Less than two weeks ago, my hiking boots were mostly clean and I fell asleep listening to the sounds of the ocean. I was at home in Southern California, where I often drive straight from college to go camping with my parents and my brother at the nearby state beach that we’ve been visiting since I was a child. Whenever I see the blue-gray waves crashing on the shore, the familiar coastline reminds me I am home. For my family, camping usually entails parking the trailer on the dirt or asphalt, riding our bikes around the campground, walking along the shoreline, looking for and exploring shallow tidepools, and ending each night with a campfire.
During our last camping trip, I was preparing to begin my WRFI course, which entails backpacking while learning about environmental conservation across different boundaries, like public and private land, or human-made geographic borders. Oftentimes, this conservation takes place through the collaborative efforts of multiple agencies, groups, and individuals.
Tonight, in Montana, my WRFI group is camping in single-person tents on an exposed stretch of land, at more than 9000 feet above sea level. It’s our fourth day backpacking in the Snowcrest mountain range, which is part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Hours ago, we made our final push up a steep, muddy hillside, forging our own way as most of the trail was blocked by early summer snow, which is not unusual for this region. At the top, we dropped our packs and laid down in silence as I felt the alpine air’s thinness in every breath. In my triumphant exhaustion, I stared up at the blue sky and thought mostly of nothing, other than how content I was to be still. Despite the unfamiliar region, I felt at home alongside my new friends as we supported each other throughout the trek.
Before this trip, I had never been backpacking, and had rarely crossed such a variety of ecosystems and terrain by camping in this way, in which we packed up and moved upwards nearly every day. As the tree cover decreased and elevation increased, I was often equally as focused on both my surroundings and my next footsteps as I convinced myself that, somehow, I could do it.
In the lower, more forested section of the trail, I noticed bright green lichen standing out among the tall dark green trees and rich wet dirt. Each lichen looked like a tiny, flowing piece of coral, made up of complex structures. Multiple species were anchored to various branches of different pine trees, both dead and alive. Our field guide, Plants of the Rocky Mountains by Linda Kershaw, Andy MacKinnon, and Jim Pojar tells me this is a shrub lichen called wolf lichen. We have also seen common witch’s hair, which is a paler green lichen that gently cascades down from the branches. Lichen is made up of a symbiotic relationship between fungi and a photobiont (algae or cyanobacteria), and often reproduces through fragmentation or by releasing spores. Information about these organisms is among the countless new things I learn throughout our days.
As we hike up and cross a natural boundary into this new, higher elevation alpine ecosystem, I’m thinking of species survival through a different lens: what can survive up here, in such cold, exposed, and seemingly barren conditions? The area is primarily covered in dry yellow grass, small patches of snow, and a few trees, in the distance.
When we walk over a small hill for class in the morning, I start to see my answer. On each gray boulder nestled among the grass, entire worlds of flat, colorful, and rough lichen exist, most black, pale green, and orange. Unlike their lower elevation counterparts, these lichen grow outwards, stretching out over each rock rather than extending from their spot on a tree branch. We look at each color through a hand lens, marveling at the detailed structure. Up close, the black lichen has a brain-like texture, while the orange is created by a seemingly countless number of small, textured bumps. Judging by this bright orange color of many of the organisms, this lichen appears to be in the Xantharia family, which consists of leaf lichen.
As I’m looking down at the rocks, lichen, and flattened grasses, likely due to snow and wind, I suddenly see a tidepool, with algae and seaweed left exposed as seawater water rushes backwards.
Despite the differences between here and the tidepools I have seen near the ocean’s shores, the similarities are what stick out to me. Both lichen and creatures in tidepools survive and persevere in harsh, rapidly changing environments. In the Handbook of the Canadian Rockies, Ben Gadd writes that lichens “tend to concentrate pollutants . . . [which] hurts them, of course, and many species cannot grow in polluted places” (405). As pollution continues and climate change alters high-elevation alpine ecosystems, I wonder what happens to these lichen. I wonder too how tidepool organisms react to pollution that is concentrated in the oceans. What will happen to tidepools as climate change warms these waters and causes sea levels to rise?
With our class discussions about conservation on different scales and across different boundaries, moments like this make me wonder about physically smaller species, or those who aren’t endangered, but may indicate climate change or other environmental problems. The surprise of seeing a version of tidepools so far from home simultaneously comforts me, and reminds me of the countless organisms and species that can be impacted by anthropogenic climate change. Looking forward, I am hopeful about seeing conservation approaches that continue to focus on species both big and small, and across countless different ecosystems.