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Utah group goes on divine quest for rare toads

Published August 28, 2012 12:52 pm

Faith • Spiritual environmentalists take a hike to help identify range of a vulnerable species.
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Alta • To the other hikers, it might have looked like a barefoot, summertime frolic on the banks of an alpine lake, but a handful of faithful Utahns really were on a toad hunt for God.

Volunteers from Interfaith Power & Light, an environmental coalition of churchgoers, climbed past Albion Basin to Catherine Lake on Saturday in search of the rare boreal toad. The U.S. Forest Service is unsure whether the creature lives there, and the volunteers set out to help answer the question.

For the agency, it's strictly about maps and numbers — an effort to learn where the four-inch amphibian persists and may need protection. It occupies 1 percent of its historic breeding places and is under evaluation for Endangered Species Act protections.

For the volunteers, it's about getting into God's creation and taking action to save it.

"More and more we become so disconnected from nature," said Dale Ann Petersen, a Bountiful Episcopalian who brought two children on the jaunt. "We might go to church on Sunday, but I feel like we're called to do more than that."

Plus, she added, kids love frogs and toads.

Sadly for them, they didn't find any on Saturday. But that's still potentially valuable knowledge — just not great for the family photo album. The kids did see wildlife, though, including a brook trout that they pointed out to a fly fisherman who then hooked it in one cast.

Boreal toads, like many of the world's amphibians, are threatened by a fungus. Biologists believe habitat protections can help reduce stress and can keep outbreaks in check.

Interfaith Power & Light is a nondenominational group in 38 states seeking to combat climate change and install solar power generators on churches. But Susan Soleil, executive director of the Utah branch, said a broad sampling of environmental protections, including habitat preservation, are related to climate and deserve the group's attention.

"Learning more about where [toads] live, we hope, will make people more passionate about their faith and taking care of the Earth."

She brought a daughter with a friend to help, and they slogged through muddy banks and crystalline water looking for signs of toads or tadpoles.

"I love getting my girls outdoors, and we stress service projects of different kinds," Soleil said. "I thought this was a wonderful combination of service and outdoors."

Jason Brown, a Mormon with theology and forestry degrees who teaches ethics at Utah Valley University, organized the search. He spent the summer as a temporary Forest Service technician and said he saw the toad tracking as a rehearsal for larger service outings that might help restore declining aspen stands, for instance. He wanted to learn how to work through the agency volunteer coordinators and do the necessary paperwork.

Toads or any threatened species are worthy of some spiritual attention, he said.

"Depending on the faith tradition, biodiversity can be sacramental of God," Brown said, "or [indicate] God's presence."