For the first time in 30 years, native trees dominate the Escalante River, one of the last free flowing tributaries of the Colorado River that runs through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
While a thousand people live in the Escalante River watershed, millions of visitors come here to play, recreate and enjoy this stunning ribbon of green in a vast slickrock wilderness. The river’s restoration is the result of an unprecedented partnership of state and federal agencies, nonprofit organizations, businesses and private landowners coming together to restore health to the Escalante River watershed through invasive species removal.
At one time, planting Russian olive trees was a solution for stabilizing the blowing sands of Escalante. And it worked, until the 1980s, when a critical mass of the trees spread dramatically along the river. Gentle banks became steep and difficult to traverse, and denied the flood plain from receiving the life-giving nutrients of the river during regular flood cycles.
Combined with creating deep shade over the water, the river became more like an irrigation trench than a wild and winding river. The water temperature cooled and there was no place for fish to spawn, impacting the Roundtail chub, Flannelmouth sucker and Bluehead sucker, all identified Utah sensitive species.
Riparian zones in the desert are rare and precious commodities, supporting the majority of what is a surprising diversity of life in Grand Staircase-Escalante. The monument’s original boundaries contain 85% of the biodiversity found in the state of Utah.
The restoration of the Escalante River started as a community-led endeavor and, over the past 10 years, has employed more than 600 youth corps members – often providing a life-altering experience of working in one of the most remote locations in the lower 48 – in addition to a dedicated local team employed by Grand Staircase Escalante Partners.
The enduring success of this flagship program that has been emulated in other watersheds throughout the Colorado Plateau is at risk. Thirty-four miles of the Escalante River are located within Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and a final management plan for this area is expected to be released by the Bureau of Land Management soon. The BLM’s draft plan proposed opening the river corridor for grazing allotments, which would be a recipe for disaster for ranchers, cattle and recreationists alike. Grazing cattle in fragile riparian zones can lead to degradation in water quality, stream bank health, and wildlife habitat.
Grazing leases were all sold along the Escalante river in 1998, when a rancher had a near-fatal fall after the horse he was riding slipped on the icy river banks and trapped him for hours. Convincing other ranchers to sell their leases to Grand Canyon Trust was not difficult, as even 21 years ago, the conflicts between cattle and recreationists were becoming problematic.
Some 96% of the lands of the original Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument are available for grazing leases and, since the monument was designated in 1996, the amount of “hooves on the ground” has only decreased by 0.5%, despite two decades of devastating drought. Following the lead of local ranchers, the life-sustaining riparian corridor of the Escalante River should remain as one of the few places that leases are not available.
This column originally appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune.