Coalition makes ground on war with tamarisk

Key to improving access to river

Tess Ruswick with the Southwest Colorado Conservation Corps plants a cottonwood and takes soil samples on the Dolores River near Bedrock. BLM ecologist Amanda Clements looks on.


A coalition of land managers, ecologists, and young adults have been slowly eradicating invasive plant species on the Lower Dolores River the last five years.

On the frontlines is the Dolores River Restoration Partnership, formed in 2009 to restore native habitat on 175 miles of the river - from McPhee Dam to the confluence of the Colorado River.

The war on the non-native tamarisk plant is especially showing results, said Mike Wight, river restoration director with Durango-based Southwest Conservation Corps.

"We've really tackled the tamarisk problem, with an initial treatment that covered 1,105 acres," he said. "We're seeing 767 acres trending towards native vegetation and are continuing to monitor all our worksites."

Controlling the pervasive tamarisk plant is improving access to the river, bringing back native plant habitat, and opening up views of the river from scenic byways like Colorado 141.

"Removing tamarisk also reduces fire risk, opens up land for cattle grazing, and improves wildlife habitat," Wight said. "For boaters and recreationists, it clears areas for additional camping along the shore."

Each spring and fall, an army of young adults are trained in plant identification and then trek to remote sections of the Dolores river armed with chain saws and herbicides.

The crews are provided by the Southwest Conservation Corps, Canyon Country Youth Corps, Western Conservation Corps, programs supported by AmeriCorps.

"The project has a great mix of environmental and social benefits," Wight said. "We're teaching ecology and providing jobs all while improving riparian habitat."

The partnership has raised $3.8 million in funding for the project from private and public entities, including the BLM, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and The Nature Conservancy.

On the Tres Rios BLM section of river below McPhee dam, 198 acres were treated for tamarisk control, opening up campsites and creating more natural shorelines. Another 85 acres are planned for invasive plant controls there.

Through the youth corps and local contractors the Dolores River Restoration Partnership has provided 200 jobs. And since 2009, 210 volunteers provided 2,114 hours of labor and service.

"The project has given me a thirst for learning more about conservation work," said Aaron Lewis, a worker with the Southwest Conservation Corp.

Lewis' commitment landed him an internship with the BLM to continue restoration efforts on the lower Dolores River.

"I'm very excited to be able to monitor what we have already done and continue contributing to my community and environment," he said.

A key component is follow-up treatment, Wight said.

"We don't just cut and leave. After initial treatments, we transition to long-term maintenance, sending out strike teams to monitor where we have been to conduct follow up treatment of new sprouts. Our goal of helping native plants get the competitive edge."

Native willow, sumac, and cottonwoods are planted, and native grass seeds are spread around where tamarisk once dominated.

In 2013, the organization seeded 626 acres along the river.

Besides removing tamarisk, the organization also removes Russian knapweed and Siberian elm throughout the watershed.

"It has been a great success story that we plan to continue," Wight said. "Restoration in the desert is a slow and arduous process that takes place at remote work sites. The young folks are key to the success because they are so enthusiastic and want to earn an outdoor education."

For more information visit their website at: www.ocsfortlewis.edu/drrp/default.htm

View a you tube video of the Dolores River Restoration Crew: http://www.youtube.com/user/tamariskproject

The 2013 conservation crew took on the invasive tamarisk plant on the Dolores River. Enlargephoto

Courtesy photo

The 2013 conservation crew took on the invasive tamarisk plant on the Dolores River.

Workers with the Canyon Country Youth Corps, out of Utah, string up riparian fencing along the Dolores River to protect the shoreline. Enlargephoto

Courtesy photo

Workers with the Canyon Country Youth Corps, out of Utah, string up riparian fencing along the Dolores River to protect the shoreline.