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Wet Meadows of the Rim Country

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Photo courtesy A. J. Larson

It is no secret that water is one of the most precious resources in the desert. Despite living in the high mountains where we experience substantially more precipitation than the lower Sonoran Desert hardly an hour or two away, the Ponderosa and high Spruce/Fir ecosystems are still drought prone environments that depend heavily on the small amounts of moisture and water bodies that can be found. 

 

A unique feature of the Rim Country, is the regular presence of wet meadow seeps that are characteristic near the headwaters of the north flowing drainages in this area. Atop the Mogollon Rim, between Show Low and Highway 87 to the West, the water flows northward from a venous network of creeks and canyons into either the Clear Creek drainage or the Chevelon Creek drainage, which all eventually flow into the Little Colorado River. Much of the water begins as a seep or spring from wet meadows found at higher elevations near the edge of the Mogollon Rim. The drainages flow gently northward as many of them cut deep and intricate canyons through the sandstone and limestone layers, leaving the canyon bottom observer gazing high into the sky to examine the extent of the towering rock. They flow northward and down in elevation through different ecosystems to an elevation of less than 5000 feet at their meeting point in the grassland plains of the Little Colorado River valley along Interstate 40. 

 

These wet meadows, while a vital source of water for the watershed, are also an essentially important micro-environment for a large variety of wildlife species; some of which may depend on these wet meadows almost entirely. Like a giant sponge, these meadows often have soil that allows the water to soak outward and upward from the water source, providing an immense diversity of native grasses, willows, flowers, and forbs with the water they need to thrive, even through periods of drought. In turn, the abundance and diversity of native plants are utilized by a large variety of wildlife for anything from cover and a place to live, to a source of nutrient rich food. Water is a true magnet to life in dry ecosystems due to its chain like affect on how it provides flora and fauna with all the necessary interlaced requirements to achieve a healthy and balanced ecosystem. 

 

A large lush wet meadow is utilized by the large variety of wildlife species. They can provide high quality forage for large ungulates like elk and deer, often waiting until the cover of darkness to reveal themselves spread across the verdant ground. The thick and tall jungle of grasses and flowers amongst the willow trees provides an immense amount of cover and habitat for a seemingly unimaginable diversity of insects and microorganisms, serving as a base food source for a large variety of wildlife. Turkeys may be seen, clucking along through the tall grass feeding upon this diversity of insects. Down into the rich soil layer, native mice and voles craft their pathways through the vegetation which protects them from the aerial predators perched high over the meadows. 

Photo courtesy A. J. Larson

With a conservation emphasis now being placed on many of the native imperiled aquatic wildlife species, efforts to reintroduce species such as Northern Leopard Frogs and Little Colorado Spinedace into some of these wet meadows will help to restore the unique biodiversity that is characteristic of wet meadows in Arizona. To assist in maintaining the integrity of the habitat for some of these sensitive native species, some wet meadows have been enclosed with a fence, which is referred to as an “exclosure”. This is due to the fact that the intent of these fences, is to exclude large grazing ungulates and livestock from feeding too heavily amongst the meadow and potentially damaging the soil below. In our modern times, we have manipulated the landscape so that there is more standing water than in historic times. A benefit of this is that native ungulates and livestock are better able to spread and utilize the landscape. However, with larger numbers of ungulates than historically, the wet meadows now receive a higher intensity of use and therefore must be protected at times with an exclosure fence. 

 

If you want to get out and see for yourself the biodiversity these meadows bring, now is the time. As monsoon season is nearing its end, the rich diversity of plant life in the meadows is peaking. A lush green understory dotted with a rich pallet of color can be observed in many locations near Rim Rd. 300 as it parallels the course of the Mogollon Rim. One of the better sites for viewing is located at the head of the Gentry Creek Drainage. This is a site which is referred to as the “Double Cabin Exclosure” near the O’Haco lookout tower. Near the exclosure stands the remnants of an old cabin, with visible hand hewn axe marks along the side of the logs. This is a small exclosure by some standards, but within it lies a maze of large willows emerging from chest high grasses and flowers below. A small pond is contained within the exclosure, fed by a number of springheads within. To see this site for yourself, will require a vehicle of at least an AWD Subaru or better for the last mile of road. The site is reached via FR300 to FR115 near the Apache-Sitgreaves/Coconino National Forest Boundaries. FR115 is then driven northward for just over 4 miles to the intersection with FR56, FR56 is then driven for ~1 mile and a right turn onto FR40. From there it is less a mile down the hill to the Double Cabin site at Bessemer Crossing.