Tamarisk, Russian olive removal improves local riparian areas
by Steve Kadel
Staff Writer
May 16, 2013 | 7623 views | 0 0 comments | 19 19 recommendations | email to a friend | print
(Left photo) Before work began in the winter of 2009, thickets of Russian olive and tree of heaven crowd the pathway in Rotary Park. Several months later (right photo) the area is cleared and healthy cottonwood trees thrive along the walkway.                      Photo courtesy of Rim to Rim Restoration
(Left photo) Before work began in the winter of 2009, thickets of Russian olive and tree of heaven crowd the pathway in Rotary Park. Several months later (right photo) the area is cleared and healthy cottonwood trees thrive along the walkway. Photo courtesy of Rim to Rim Restoration
Habitat restoration projects during recent years are turning Grand County’s riparian areas once choked with tamarisk and Russian olive into healthy sites with thriving native plant species.

State agencies along with private organizations have made particularly big inroads at the Scott M. Matheson Wetlands Preserve, Mill Creek, and Russian Bottom, according to representatives for the groups.

“The Nature Conservancy has done huge amounts in the Matheson Wetlands,” said Kara Dohrenwend of Wildland Scapes. “They have reduced Russian olive in the wetlands by three-quarters over the last six to 10 years.”

Workers from Wildland Scapes’ partner organization, Rim to Rim Restoration, waded into Russian olive thickets along Mill Creek in the Moab city limits to remove the invasive plant over the past two years, earning praise from Moab Community Development Director David Olsen.

He said some people who bid on Russian olive removal contracts don’t complete the work once they find out how nasty the thorns are. However, Rim to Rim did the job thoroughly and efficiently, Olsen said.

The work was funded by a $30,000 federal redesign grant administered through the state Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands that was awarded in 2011 and runs through June 1. The money has not only allowed the removal of invasive plants but also added native cottonwoods and willows, Olsen said.

The work took place along Mill Creek from Matheson wetlands to Mill Creek Drive and along Pack Creek to Spanish Trail. Olsen said 30 acres of public land and 10 acres of private land were cleared and improved.

Reduced fire danger is another benefit of thinning, he noted. Olsen recalled the large fire at Matheson wetlands in 2011, saying he believes earlier thinning saved many nearby homes.

He pushed for revegetation along the Mill Creek corridor to prevent loss of habit for birds and other species.

Farther upstream on Mill and Pack creeks, Dohrenwend’s Wildland Scapes and the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands have spearheaded removal of tamarisk and Russian olive. Dohrenwend called the riparian area along Mill Creek “a tangled thicket” before removal began more than 10 years ago.

After removal, the banks were replanted with native trees, forbs, grasses and shrubs.

Alison Lerch, national fire plan and sovereign lands coordinator for the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, said that agency assisted the Mill Creek project with funding and work on the ground to take out tamarisk and Russian olive.

“We did mostly the initial cutting and chipping,” she said.

Lerch estimated that 75 percent of the tamarisk and Russian olive along Mill Creek has been removed and the ground treated afterward.

“That’s a huge accomplishment,” she said. “One of the most important parts of these projects is the follow-up treatments.”

A variety of grants has allowed the post-removal work to continue, Lerch said.

But the work doesn’t stop with removing invasive plants and adding ones native to the region. Dohrenwend also has conducted an ongoing vegetation monitoring project along Mill and Pack creeks for the past six years.

Twelve sites on the creeks and others on the main stem of the Colorado River are monitored to watch the changes after tamarisk and Russian olive are removed, Dohrenwend said. She wants to know which sites recover and become healthy, and which struggle.

“The idea is, are there better ways to design these projects?” Dohrenwend said. “Are there positive changes? How does the vegetation respond on the site? If the removal was done in 2001, was there any planting after that? Was there knapweed control?

“We’re trying to better understand what we are doing in order to make better decisions.”

A report on the monitoring effort is due in late June. It will become public, she said, after it is shown to the groups that provided some funding for data collection – Forestry, Fire and State Lands and the Walton Family Foundation.

Dohrenwend said there’s been a big effort to remove Russian olive along the Colorado River as well as at Mill Creek. As tamarisk declines due to the leaf beetle, she said, Russian olive becomes more prolific.

