Blain Stilson pilots the customized seed-planter on the test project at Porphyry Bench.
The machine itself could pass for a work of modern art, which means at first glance you ask yourself, "What is it?"
A little explanation from Division of Wildlife Resources habitat biologist Nicole Nielson clears up the mystery. She also explains why deer, who wouldn't have a clue about what is going on in the boondocks of Porphyry Bench west of Price, may appreciate what the machine is leaving behind.
It is basically a surplus Korean War-vintage track dozer, still bearing the "USN" initials that were painted on it more than a half century ago. But this is a modified, fully-customized dozer, altered by the DWR's Great Basin Research Center to be a seed planter. Somebody at the Ephraim-based center even dressed it up with a chrome-plated death's head shift knob on the lever that raises and lowers the plow blade.
Blain Stilson's gloved right hand is on that silver skull as he guides the dozer along an impromptu path through the pinyon and juniper, following the hot pink ribbons hanging from the trees. Stilson is a DWR equipment operator. As his machine lumbers along on its tracks, something unusual is going on up on top.
Two metal boxes on either side of the front end are bouncing up and down. Each box is mounted on something of a half-axle. At the other end of the axles are car tires which sit on top of the tracks. As these tank treads roll along, their traction blades force the tires up and down, which shakes the boxes.
The shaking mixes the seeds that are inside and sends them down a tube. The tube rides right behind a knife-like furrow maker in front of each track.
"So the seeds go down in the furrow and then the tracks come along and push the dirt over them," Nielson explains. "It's a lot faster than I expected," she adds. "We started this yesterday and we're almost done now. I'm not sure how many acres it covers but we've gone over two miles of track."
Nielson says the dozer is for planting seeds that need a cover of dirt. Want to know what kind of seeds? Okay, they are Fourwing Saltbush, Indian Ricegrass, Small Burnet 'Delar,' True Mountain Mahogany and Stansbury Cliffrose - the namesake of this project, which has been dubbed the Porphyry Bench Cliffrose Planting Phase I.
For plants that don't need to be planted so deep, there's a standard-issue broadcast seeder mounted on an ATV moving on ahead of the dozer. Jimmy Bates, a DWR seasonal worker, is handling that job. He has alfalfa, Blue Flax, Bluebunch Wheatgrass and Forage Kochia in his bucket.
The project is fully-funded by Conoco-Phillips, which has gas production facilities in the area. C-P has already contributed to other DWR projects in this region. Other gas producers have funded other wildlife projects elsewhere. "The companies are stepping up to the plate on this, and that's good to see," she comments.
This is a test project to see what will "take" in this environment. The long-range goal is to improve habitat for deer.
The pinyon-juniper cover in this test area is not as thick in some other places, so the seeds should do alright, biologist says. "Deer don't like to be in the open too much. They like to have some cover. It's a balancing act between cover and food."
As with any test, the proof will come next spring and summer, and what happens then will depend a lot on what kind of winter Carbon County will have. Last year's wet winter was good for the tree-clearing and forage planting near Hiawatha, she said. But fingers are crossed about the moisture conditions ahead.
"That's the thing about weather," she laughs. "It can make you look like geniuses or idiots."