Youth Corps volunteer cutting down Russian Olive trees along Escalante River  that have been crowding native plants and trapping the last free-flowing river in the West.
Youth Corps volunteer Youth Corps volunteer cutting down Russian Olive trees along Escalante River that have been crowding native plants and trapping the last free-flowing river in the West. © Chris Crisman

Newsroom | The Nature Conservancy

Celebrating a Monumental Milestone along Utah’s Escalante River

Partnership effort to remove 90 miles of Russian olive, restoring entire river

Salt Lake City, UT

Imagine invasive plants so thick you can’t see a river just a few yards away. A combination of public/private collaboration, sweat equity, muscle power, chainsaws, and local and national engagement have changed that picture in south-central Utah.

A monumental effort is underway along the Escalante River in southcentral Utah to complete the 90th mile of Russian olive removal, which completes removal along the entire river! The thorny thickets grow fast—and set deep roots—crowding out native cottonwood trees and willows. Several work crews are scheduled to tackle the remaining removal throughout the year to cross the finish line.

“When I think about what we’ve accomplished in the last nine years, I’m overwhelmed with pride and excitement, says Linda Whitham, The Nature Conservancy, Utah’s Central Canyonlands Program Manager.

An idea that was originally sparked over a campfire transformed into one of the most extreme and ambitious conservation efforts in the Escalante River Watershed—a rugged, remote and spectacular place in the West.

The Escalante river twists and turns for 90 miles before joining the Colorado River at Lake Powell. The wilderness surrounding the river provides a home to over 200 migratory birds, including the southwestern willow flycatcher, Mexican spotted owl, as well as black bear and desert bighorn sheep, and several federally-listed native fish species.

“In the 1980’s the highly invasive tree from Eurasia rapidly invaded the Escalante River corridor, fundamentally altering the structure and function of the riparian and aquatics ecosystems,” says John Spence, Ph.D. and Chief Scientist and Terrestrial Natural at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. “Land managers realized there was an urgent need to combat the invasion before there were irreversible changes and loss of biodiversity.”

To tackle the problem, conservationists, biologists, community members and state and federal agencies formed the Escalante River Watershed Partnership. This cast of diverse stakeholders found hope in common ground: a desire to preserve the river.

The effort is reaping big benefits though it has required years of painstakingly difficult work and persistence.

“One of the most rewarding, yet challenging pieces of this project on public lands is the remote-nature of this landscape. Worksites along the Escalante River are miles from roadways. Crews hike many miles one-way into the back county carrying equipment and personal gear to work for up to 8-days at a time on this project. We also hire local horse-packers to haul heavy gear to and from worksites throughout the fall season. It’s a huge undertaking, but through everyone’s commitment, we’ve all been able to accomplish unprecedented goals for a restoration project of this scale in the west.” says Stephanie Minnaert, Public Lands Program Coordinator with Grand Staircase Escalante Partners.

Since 2009, hundreds of conservation corps members and volunteers among others made this possible.

“I believe this is one of the most ambitious and comprehensive invasives removal projects ever to be undertaken,” shares Whitham. “Because of the perseverance of so many, the river is returning to its natural state and enhancing habitat for fish and wildlife.”

The benefits also impact recreationists and the local community. In fact, the project boosted the local economy by bringing field crews to the area and offering job opportunities for local contractors.

Many groups and individuals are scheduled to treat Russian olive trees throughout the year along the Escalante including Conservation Corps members and volunteers from groups like Wilderness Volunteers, Vanderbilt University’s Alternative spring break program, and Sierra Club, to name a few. Together, they will be part of an historic effort to restore native riparian habitat along the entire stretch of one of America’s most scenic and free-flowing rivers.

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 72 countries, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.