• Cutting a Clear Path

    A coalition of unlikely collaborators is reviving the Escalante River.
    By Julian Smith
    Photographs by Chris Crisman
 

O

n a bright October afternoon,

the whine of chain saws echoes off the sandstone canyon walls that surround the Escalante River in southern Utah. A crew with the Utah Conservation Corps is busy cutting down Russian olive trees, a tough, invasive species whose thorny thickets crowd out native plants.

“Starting up!” yells Keith Turdo before yanking his saw to life. When he reduces the next tree to a short stump, Turdo’s teammate Luke Rathman paints it with an herbicide that looks like thick cranberry juice. Both are bearded, dirty and clearly enjoying the labor.

They had to work hard just to get to this spot: As part of an eight-person crew, Turdo and Rathman hiked in for two hours from the nearest road. They spend eight days at a time cutting and camping out on-site, dealing with everything from flash floods to mice in the food tents. But it’s worth it, says crew member Jaynae Hartridge. “I thought it would be fun to experience the backcountry. And on top of it all, we’re doing something good for the environment.”

The five-year riverside project to remove woody invasive plants, now in its third year, is the first large-scale conservation effort organized by the Escalante River Watershed Partnership. With The Nature Conservancy’s help, the partnership is bringing together a diverse group of stakeholders who have not always seen eye to eye in the past—from conservationists and federal biologists to local sheep and cattle ranchers. Just a few years ago, getting these people into the same room might have been inconceivable to many.

This region had been a hotbed of activity during the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s and 1980s, when many residents called for greater local control over surrounding federal lands to allow more cattle grazing, logging and energy development—a debate that seems to rekindle itself every few years.

The creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in the heart of the region in 1996 may have brought visibility and tourism dollars, but frustration lingers over the federal effort to “lock up” neighboring lands. (The fact that President Bill Clinton announced the monument’s creation at the Grand Canyon, across the border in Arizona, only added to local resentment.)

So it is understandable that in the case of the Escalante River restoration, most parties to the discussions had serious misgivings about the people sitting across the table. But all sides eventually came together, for the most part, with one shared goal: to help preserve one of the most rugged, remote and spectacular rivers in the American West.

No animal without wings could cross the deep gulches in the sandstone basin at our feet,” wrote Almon Thompson, a member of John Wesley Powell’s 1872 Colorado River expedition, as he gazed over the tortuous canyons of the Escalante. Thompson was the first person in recorded history to map the river, which was likely the last river its size to be discovered by government surveyors in the Lower 48 states.

Starting at 10,000-plus feet in the alpine forests of the Aquarius Plateau, the Escalante snakes southeast for 90 miles to join the Colorado River at Lake Powell. The river is ridiculously crooked—one section covers 14 miles overland but would actually measure 35 miles if straightened out—and carves its way through sheer-walled gorges of Mesozoic sandstone for much of its length.

Today the Escalante is one of the last free-flowing rivers in the West. It crosses the closest thing in the United States to Australia’s Outback: thousands of square miles of rocky desert, sheer gorges and sublime beauty—all with very few roads or people. The river’s 1.3 million-acre watershed spans two counties (Garfield and Kane) that together count only 12,000 residents in an area the size of New Hampshire. Many are farmers and ranchers, like their Mormon pioneer ancestors. The two largest towns in the watershed are Boulder (pop. 220) and Escalante (pop. 783). Boulder was the last town in the United States to receive its mail by mule train, which it did until 1935.

“There’s a lot of love for the landscape here,” says Linda Whitham, the Conservancy’s central canyonlands program manager. “People are really passionate about this watershed.”

It’s easy to see why. The drive along Highway 12, which stretches between the towns of Escalante and Boulder, may well be the most scenic, wild and spectacular 27 miles of road in the country. The view is an otherworldly landscape of petrified sand dunes and rocky ravines, a topographic map in raw stone, with a palette made up of every skin tone on Earth. At one point the road traverses the Hogback, a ridge barely wide enough for two lanes of asphalt, with sheer drops on both sides.

