Cryptobiotic soil crusts are an important component of semiarid and arid ecosystems. An important role of these crusts is the contribution of fixed nitrogen to cold‐desert ecosystems. This study examines the residual effects of various intensities and combinations of different surface disturbances (raking, scalping, and tracked vehicles) on nitrogenase activity, chlorophyll content, and chlorophyll degradation in these soil crusts. Nine months after disturbance chlorophyll content of disturbed soils was not statistically different from undisturbed controls, except in the scalped treatments, indicating recovery of this characteristic is fairly quick unless surface material is removed. Differences in chlorophyll degradation among treatments were not statistically significant. However, nitrogenase activity in all treatments showed tremendous reductions, ranging from 77–97%, when compared to the control, indicating this characteristic is slow to recover. Consequently, assessment of crustal recovery from disturbance must include not only visual and biomass characteristics but other physiological measurements as well. Areas dominated by these crusts should be managed conservatively until the implications of crustal disturbance is better understood.