Throughout the Southwest, there are admonitions not to set foot on a certain type of soil. Sensitive hikers are usually mindful of staying on the trail, usually meaning being careful not to step on plants. But, soil? It turns out that cryptobiotic soil is the engine that sustains life in arid climates all over the world, such as the Southwest. Without cyanobacteria, the most important ingredient in the soil, it would be safe to say that life could not exist wherever it is found. It binds to sand and dust particles and other organic material, such as lichens, moss, fungi and algae, to become resistant to wind and soil erosion, to store water and, by fixing atmospheric nitrogen, to support the germination and flourishing of plants.
This incredible organism covers 75 percent of ground on the entire Colorado Plateau. Unfortunately, the soil is easily damaged by a careless placement of the foot or tire. It may take many years, a century even or more, for the soil to regain its previous vitality. This is why it is important to tread only on designated trails.