Tamarisk may think they’re going to take over the area surrounding the Dolores River. We advise them to think again. On the Dolores, three conservation corps are on the job. The Canyon Country Youth Corps, Western Colorado Conservation Corps and Southwest Conservation Corps are taking on one of the west’s most daunting restoration challenges – removing invasive species such as tamarisk along 175 miles of the river, which runs through southwestern Colorado and eastern Utah.
It’s a job for those with strong wills and strong backs. Young people, ages 18-26, from diverse backgrounds, are hired by the Conservation Corps for eight to twelve week stints. They work long days in the elements, camp and cook together.
Weighed down with 18 pound chainsaws and 20-pound daypacks, they may hike up to 2 miles to a work site every day. As soon as they arrive, chainsaws buzz for eight hours.
As Conservation Corps member Jake Lee writes in his blog, the work is grueling yet meaningful. “I hear relatively few words and fewer laughs being exchanged on the hike back to the truck. We are spent. Covered from head to toe with dust, dirt, and wood chips, our sweat-soaked shirts are beginning to dry. We are hungry and thirsty. Yet we aren't dragging our sore feet or slouching with bowed heads under the weight we carry. We move with purpose.”
Carving a Path
While the restoration work improves the river, reduces wildfire risk and ensures recreation opportunities, Corps members are also carving a path for their future.
“I applied for the chainsaw crew to learn a new skill set, to experience something vastly different from the last four years that I spent in college, and to challenge myself to whatever it took to get through the program,” says Hanna DeSalvo of Durango, Colorado.
“We deal with changing plans constantly but still accomplish our work and personal goals in spite of this,” says Chris Panawa. “If you can finish a season, you finish it with new skills and abilities that can benefit all aspects of your life.”
While earning job skills, corps members also earn Americorps Education Awards, which go toward student loans or furthering education. So far, $89,000 has been awarded to young people to improve their future.
The Truth about Tamarisk
To fully understand the important work corps members are doing, you need to know about the impact tamarisk has on our environment. Since being introduced as an ornamental plant and windbreak in the mid-1800s, the pesky plant has spread to cover 1.6 million acres across the West, mostly along streams. The plant, also known as a salt cedar, threatens native cottonwood and willow trees because it grows in dense stands, can produce up to 500,000 seeds per plant, and increases salinity in soils. Tamarisk also sucks water, increases wildfire spread, chokes rivers and alters stream flows.
Because of the growing tamarisk threat, the Conservation Corps, The Nature Conservancy, Bureau of Land Management and others launched the Dolores River Restoration Partnership in 2009. So far, the effort has created 175 jobs for young adults and restored 821 acres.
Key to Success
“Strong partnerships are the key to conservation successes,” says Mike Wight, Conservation Corps River Restoration Director. “We know that by working together we can protect our lands and waters for generations to come.”
“Mike is fostering and inspiring a new generation of conservationists who are committed to solving our most pressing challenges,” adds Peter Mueller, the Conservancy’s southwest Colorado program director.
The Nature Conservancy has been committed to developing solutions for Colorado’s most important lands and waters for nearly 40 years. Our focus on the Dolores is to restore the river to good health while meeting the needs of people.
As the river improves, lives are changing, “I have seen my fellow crew members grow physically stronger, fitter, healthier, more agile and mentally tougher – more confident, more determined, more resilient, more adaptable, more eager to overcome challenges without hesitation,” adds Lee.
A program designed to eradicate invasive plants is also empowering young people to become future conservationists.