One Man’s Weed War

This story originally appeared in the Canyon Country Zephyr in August/September of 2004. Bill is still in the thick of battle against invasive species of plants in the canyons. I hope to catch up with him and get an update about his war on weeds this summer. It’s hard to believe it has been ten years since I wrote this.  — Julia

Ranger Bill doing his thing--removing invasive plants.

Ranger Bill doing his thing–removing invasive plants.

“There’s one.”

Bill Wolverton, National Park Ranger, kneels and removes his pack. A very small Tamarisk stands next to the trail, its lace-like greenery changing into a fall peach tone, not unlike the color shift in the new $20 bill. In fact, it’s actually quite pretty, resembling an ostrich feather. He rummages through exterior zip pockets to find small, rubber-handled pruning shears and an old film canister, the kind that’s aluminum with a twist cap.

“Is that poison?” I ask.

“Yep,” he says.

He opens the film can and pours Garlon herbicide into a 4 ounce bottle with a dropper tip. He snips down the little Tamarisk plant, then squeezes the poison onto the small stem that still remains.

“That will kill it?” I ask.

“Yep.”

This is what it’s like to hike with Bill Wolverton. If there are non-native plants growing anywhere near his route, he will kill with impunity. Wolverton is a seasonal ranger with Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in the Escalante sub district. His mission has been to remove Tamarisk plants and Russian Olive trees within the Canyons of the Escalante. The task is almost overwhelming. The whole business of killing trees is a surprise to me if someone has had a calling to be a National Park Service Ranger. But the trees are not native—they are alien invaders intent on total domination.

Wolverton has lead Sierra Club Service Trips and Wilderness Volunteers on plant murdering sprees in the canyons, carrying pruning saws, loppers and sprayers in addition to their hiking gear. Some have called it the most rewarding hike of their whole lives. Others have struggled to keep up with Wolverton’s pace–and passion. On these latest trips, volunteers have even carried chain saws across the desert sands and down into the canyons to rid the waterways of the larger trees.

Cattle have not been allowed to graze in the canyons on the rec area for over twelve years, and the plants have literally taken over. And it’s not just the Tamarisk and Olive—willow, maple, rabbit brush, and native grasses have returned in abundance as well. In the desert, where there’s water there’s plant life. But the plants that keep Bill Wolverton awake at night are Tamarisk and Russian Olive.

Every fall, the Park Service has to place seasonal cattle fences in the bottom of side canyon entrances into Coyote Gulch, a tributary of the Escalante River. The fall colors down in the deep red and black-streaked canyon are gut wrenching in their intensity. The beauty is so impossible that it takes your breath away. It’s like being in Las Vegas for the first time, but the sensory overload is nature in the raw. And then you fall in love with the place. Apparently Bill is married to the canyons; the two are inextricably joined, and Bill is fulfilled in this relationship.

I decide to join Bill on the cattle fence patrol. I thought it would be a great way to kill a Sunday morning. As a new volunteer with the Park Service, I didn’t know exactly what to expect; I soon found out that there is plenty of manual labor involved. Bill hikes very quickly. I had heard rumors from the people that had hiked with him on other trips that his pace was a bit too fast, that keeping up with Bill was really tough. Naturally, I was a little concerned that I wouldn’t be able to hack a hike with him. But his pace was just fine with me, and we sped through about five miles in the canyon bottoms that day.

At two miles in, Bill snipped the little Tamarisk. At four miles in, Bill pointed to a canyon wall. “Look over there. There are some pictographs you might be interested in,” Bill said. I walked over to the canyon wall and sure enough there was an old standby, Devil Guy. Devil Guy is everywhere in southwest rock art. Whether it’s a pictograph or petroglyphs, Fremont or Anasazi, Devil Guy is pretty popular–more so than Kokopelli, but just not as aesthetically pleasing. This particular rendition of Devil Guy had a large male organ—“Thought you’d like that,” Bill chuckles. After I stop and look a bit, we walk on.

About 10 yards later, Bill turns around. “I put a Russian Olive over by those paintings. Didn’t you see it? I cut it down a few days ago and decided to put it there to test you, see if you saw it or even recognized it! YOU WERE TOO BUSY LOOKING AT ROCK ART!”

I cringe. “Bill you’re making me feel bad.”

“Good!” he says. I feel a bit of the showman seeping into Ranger Bill. His voice rises and he shakes his fists in the air. “At least my life has been lived for some better reason. I’ve taught you to feel bad for not seeing that plant.”