“The only thing worse than a Colorado River choked with tamarisk is a Colorado River choked with Russian olive,” Dohrenwend said.

Linda Whitham, central Canyonlands program manager for The Nature Conservancy, confirmed Dohrenwend’s assessment of invasive plant removal.

“We probably have removed about 500 acres of tamarisk and Russian olive,” Whitham said. “That’s on a 900-acre wetlands. We feel pretty good about it.”

Bull rushes are being targeted on the preserve, too. Whitham said there’s little wildlife use for bull rushes, which grow rapidly and dominate what otherwise would be good wetlands habitat.

“It piles into … multiple feet of dead stuff, which just adds to the fuel load,” she said.

The Nature Conservancy burns bull rushes in hopes of bringing water back into the system. The work has been funded by a federal grant received years ago, and subsequent matching grants.

“Now we are just finishing, doing re-treatment in the preserve,” Whitham said. “We’ve had a very good track record of attracting grants for these projects.”

Community support has been vital, she added.

“We’ve done several volunteer events to do native plantings in the preserve,” Whitham said. “We’ve had such great support from the community. People keep coming back because they really care about the preserve. We appreciate their help because we couldn’t do it without them, and the firefighters.”

The Nature Conservancy also is working with private landowners to remove Russian olive and tamarisk along the Colorado River and its tributaries, said Sue Bellagamba, the organization’s Canyonlands regional director. The Nature Conservancy began riparian restoration efforts in 2006 in partnership with Grand Canyon Trust, she said.

At Jackson Bottom, officials with Plateau Restoration Inc. estimate that student groups from several states have worked 2,000 volunteer hours since early March. They’ve removed tamarisk and planted shrubs and native grass, said Michael Dean Smith, director and founder of Plateau Restoration.

“It didn’t cost the public anything and the students came out having learned a ton,” he said. “We’re making a big push because state and federal agencies gave us a lot of plants.

“It looks fantastic. The extra moisture this year helped, and the extra cold weather during the winter cracked some seeds.”

Overall, Smith said Plateau Restoration has gotten more than 70,000 volunteer hours of work in the last 15 years.

Work on 67 acres of Jackson Bottom just off Potash Road has been proceeding for three years of a 10-year project, he said. The goal is to plant 3,000 shrubs and 10,000 plugs of native grass.

The Division of Fire, Forestry and State Lands is close to completing another tamarisk and Russian olive removal project along Castle Creek in Castle Valley. Fuel reduction was a big goal of the project, Lerch said.

“We created a 30-acre fuel break that goes through eight different land owners’ property,” she said. “That 30 acres was a dense forest thicket and there are many homes along that creek area.”

A grant from the Utah Water Restoration Initiative has allowed follow-up treatment and planting of native species, Lerch said. The Wild Turkey Federation is another partner, she added.

“We have four more acres for removal and then the project will be finished,” Lerch said.

Mill Creek Revival celebration set for Saturday

The public is invited to celebrate the progress that has been made in restoring Mill Creek to its native habitat during the Mill Creek Revival on Saturday, May 18.

The event kicks off with a volunteer tree planting at Cross Creeks Park, 100 South 100 West, from 8:30 to 11:30 a.m. Those taking part should park in the Zax parking lot and bring gloves, sturdy shoes, sun protection and water.

The celebration continues from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Rotary Park with remarks by Moab Mayor Dave Sakrison and riparian restoration experts, free lunch, music by the Grand County High School Band, and guided walks down Mill Creek to explain the work that has been done. Helen M. Knight Elementary School fourth graders will be on hand to help attendees make special Mill Creek watercolor paintings.

Costumes are optional, organizers said, and attendees are encouraged to come as a riparian plant or bug or animal.

The celebration marks the work done by the city of Moab, Rim to Rim Restoration, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Forestry Fire and State Lands, and The Nature Conservancy to remove Russian olive and tamarisk trees that were crowding out cottonwood groves along the creek.

“Mill Creek is being restored to the gem that Moab’s pioneers first enjoyed,” The Nature Conservancy’s Canyonlands Regional Director Sue Bellagamba said in a news release.

The revival is hosted by the Southeast Utah Riparian Partnership, whose mission is to restore, protect and maintain a healthy riparian ecosystem in Utah’s Colorado River watershed.

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