12.11.13

Removing Russian Olive from the Escalante: Progress in 2013

The restoration field season on the Escalante River in southern Utah has come to a close for 2013. In spite of some unusually heavy rains and the federal government shutdown that disrupted the work of dedicated federal partners, work crews remained productive and committed to restoring this incredible wild river in southern Utah.

Crews mainly used chainsaws to cut out Russian olive trees, a highly invasive species that is particularly destructive to desert rivers. Introduced in the 1930s to control erosion, the non-native tree soon began to spread and disrupt habitats. In the Escalante River region, they channelize the river, out-compete native trees and shrubs, and because they shade the river, the species alters the water temperature and chemistry. Because the trees channelize the stream and trap sediment, they also eliminate riffles, gradually deepen channels, and cause boulder and rocky stretches to be buried—all features needed for native fish species to survive.

This year youth conservation crews worked a 12-week fall season from August through October, camping and operating in the backcountry. They cleared 3.25 miles along the Escalante River itself and 6 miles of tributaries. In addition, private landowners used a combination of conservation crews and private contractors to remove Russian olive from 151 acres of private land. So what does it take to get this work done?

Fifty-five hard-working members of youth conservation corps. There’s no better way to understand their training, work and commitment than by watching this video, produced by Four Corners School of Outdoor Recreation. The work was organized by the Escalante River Watershed Partnership (ERWP).

Crew members from ReThink Diné Power, organized by Jordan Piña. Rethink Diné Power is a youth-run community project working to increase awareness of environmental issues and promote youth activism in the Four Corners area. Rethink Diné Power crew members worked on Russian olive removal in cooperation with the Escalante River Watershed Partnership, and they made this great video.

Two BLM-Utah Youth Program Superstars. The first is Kristina Waggoner, who works for Grand Staircase Escalante Partners, a Friends Grassroots Network member, to oversee youth corps crews who work in the watershed. In a short period, Kristina took the project from a single youth crew to eight youth crews that work not only in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, but also in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Dixie National Forest. A second “superstar” is Amber Hughes, a botanist at the BLM’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. She is dedicated to the success of the Escalante River Watershed Partnership (ERWP), having a direct hand in the past five seasons to remove over 1300 acres of this invasive species.

Successful outreach and support from the community. In August, Escalante Mayor Jerry Taylor, Grand Staircase Escalante Partners board member Noel Poe and many other people from the community congratulated corps members after their initial training and thanked them for their service. In addition, the second Leave it to Beaver Festival was held in Boulder, UT in late September highlighting the role beavers and other native species have on the river. More than 150 people attended.

Volunteer Russian olive “slayers.” Wilderness Volunteers, an organization whose mission is to organize and promote volunteer service in cooperation with public land agencies, organized an all-volunteer work trip to remove Russian olive on the Escalante River. Rebecca Glucklich, a volunteer, wrote this blogpost about her experience.

Leadership from members of the Escalante River Watershed Partnership. The ERWP consists of 30 participating partners, including local landowners, local business owners, city and county municipalities, non-profit organizations, conservation corps, and federal and state land agency employees. Their commitment and successes on the ground is serving as a model for other watershed partnerships around the west.

Members of ReThink Dine Power worked on the Escalante River, removing invasive Russian olive trees (Photo courtesy of ERWP)

Members of ReThink Dine Power worked on the Escalante River, removing invasive Russian olive trees (Photo courtesy of ERWP)