06.20.12

The Escalante River and Removing Invasive Russian Olive Trees

The Conservation Lands Foundation wants to help inspire people to become advocates for the National Conservation Lands. And for many people, that first step is often doing something—something physical where you’re outside, on the land and often happily getting dirty.

The many organizations that are part of the Escalante River Watershed Partnership know exactly what this kind of advocacy is about. Formed in 2009, this diverse partnership of private organizations and government agencies is removing invasive species, Russian olive in particular, from 70 miles of this river.  Most of the Escalante River runs through the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, the Glen Canyon Recreation Area, and some private lands.

People walk the river corridor with clippers, saws and sometimes chainsaws to cut the stuff down. They apply herbicide to the stumps to keep it from growing back. Sometimes they have to walk half a day or longer to reach their work site, and they often stand in the river to cut. They make big piles of slash for later disposal. They work long, hot days to grapple—and beat—these brambly, scratchy, thirsty trees that are choking the river, crowding out native plants and shading the water, which raises its temperature and harms aquatic species. A revered river for paddling, Russian olive trees grow so thick in some places on the Escalante that river runners can barely pass through.

For some, removing Russian olive from the Escalante is a paying job. Bureau of Land Management employees, national park employees, youth conservation corps, and private contractors are all at it. And so are a big number of volunteers—advocates—who sign up through Wilderness Volunteers, The Nature Conservancy, or other non-profits that organize volunteers to work on public lands. Together, they are making progress.

There is also a great deal of research, scientific study, additional planning and monitoring taking place through the Escalante River Watershed Partnership—in conjunction with the physical work of removing these non-natives.

Many groups in the Conservation Lands Foundation’s Friends Grassroots Network are waging battles against Russian olive and numerous other nonnatives that are negatively impacting habitat on the National Conservation Lands. For example, take a look at the Amargosa Conservancy’s work to improve this desert ecosystem for various species of rare pupfish. Friends of Nevada Wilderness have several opportunities this summer and fall for volunteers to do a range of projects, everything from monitor high-elevation springs, remove old fencing that harms wildlife, to improving trails in riparian areas.  Volunteers from the newly formed Lower Dolores Boating Advocates, based in Dolores, Colorado, are participating in an urban river clean-up to help shed light on the connection and impact river towns have on downstream wild lands.

The effort to remove Russian olive on the Escalante River, with Friends Grassroots Network group Grand Staircase Escalante Partners playing a lead administrative role, is among the most ambitious and far-reaching.  You can see some excellent “before and after” photographs of removing Russian olive from the Escalante River here. And below is a short video of the river, national monument scenery and some of the work we’re describing.