Rose Houk

Land Lines

Earth Notes: WAG Bags

Sep 22, 2021

The coronavirus pandemic has led to an explosion of recreational use on public lands across the Southwest. Land managers have been overwhelmed by the dramatic increase in visitation and by the amount of human waste left behind.

For decades, backpackers, hunters, boaters and campers have been coached to dig a “cathole.” But now public land agencies and the Leave No Trace Program are recommending the use of WAG bags: individual-use plastic bags complete with hand sanitizer, toilet paper and an enzyme powder to break down solid waste.

Sheila Murray

A team of botanists with the Arboretum at Flagstaff just finished a two-year survey of three rare plant species found at Capitol Reef National Park in southern Utah: the endangered Wright’s fishhook cactus, the threatened Winkler’s pincushion cactus and the Last Chance Townsend Daisy.

U.S. Forest Service

Across the country, iconic signs mark the trails, campgrounds and other features on nearly 200 million acres of land managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

The signs were the brainchild of long-time Forest Service employee, Virgil Carrell. ‘Bus’, as he was commonly known, wasn’t a professional designer, but he was a professional forest ranger. He started his career in the West, and worked nearly every job expected of a ranger in the 1940s and ‘50s.

Gary Alpert, MNA Center for Bio-Cultural Diversity

There’s a new conservation plan for springsnails in Nevada and Utah. It’s aimed at protecting these strictly aquatic snails that depend entirely on springs for their existence.

More than 100 species of springsnails are known in the two states. Some of these unique gastropods are about the size of a match head, others are microscopic. They have names like the Rocky Mountain duskysnail, Green River pebblesnail and Grand Wash springsnail.


Douglas-fir trees are a well known fixture in the Pacific Northwest; their common name honors Scottish botanist David Douglas who collected seeds in Oregon in the early 19th century. But, an inland variety also grows here in the Southwest.

They grow mostly – but not exclusively – at higher elevations on cool, moist north-facing slopes. The Douglas-fir is a conifer, but is neither a pine, a spruce, nor a true fir. It’s in a genus all its own.


There are a lot of ways to go solar, including joining a solar co-op. The basic idea is that there’s power – and financial incentive – in numbers. Cooperative purchasing programs can lower the cost of solar panels and other equipment by offering bulk discounts to groups of home and business owners.

AZGFD/George Andrejko

The Arizona Game and Fish Department is on the lookout for thousands of acres of habitat for one of the most endangered animals in North America: the black-footed ferret. Ideally, it would be an area of healthy grassland with a substantial population of prairie dogs, the ferret’s main food source.

Of thirty known bumble bee species in the western U.S., the bombus occidentalis – the western bumble bee - is among the most common. But their numbers are drastically declining.

Over the last two decades, these yellow-and-black furred insects have experienced a 90% drop in abundance across the West. That’s according to research by Jonathan Koch , an entomologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Logan, Utah. His data adds to a growing body of research with the same alarming findings.

Blowholes are commonly associated with ocean coastlines, but they exist in the desert too. One of the most well-known of these is at Wupatki Pueblo near Flagstaff.

Blowholes are essentially small openings in the earth where air blows out or gets sucked in, acting as a natural fan of sorts. Researchers in northern Arizona believe the Wupatki blowhole is connected to an extensive underground system of fractures.

It measures a few inches across and has been enclosed in a masonry box so visitors can lean over for a blast of cold air on a hot summer day.

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

A series of rubbled hills runs alongside Highway 89 about thirty miles north of Flagstaff. They look fairly unremarkable, but really, they’re remnants of mines that once produced pozzolan.

Pozzolans are a class of silica- and aluminum-rich materials commonly derived from explosive volcanic deposits. The early Romans knew of their value, incorporating them into aqueducts and buildings. The word pozzolan comes from a town in Italy.