War with the Russian Olive
Invasive Weeds
Threaten Native Species
and Cause Havoc

by Joe Baird

Making An Impact: Bill Wolverton, a National Park Service ranger stationed at Glen Canyon, has made it his personal mission

Bill Wolverton first came to the canyon country of southern Utah a little over two decades ago, drawn like so many others by the rugged, desolate beauty of the Colorado Plateau, its vast expanses and twisting, labyrinth rock formations.

Unlike most tourists who pass through, Wolverton was so entranced by the place that he went home to Sacramento, chucked his job as a mechanical engineer and returned to live in this little town, located at the intersection of the Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

Along the way he took up a cause — which has since blossomed into a full–fledged obsession.

Now a National Park Service ranger stationed at Glen Canyon, Wolverton has declared his own personal war on the invasive plant species that have slowly overtaken the rivers, streams and washes of Utah’s redrock country during the last 15 years. Where cottonwoods and willows once stood, tamarisk shrubs and Russian olive trees now thrive, sucking up vast amounts of water, crowding out the native plant species and threatening the wildlife that depends on them.

“From an ecological standpoint, this is a huge disaster,” says Wolverton. “Tamarisk and Russian olive have basically turned our riparian areas into weed farms. This stuff is taking over, and if it keeps going like this, we’re heading for a dead end. Nothing else can compete with it.”

It is often a lonely battle. Save the brutally hot summer months, Wolverton, 57, heads out on regular forays into the gnarly gulches of Glen Canyon, armed with a chain saw, herbicide and a minimal amount of gear. Possessing the wiry frame of a marathoner, he sometimes leads organized groups, but more often than not is on his own and on foot in remote, ruggedly inaccessible areas where encounters with other humans are few and far between.

But Wolverton has made his mark. Glen Canyon botanist John Spence estimates that working solo and in tandem with others, Wolverton has cleared 31 miles of the Escalante River corridor of Russian olive and tamarisk over the last decade, replacing them with native cottonwoods and willows.

“That’s tens of thousands of trees,” Spence says. “That’s extraordinary, especially when you consider how incredibly difficult it is. Bill is absolutely invaluable. He has inspired a lot of people.”

Including other environmentalists. Lawson LeGate, a public lands specialist with the Utah chapter of the Sierra Club, has gone out on invasive–clearing expeditions with the Escalante ranger and come away from the experience with a mixture of admiration and awe.

“He has identified a problem and decided to single–handedly go out and solve it,” says LeGate. “He might be the most resourceful guy I’ve ever met.”

Typically, Wolverton will chop down an invasive — these days he’s almost exclusively focused on Russian olive, which he believes is spreading more rapidly and is much more destructive — then douse the stump with herbicide. Without the chemicals, he argues, the stumps will simply regenerate with shoots over time, leading to a new generation of trees.

Wolverton then either dumps the cuttings into the river or stream, or returns later to burn large piles when they have dried out. He acknowledges that some backcountry hikers who have come upon these scenes have found them less than atheistically pleasing, but says that, given the remoteness of where he operates, there are no other options.

“One good rainstorm usually washes it all away,” he says.

Wolverton says there is no longer any debate over the severity of the Russian olive problem in the Escalante canyons. Photos he took during his first visit to the region in 1980 reveal no Russian olive; snapshots taken later in the decade, after his relocation to southern Utah, show it creeping in. Now, the Escalante River and the streams that feed it are overwhelmed by it.

Given the debt he says he owes the canyon country, Wolverton felt obliged to do something about it.

Though gainfully employed in Sacramento by Southern Pacific Railroad, and to this day a self–confessed train geek, Wolverton says he was somewhat adrift when he first discovered Escalante. The solitude of the canyons appealed to his loner instincts. He knew he had found a home.

“This place gave me a focus at a time when I was floundering,” he says. “It’s an incredible piece of wilderness, and it’s done a lot for me and many others.

“That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing. I can’t stand the sight of it being taken over by this ghastly, awful weed. At this point, it’s my life’s mission to get rid of it.”

On some days, Wolverton wonders if he’s fighting a losing battle. He rails at the state, which until recently at least, continued to sell Russian olive for wind breaks or instant wildlife habitat — some bird species do use the plants.

Molly Waters, the state’s water conservation coordinator, says Utah agencies have since gotten out of the Russian olive business, but notes that neither it, nor tamarisk is yet on the state’s noxious weed list. Russian olive is prohibited in five counties; tamarisk has not yet made any county lists.

“It’s perfectly legal for people to plant these things; it’s just not very responsible,” Waters says. “The only thing we can do is to urge people not to use it.”

Wolverton also frets about the presence of Russian olive on private lands in the Escalante canyons. The seeds, whether transported by birds, wind or streams, can take hold and quickly begin wreaking havoc on the native ecosystems.

“It has the potential to wreck a lot of my work,” he says but notes that it’s only symptomatic of a larger issue.

“A lot of this is a human problem,” Wolverton adds. “When you dam the rivers, it gives it a chance to take hold and flourish because you no longer have those monster spring flows that wash away the banks.”

But he is undeterred. Wolverton is closing in on retirement age but says he has no plans to give up his campaign anytime soon. And for that, Glen Canyon officials are grateful.

“Bill is an environmentalist and outdoorsman, one of those lone wolves who spends all his time exploring,” says Spence, the Glen Canyon botanist. “He’s a true desert rat and with that passion has been able to go out and do something truly remarkable.

“We’re having a hard time keeping him going because of budget cuts, but we’re set for another couple years. And his being out there has really helped accelerate our work because he can go after this stuff himself. He’s a man on a mission.”


© 2006 Salt Lake Tribune,
reprinted with permission of the Salt Lake Tribune,
Joe Baird, “Invasive Weeds Threaten Native Species, Cause Havoc.”
Salt Lake Tribune, July 6, 2006.