High Mesa Grassland
Location: Fremont CountySize: 1100 acresDesignated: October 1982Land Manager: Bureau of Land Management
That comment was made in 1881 by E. B. Sopris, the government surveyor who laid out the townships containing High Mesa Grassland. It is still probably the best description of this 1100-acre Natural Area managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
While most areas in Colorado containing "good grass" simply became "good grazing" for domestic livestock, High Mesa Grassland took a different route. Located on the north rim of the Arkansas River Valley, high above Cañon City, High Mesa (known locally as Somerville Table or Table Mountain) had good grass but no water. Small numbers of cattle grazed the area sporadically, but the area could never support either large numbers of livestock or for very long without a water source. Therefore, unlike many montane grasslands in Colorado, the species composition at High Mesa has changed little since the late 1800s. Parry oatgrass, mountain muhly, junegrass, western wheatgrass, slender wheatgrass, blue grama, and others form the grassy matrix of the Natural Area. Penstemon, cinquefoil, groundsel, goldenaster and lupine provide splashes of color through the summer. Where the soils are thin and rocky or the volcanic bedrock is exposed, dense shrublands of oak and mountain mahogany form islands in the sea of grass.
The "High Mesa" part of this Natural Area's name comes from the underlying geology. A cap of dense volcanic rock protects the underlying granite, sedimentary rocks, and volcanic ash flows from the erosion that cut the Arkansas River canyon half a mile deep next door. The cap is part of the Thirtynine-Mile Volcanic Field, which was active periodically between 35 and 27 million years ago and spewed out thousands of feet of ash and lava. A final burst of volcanic activity about 19 million years ago produced the protective cap of andesite that forms Table Mountain.
Some scientists think that High Mesa Grassland is similar to what the floor of South Park, located 30 miles north of the Natural Area at nearly the same elevation, looked like before 1850. Beginning in the late 1860s, South Park became a center for hay and livestock production. Numbers of livestock grazed in South Park peaked at nearly 40,000 sheep and more than 100,000 cows in the late 1920s. This intense, long-term use took its toll on the grasslands of South Park, removing virtually all of the palatable grasses and leaving a relatively sparse plant community consisting primarily of junegrass, blue grama, and fringed sage. If the scientists are correct, then High Mesa Grassland could serve as a model for restoration of the original plant community of South Park.
Table Mountain has been much honored over the years. The Somerville Table Research Natural Area was established by the BLM in 1965 (its 680 acres form the core of the modern High Mesa Grassland Natural Area). Somerville Table was recommended for National Natural Landmark status in 1968, although it was never given that status. The High Mesa Grassland Area of Critical Environmental Concern and Colorado Natural Area was established by the BLM and the Colorado Natural Areas Program in 1987.