In this unforgiving landscape, the Escalante River provides habitat for more than 200 species of migratory birds, including the threatened Mexican spotted owl and the endangered Southwestern willow flycatcher. Five species of native fish live in the river and its tributaries, and black bear, mountain lions and elk all pass through the watershed.

The Escalante faces many of the same challenges as other tributaries of the Colorado River. An invasion of non-native plants like Russian olive and tamarisk have clogged its banks and disrupted hydrologic cycles. More than a century of farming, ranching and other development has affected the river’s flow through pumping, dams and other diversions. Climate-change models predict the arid region—already parched by a decade-long drought—will experience even worse dry spells in coming decades.


The idea for a watershed-wide conservation partnership came during a campfire chat six years ago between the Conservancy’s Whitham and John Spence, chief scientist for Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The two discussed how 97 percent of the Escalante’s watershed is public land, including Dixie National Forest, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Glen Canyon, but the agencies simply lacked the resources and coordination to tackle the river’s problems as a whole.

They needed to find a way to bring folks together on subjects where there was agreement. The idea developed into a series of discussions, to which the local community was invited. But for it to work, old grudges had to be set aside.

“There’s a deep-seated distrust of the federal government here,” Spence says. As elsewhere in the rural West, local livelihoods are often dependent on vast stretches of public land controlled by decisions made thousands of miles away. In the past decade, counties here have challenged the Bureau of Land Management over ownership of the roads, off-road vehicle enthusiasts protested limitations on motorized vehicle access with a 300-person drive through the national monument’s riverbeds, and the Utah senate passed two bills in 2012 demanding that the federal government hand over 30 million acres of land.

So it was little surprise that the meetings hit a few snags early on, but they quickly gathered momentum. “We learned right away you have to have 100 percent transparency,” says Whitham. “You have to leave the doors open.” She means it literally: During the first stakeholder meeting at the Boulder community center, one participant found residents gathered at the nearby post office, wondering what was going on behind the closed doors. The community center doors were opened immediately and are now always left ajar.

“We try to be very careful not to come in and tell people what they can and can’t do,” Whitham says. And that approach has been successful. The Escalante River Watershed Partnership’s list of allies and stakeholders has grown and become remarkably diverse, from federal and state agencies and scientists to local businesses, landowners and conservation groups, including one called Great Old Broads for Wilderness.

The Conservancy has helped with everything from planning and fundraising to setting up research projects, and in 2010 the Walton Family Foundation stepped in and committed to five years of funding for riverbank restoration and the removal of invasive plants. The partnership’s 10-year restoration plan also includes scientific research and public outreach, such as workshops, field trips and school presentations, aimed at involving residents as much as possible.

One thing almost everyone in these parts agrees on is that the Russian olive trees must go. Introduced by the government after the Dust Bowl to reduce soil erosion, the tree eventually infested the Escalante’s entire main corridor and larger side drainages. “In some places it’s so thick you can’t see the river, much less the other side,” says Kristina Waggoner, the partnership’s project coordinator.


The fast-growing plant crowds out native species like cottonwoods and willows, and its dense roots trap the river in a narrow, ever-deepening channel. As a result, the water table drops and the streamside habitat zone shrinks. To top it off, the tree is covered with long thorns that form a nasty streamside barrier to both animals and people.

Back at the removal site, the young work crew is breaking for lunch. They gather on the sunny side of the canyon and everyone plops in the dirt, loosening laces and pulling out water bottles and PB&Js.   

The crew members, mostly in their early 20s, come from all over the country. By general agreement, the best things about the job are the setting, the camaraderie and the work itself. It’s physically demanding, says crew leader Kendra Fortin, but satisfying to be able to measure your progress day by day—and it’s fun. “I’m here because I love chain sawing, and I really love the people.” She laughs. “Mostly the chain sawing.”

This year, eight eight-person crews rotate their work schedules on various parts of the river. During the cutting season, from late August to early November, one crew can clear more than 100 yards of riverbank in a week, depending on the concentration of non-native vegetation. They save time and effort by girdling the largest trees—cutting away a ring of bark and cambium just above the roots to kill the trees. The stumps of smaller trees are re-treated with herbicide in the summer, when temperatures can hit 100 degrees and the use of chain saws is reduced to avoid disturbing migratory birds.