I’ve just been shamed into identifying non-native plant species. I keep my head up and my eyes peeled while hiking from that moment on. “So Bill…do you kill Russian Thistle, too?” Russian Thistle, better known as tumbleweed, has established itself well in the American Southwest. “No,” says Bill with regret. “It’s just too … too entrenched.”

Later, I ask Bill for some time to sit down and discuss his obsession with Tamarisk and Russian Olive. He agrees, but hands me an eleven-page memo he sent to his Resource Management superiors at Glen Canyon. “Read this first. Then ask me questions.”

I find that the memo is a detailed account of Bill’s work by himself and with the volunteer groups to kill off the intruding plants and trees. His final observation?

“Eradicating Russian Olive from the Escalante River canyons is going to be a huge job, and is going to take several years. It will not be easy, and constant follow up will be required to maintain control of it. However, it can be done, and the consequence of not doing it is to allow the Escalante and its side canyons to become a nearly continuous monoculture of Russian Olive from one end to the other, with nearly all the native vegetation replaced by the invader.”

Looking at Bill, he reminds you of someone that should be pushing paper in an office somewhere. His thick glasses and his deliberate conversational style click with his old day job: mechanical engineer for the Southern Pacific Railroad. He was laid off in 1982. He took odd jobs and lived off of his savings until he sold his house in California and bought his Escalante house outright in 1986. He had been hiking the Escalante Canyons since 1979, and since he was enamored with the country, he decided to make Escalante his home. “I wouldn’t live anyplace else,” he says. He became a part-time park ranger in 1988 because he admired the people doing the job. He added, “I was also out of a job and needed to do something.”

Bill’s house is unassuming, definitely a bachelor pad. The wood work throughout the house–doors, windows, trim and floors–is exceptionally well done. It’s one of his personal talents. The furniture is hodge-podge, a clear signal he doesn’t spend much time sitting around. He explains that the house used to be a one-room pioneer cabin. After several additions through the years, it now looks like a ranch style home. The kitchen is Bill’s next big project. A new bumper sticker waits on the dining room table: “Born OK the first time.” Camping gear and backpacks of various sizes sit waiting by the front door, ready for Bill’s next volunteer hiking group or patrol in the canyons. Even when Bill isn’t working, he goes hiking. His compulsive need to hike the canyons is an addiction he just can’t kick.

Bill says he became aware of Tamarisk when he first moved here. “I had read Edward Abbey–Desert Solitaire, Monkey Wrench Gang, and somewhere along there I became aware of it (Tamarisk). That was 25 years ago. I had no idea about Russian Olive until well after I moved here. I had no idea then that it was destined to become the nightmare that is has become.”

Tamarix chinensis, or Tamarisk, was introduced from Eurasia for erosion control in the west, and found its way into Utah by 1880. By the 1920s, the Colorado River and all its tributaries had fallen victim to the alluring plant from halfway around the world. Its seeds are so small that they carry easily on the wind.

The first effort to rid Coyote Gulch of Tamarisk began in 1992 or 1993 (Bill isn’t sure of the exact year). “We didn’t use any herbicide, just chopped it down. It didn’t take long to find out it was just going to come back with a vengeance. The first organized, concerted effort to eradicate Tamarisk in Coyote was April 1995, with Sierra Club. We used minimal tools, and had three herbicide sprayers between us. They all failed within the week. We made some progress.”

Bill elaborates: “Tamarisk seeds spread so far and so wide, you could take a bulldozer and gouge out a hole for a pond and sure enough, Tamarisk will grow in it after it collects rainwater. Even with minimal water, the plant will keep hanging on. I’m convinced, from what I’ve seen, that Tamarisk is everywhere.

“The Green River, the Colorado River, Tidwell Bottoms on the San Rafael…have vast forests of Tamarisk, acres and acres. I don’t know how you could do anything about it. I’m pessimistic. Perhaps an economic need for Tamarisk could make a difference; maybe we could turn the paper industry loose on it. The good thing about it is if native plants have the upper hand, they keep Tamarisk at bay.”

Russian Olive knows no such bounds. Birds eat and spread its not-really-fleshy seeds, which also wash down waterways during floods. The ornamental tree was brought to the desert southwest because it grew so well in drought conditions, and helped to prevent erosion. The Russian Olive was first brought to the Escalante Drainage in the late 1940s by the Soil Conservation Service. Local high school students helped with the tree-planting project. Now, in the upper reaches of the Escalante Drainage west of town, there is almost nothing growing except Russian Olive.

