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Science and Innovations

Earth Notes: Restoring a Watershed, One Russian Olive at a Time

Those who have bloodied hands or arms on the inch-long thorns of a Russian olive, or dulled a chainsaw on its dense wood, know that it takes determination and brute force to clear away these tough nonnative trees. Since 2000, this formidable task has been underway along the Escalante River in southern Utah.

Introduced in the 1940s to combat soil erosion, Russian olives took to the Colorado Plateau with gusto. They have crowded out native willows and cottonwoods, forming virtually impenetrable thickets along hundreds of miles of washes and river bottoms.

Bill Wolverton, backcountry ranger for Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, led the earliest efforts to remove Russian olive from the lower Escalante River canyons. In 2006, Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument botanist Amber Hughes joined in, leading volunteer outings in the canyon’s upper reaches.

Through their Herculean efforts, people began to envision the seemingly impossible—controlling Russian olive in the entire Escalante River watershed.

Such an immense effort demanded collaboration among state and federal agencies, nonprofits, local businesses, and private citizens. In 2009, informal cooperation evolved into a formal group, the Escalante River Watershed Partnership.

Regional conservation corps crews play a leading role in the restoration work, including the Coconino Rural Environment Corps. Since 2009, more than 50 CREC (pronounced “see-rec”) Corps members aged 18 to 25 have taken on the grueling, yet gratifying work. All of the river’s tributaries are now Russian olive-free, as well as 40 percent of the main canyon.

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