This part of the canyon was once among the most heavily infested sections on the river. Now most of it has been returned to an open gallery of cottonwoods and willows. The piles of Russian olive logs scattered around the sandy soil will soon rot or wash away. Crews have already cleared the invader from half the river and all but one of its major side drainages. The original five-year goal might have to be extended a year or two because of the surprising density of some of the growth, Waggoner says, “but I think we’ll finish.”

The most contentious topic the partnership has been tackling is the restoration of beavers to the Escalante’s headwaters. In the high desert, farmers and ranchers have traditionally considered anything that restricts water flow as the enemy, says Sage Sorenson, a Bureau of Land Management outdoor recreation planner in Escalante who has worked with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources on beaver-reintroduction efforts. As a result, beavers were eliminated from much of their historical range throughout the state.

Now that beavers’ important role in watershed hydrology is better understood, this view is starting to change, albeit slowly. “Beavers’ whole mission on Earth is to make big ponds and more complex streams,” says Sorenson. Beaver ponds filter pollutants and capture sediment, nurturing the creation of marshes and meadows. They raise the water table and release water downstream slowly, over months, instead of in spring floods that carve deep arroyos and choke reservoirs with sediment.




Over the past few decades, beaver dams have slowly started to reappear in the remote portions of the Escalante Canyon and a few isolated feeder streams. Utah State University’s Watershed Sciences Department has helped the partnership map where the animals already live and where they could potentially be reintroduced or relocated from problem areas. In September 2012, the first annual “Leave It to Beavers!” festival brought music, food, games and films to Escalante, along with educational tours of beaver dam sites and live-trapping demonstrations. Even so, some long-held prejudices against the beaver have yet to be erased. Residents report the animals are still being shot regularly, and in 2013 the state wildlife agency halted live-trapping and beaver reintroduction in the watershed at the request of the Garfield County Commission.

Efforts to expand native fish populations, on the other hand, have seen county, state and federal agencies work side by side to improve habitat for the Colorado River cutthroat trout, a Western subspecies reduced to less than 15 percent of its original range. Building fish passages and replacing barriers like road culverts let the fish return to sections of river that had become inaccessible. Selectively removing non-native species (the Forest Service has used fish poisons) gives the Colorado River cutthroat a fighting chance to stay.

In just a few years, the partnership has made real progress. It raised nearly $2 million for restoration efforts in 2012 and has injected money into the local economy by bringing in field crews and hiring residents. In both 2012 and 2013, the Escalante was honored by the Department of the Interior as one of America’s Great Outdoors Rivers, an initiative to improve recreation while supporting local communities.

“I don’t know what we’re doing right, but it’s snowballed,” Spence says. The partnership is already being held up as a successful standard among granting agencies and facilitators across the Southwest, he says.

The public-private pairing is essential to the partnership’s success, says Carolyn Shelton, assistant manager for science and visitor services at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. So is the recognition that a healthy watershed sustains not just native plants and animals but people as well. That’s where the Conservancy’s experience at finding middle ground comes into play, she says. “The goal isn’t to change everybody’s mind. It’s to do the best
you can protecting the resource.”

Since streamside habitat makes up a tiny fraction of the entire Escalante watershed, the focus will eventually have to shift to the region’s uplands, says Dennis Bramble, a retired professor from the University of Utah on the partnership’s science committee. Bramble and Whitham agree that the creation of large reference areas for long-term monitoring will be a crucial part of future efforts, especially since researchers predict the Colorado Basin could see up to 50 percent less precipitation by the end of the century. Yet climate change is such a thorny issue here that even organizing a workshop on the topic can
be a delicate proposition.

But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible, Shelton says. “In 27 years with federal agencies in six states, this is the most controversial place I’ve worked,” she says. “It’s also the most successful project.” •


"We learned right away you have to have 100 percent transparency. You have to leave the doors open."

Linda Whitham, The Nature Conservancy
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View a Photo Gallery Aerial photography was made possible by LightHawk donated flights. Special thanks to volunteer pilot Will Worthington. (www.lighthawk.org)