Elaeagnus Angustifolia L. (Russian Olive’s scientific name) is a so-called “shrub” with delicious smelling cream-yellow flowers in late May, June, and July that are reminiscent of a sweet musk cologne. The larger the Russian Olive, the larger its thorns, which are incredibly sharp. River runners would do well to steer clear of any branches hanging down into water corridors. Its silvery, pale green leaves are instantly recognizable. The tree’s home turf is in Western Asia and Southeastern Europe. Germans cultivated the plant in the 1700s as an ornamental; its popularity and its seeds spread from there. The reason it grows so well is its ability to fix nitrogen in its root system, thereby taking over rocky areas and riparian areas where cottonwoods have died. Russian Olive is so hardy it will grow anywhere between the elevations of 800 to 7000 feet above sea level, and any riparian areas in the Great Basin Deserts or the Great Plains.

“Everywhere you go in the west, Russian Olive is everywhere. It’s mind boggling, a monster. There is nothing that can compete with it. It will displace everything in the under story, and in time become the over story,” Wolverton warns. Bill finds an upside to the plant, though.

“The Russian Olive’s seeds make it easier to control so I’ve focused on it more. I’m trying to lead the way and show it can be done. Not just the initial clearing, but the follow-up work, upstream and at the initial seed sources. Follow-up is absolutely essential. If you don’t go back to make sure a tree is dead, you could come back a year later and have a HUGE bush of suckers—plus, there are always new ones.”

He showed me a slice of a felled Russian Olive’s stump, 29 inches in circumference, 9 inches in diameter. The wood was hard–almost as hard as a rock. Literally. If you hit someone in the head with the small wafer, they could be seriously injured or even die. The ring growth was phenomenal. It’s clear that the tree soaked up water like a sponge. Counting the rings, it was only 15 years old. This particular tree must have been huge.

“You can’t pound a nail into that stuff,” says Bill. “There just isn’t an awareness of what kind of a disaster this is. And nurseries are still selling it, and people are still planting it! The State of Colorado actually has the Russian Olive listed as a noxious weed and new plantings are prohibited. Riparian areas in the whole west are at risk.”

Wolverton’s mission of Tamarisk and Russian Olive eradication is an uphill battle that seems impossible. I’m puzzled. Why does Bill care as long as he gets a paycheck?

“I care about this place, the Canyons of the Escalante. It’s a very special place to me; it gave me a whole new direction in life–inspiration. The canyons gave me a focus. In the short time we’ve done this, the progress we’ve made gives me hope. Someone who cares will do it. They have to want to do it. They can’t be ordered to do it by the bureaucracy above.”

To date (this article was originally published in 2004), Wolverton and the volunteers who assist him have cleared 23.5 miles of the Escalante River corridor–over one fourth of the entire length of the Escalante–in three years. Coyote Gulch and several other side canyons have been completely cleared as well.

I ask Bill if he thinks Ed Abbey would have approved of his quest to rid the canyons of the exotic plants. Bill grabs his dog-eared copy of Desert Solitaire and turns to the section in which Abbey offers his polemic on what park rangers DON’T do anymore and reads aloud. Then he laughs a little and looks over the book at me.

“I think he would approve, and participate if he had the opportunity.”

It has been some time since I’ve spoken with Bill about the aliens. I cannot avoid seeing them if I’m out on an errand that requires a trip to Cedar City or Kanab, Utah. I look out the car window and all I see is Russian Olive and Tamarisk. How has it come to this? The one place I found that seemed to have a true riparian habitat was the Cottonwood Wash Road. Once you drove south far enough from Cannonville, the pale green invaders hadn’t encroached.

Bill in 2004, stalking a Russian Olive.

Bill in 2004, stalking a Russian Olive.

I decide that Bill is right. The plants are taking over. I’ve heard talk of control measures for Tamarisk, like releasing a beetle that eats the stuff (a thought that scares the hell out of me), and of camels being set upon it to graze (not as scary–it’s a native food for them back home in Eurasia). There is nothing that I’ve heard about Russian Olive, the real aggressor, that could stop its spread EXCEPT what Bill is doing: cutting it down and poisoning the stump.

Hiking in the Escalante River Corridor, you will still see the trees in some sections. Happily, non-natives no longer exist in Coyote Gulch, a canyon that is one of the gems of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The last time I hiked through the lush canyon, with its maiden hair ferns, horse tails, willows and cottonwoods, I silently thanked Bill and his volunteers.

And I chuckled as I walked past that Devil Guy pictograph panel.

Interested in helping Bill out on a service trip? Visit www.wildernessvolunteers.org or www.sierraclub.org and look for the trips headed to Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

If you would like an update on Bill in the last ten years since I wrote this, let me know in the comments below.

, , , , , , ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply