding 8 inches to 3 feet of soil gone on the plateau, Sampson suspected a lack of vegetation and overgrazing was responsible for the flooding. He decided to start other studies to verify the cause. Sampson ended up with three locations in mind for an experiment station: Gooseberry Canyon in Fairview, the Blue Mountains of Oregon and Ephraim Canyon.
He settled on Ephraim Canyon because it has seven vegetative zones from the bottom of the mountain to the top, meaning he and colleagues could multitask with their studies, Stevens said. In 1912, Sampson was appointed the first director of the Utah Experiment Station in what was then the Manti National Forest.
Thus began Sampson’s and the Station’s contributions to range science. He and other researchers confirmed the watershed runoff was a result of reduced plant cover on the mountains. Through painstaking studies, Sampson came to other conclusions, such as how to achieve the greatest grazing efficiency in a defined area, and how to produce maximum forage through reseeding.
These discoveries would have a major influence on wildlife studies and the Mountain West as a whole, even after Sampson left the Station in 1922.
Growing a Community
The Utah Experiment Station had to be carved out of a wilderness of aspen trees.
After determining the headquarters site and boundary areas for the Station, the Forest Service had to fell trees, pull stumps and level land before workers could build fences and construct buildings.
The director’s residence, barn, laboratory building and assistants’ residence were among the first buildings constructed. In 1936, the assistants’ house burned down and was replaced with the “Lodge,” where the Station would host countless gatherings and board Forest Service dignitaries.
In 1913, a 17-by-30 foot greenhouse was built and divided into cold-bed and hot-bed compartment systems. By 1933, a greenhouse was no longer needed, and the building was converted into housing for summer assistants and temporary employees.
As the scope of the Station’s work expanded, so did a need for employee housing. The early 1920s saw the construction of the “Palmer House,” a garage with dormitories on the second story.
Two additional houses were built in 1933—the “End House” along with the “South House,” which was used heavily for training sessions and other meetings. A circular driveway with a flag pole was added in 1934.
During the Depression years of the 1930s, the Station took advantage of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which would send workers to help the researchers. Eighty to 100 arrived at a time. The workers lived in a few separate camps throughout the years, Ward said.
The Station has had several names over the decades. When the Intermountain Forest and Range Experiment Station was established in 1930 in Ogden as a result of the success of range science, the Ephraim station took the name Great Basin Branch Station. The name would switch a few more times, but the name Great Basin Station stuck throughout the years.
Throughout the summers of the 1930s and 1940s, researchers would bring their families to the Station, forming communities each year. In her book, “Memories of the Great Basin Station,” Blanche Plummer, wife of researcher Perry Plummer, remembers developing a camaraderie with the other forest families.
Families would watch slideshows of each other’s color photos, eat with one another and wait together for their fathers and husbands to return when the weather was bad. “We were always looking out for each other,” Plummer wrote.
For fun, mothers would take their children driving up the canyon road and stop at the “Pig Pen” spring, where they would douse the car radiator and cool the engine to prevent overheating. Young assistants and CCC volunteers, often university students trying to get away from the Station, would try to find a ride into town on the weekends to go to the weekly public dance.
Men worked hard, working in the field, organizing data, studying and making plans for the next day. They traversed muddy roads, braved harsh outdoor conditions and were usually “less than safe” in their families’ eyes, Plumber wrote.
And “less than safe” they could be. In 1958, a former Station director, Lincoln Ellison, who had moved to another position, was killed by an avalanche while measuring snow in Farmington. A framed plaque in his honor hangs in the Station Museum.
Throughout the history of the station, perhaps no one was more admired than technician Paul Hansen. Hansen didn’t have a degree or a background in science, but his work ethic set him apart, Stevens said. He served the Station for 47 years—longer than any person.
“If you wanted something done, you’d send Paul,” Stevens said. “He was a hard worker, one of the hardest working guys I’ve ever met.”
Through the Eyes of a Range Scientist
Back at the Station, Stevens points to a photo of houses entrenched in several feet of snow next to a pair of antique snowshoes and goggles.
“This is 1952 right here. But I’ve been up here with winters like this,” Stevens said.
The old laboratory, now a museum, seems as if it is frozen in 1943. Old typewriters, phonograph scales, newspaper clippings and rustic beakers line the desks and shelves—all relics from researchers 70 years ago. A black-and-white photo of a bare mountainside titled, “The Results of No Management” hangs in the back of the room.
Three weeks ago, the Station was covered in snow, and Stevens is no stranger to snow.
In Stevens’s research days, it sometimes took an M29 Weasel, a World War II-era military snowmobile, to get through the high-altitude snow. Sometimes the driver had to use a half-empty whiskey bottle as a level when traversing the uneven terrain, Stevens said.
Stevens started with the Station in 1959, a year after graduating high school. By the time he retired in 1998, he had published two to three studies on watershed research.
When Stevens first joined on at the station, there were six plant species that were adaptable to the terrain. By the time he left the station, there were 70, he said.
Workers had to develop their own equipment, Stevens said, since the farming equipment they tried to use would often break. They branched out during his time there, employing aerial seeding by plane and other methods. Throughout the years, Stevens estimates he’s been involved in seeding more than 3 million acres.
On an average day, the researchers would be out in the field by 8:30 a.m., and spend the majority of the day outside, Stevens said. They would return to the lab with their data, where they could be seen working late into the night.
The majority of everyone’s time, though, was spent in the field, not the office.
“You can’t learn about vegetation in an office,” Stevens said. “That’s what’s happened now with research. You can’t learn it on a computer.”
Stevens and his colleagues had to deal with a number of challenges, namely competing plant species that had been planted decades before, inhibiting long-term growth on the plateau.
“The original seven species or five species we had to work with in 1915, 1920 became our greatest enemies,” Stevens said. Based on the knowledge available today, he said he made a lot of mistakes. “But the knowledge we had then—we did the best with what we had. And we should learn from that.”
Another challenge was the bears. Stevens remembers seeing 26 bears in one year. Researchers enlisted the help of a trapper from Mt. Pleasant. A bear trap can still be seen in the shed across the driveway from the former lab.
In addition to research, Stevens spent a good part of his career educating visitors at the station. From the 1970s to the 1990s, the Station had its highest concentration of workshops and visitors from around the world, Stevens said.
He spent the last five years at the Station teaching people from Russia, Mongolia, China, Ukraine, Africa and other countries about the practice of range science. Stevens and his colleagues would put on workshops at the Station, as well as travel across the west to teach about the practice.
After the 1990s, the administration of the station changed hands and the focus of its operations shifted. Now, in 2019, the operation looks to change even more.
Part 2: The changing role of the Great Basin Station from the 1990s to the present.