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Crews team up to revive southern Utah's Escalante River

Published November 7, 2011 9:31 am

Watershed • Partnership removes thorny invaders to give Escalante drainage a makeover.
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Escalante • Good intentions went awry here in the past century — setting in motion the slow decline of a pristine desert river — and now an unprecedented public-private partnership is working to reverse the damage.

The Escalante River's watershed starts in alpine forests on southern Utah's Boulder Mountain and flows past ranch and tourist towns into the yellow sandstone canyons that lead to Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Along the way, it crosses Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, a backcountry playground that helped attract the attention of the Walton Family Foundation and others that have pledged hundreds of thousands of dollars for a five-year restoration pact.

Russian olive trees planted to prevent soil erosion have crowded out native willows and cottonwoods on the banks, confining the streams and erasing habitat for wildlife and cattle. Eradication of beavers, originally meant to send more water to downstream ranchers, backfired by drying out the mountain's spongy storage capacity.

Still, advocates for the river and its tributaries saw enough potential in the remaining native vegetation to team up and save it. And its focal point as a natural wonder made the Escalante a natural candidate for help.

"People love it," said Linda Whitham, Central Canyonlands program manager for The Nature Conservancy and a co-founder of the Escalante River Watershed Partnership. "The time was ripe to get in there before things got worse."

The cooperative, with a $600,000 budget this year that's mostly private funding, is working to banish the invaders with chain saws and herbicides. Later, with the state's help, the groups hope to re-establish beavers to dam parts of tributaries and restore marshy meadows.

Broad coalition • The partnership is unusually broad for a conservation effort in Utah. It includes the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management — all of which own most of the land in question. But it also involves Youth Conservation Corps workers, private landowners who invite them to cut the nonnative trees, state resource agencies, community leaders and at least two dozen groups or individuals dedicated to the cause.

"This is real interesting because we all seem to be working in the same direction." said Noel Poe, president of Grand Staircase-Escalante Partners, a nonprofit that acts as an educational and conservation advocate for the monument and is administering the tree-removal program on public lands.

The Boulder Community Alliance is coordinating efforts on private lands.

"When you talk to [ranchers] across the fence," alliance director Boz Bosworth said, "they say, 'What took you so long?' " Some ranchers are lending their own equipment and labor.

The need was obvious, said Poe, a Kanab resident who has watched the riverbank thickets closing in.

"The Russian olive tree has just taken over the Escalante River in the last 25 years," he said. "It's so dense."

One result is a cooling of the waters. High on the mountain, native Colorado River cutthroat trout thrive in cold water. On the desert, though, it threatens warm-water species: roundtail chubs, flannelmouth suckers and bluehead suckers.

The dense tree roots also keep the streams in narrow channels, causing them to cut deeper during floods instead of jumping their banks to meander.

The nonnative olive trees — not gourmet food producers, as the name might suggest, though their berries do feed birds — were supposed to stabilize soils and help the environment when the U.S. government started handing them out after the Dust Bowl. They did just that on many farms around the West, but, in southern Utah, the trees have colonized entire riverways, crowding out native vegetation and cows that cannot get through their nail-like thorns. The thorns also present a painful obstacle to recreational floaters, and sometimes pop tubes or rafts.

A jungle out there • Those spikes also pose problems for backpackers looking to cross the streams.

"It's like a jungle," said Sam Stripes, a 24-year-old crew leader from Seattle who spent the summer and fall working for the Utah Conservation Corps, a youth-employment program affiliated with Utah State University. His crew was preparing for the season's final weeklong camping trek into the backcountry with chain saws and spray cans late last month. "There are very few native plants."

The workers wear chaps and rugged shirt sleeves to protect against the thorns.

Below Highway 12 west of town, a Canyon Country Youth Corps team worked along Birch Creek, lopping and stacking Russian olive stems that sprouted from the stumps cut earlier this year.

"It's the most passionate I've ever felt for work that I've done," said Joe Hall, a 25-year-old Michigan high school dropout who has worked less-fulfilling indoor jobs. "It's the first place I ever went backpacking," he said, recalling a youthful trip west, "so it kind of came full circle."

His squad trimmed the stumps and sprayed a purple herbicide in hopes of keeping a third growth from springing up.

The partnership's goal is 95 percent reduction in Russian olives in key drainages over the five-year plan. The partnership then will stick together for monitoring and, where needed, repeat treatments to give the native vegetation time to re-establish itself.

"They grow back really quickly," said Kristina Pack, a project coordinator hired by Grand Staircase-Escalante Partners. "They're out there to live."

Retired University of Utah biology professor Dennis Bramble is an area landowner who started restoring his own land and now is working with the partnership. Uncontrolled grazing also affected his property, he said, though he has leased it periodically to ranchers at times when overgrazing isn't a threat.

"It lost most of its native grasses," he said. "Lots of soil erosion. The water table dropped 25 to 30 feet and dried out meadows."

Native grasses have now returned, he said, as have natural springs. He hopes the same will happen throughout the region.

"This [partnership] has a chance," Bramble said, "to open a lot of people's eyes to what the watershed was and could be."

If it works and breeds copycats, the Escalante could help lead countless degraded Southwestern streams back to health. Already Canyon Country Youth Corps is planning similar work in the Price River drainage.

bloomis@sltrib.comtwitter: @brandonloomis —

Escalante River watershed project

Covers 1.6 million acres, from above Boulder and Escalante to Lake Powell.

Includes 15,000 acres of riparian canyon vegetation, much infested with Russian olive.

Involves federal, private and nonprofit partners, including youth crews paid largely through the Walton Family Foundation.

Targets beaver reintroduction to restore marshes.






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