Project looks to restore damaged section of river to natural state
“I see one!” shouted Kate Graham. “Two!”
She stepped gingerly through chest-high clumps of invasive Russian knapweed in her Chacos, thumbs clipped through her life jacket, hunting for young shoots of native skunkbush sumac she had helped plant on Dog Island in the spring of 2016 as part of a restoration project.
Graham is the assistant director for the Colorado Canyons Association, a nonprofit that works closely with the Bureau of Land Management to care for and protect the three National Conservation Areas skirting Grand Junction — Gunnison Gorge, Dominguez-Escalante and McInnis Canyons, the last of which is home to Dog Island.
With the help of an army of volunteers from the wide conservation network that operates in western Colorado, Graham, her co-workers and BLM officials have been attempting to restore Dog Island’s vegetation after a visitor from Breckenridge set off fireworks there two summers ago, in August of 2015, and burnt it to a crisp.
“She was black, as black as night,” said BLM river ranger Troy Schnurr of the island after the fire.
Schnurr has been keeping track of the local stretch of the Colorado for 27 years, and he’s one of the people spearheading the Dog Island restoration efforts.
The island, a large, sand and stone bank a little over a half-mile long, sits about two-thirds of the way between the Loma Boat Launch, just northwest of Fruita, and Westwater, the first river access point across the border in Utah.
It’s a very popular river outpost, hosting a shady, roomy campground on its western side, and it’s now slowly starting to recover from the fire.
It’s not a barren wasteland but has greened up — yes, with fast-growing, weedy Russian knapweed but also with sage, salt grass and many other native and non-native plants.
And though most of the cottonwoods studding the island are now scorched skeletons, fresh foliage from sucker shoots have begun to poke up from around some of the burnt trunks — a sign that the fire didn’t completely fry the root systems.
“Even though the trees look bad, they’re still alive underneath,” said Schnurr.
But these little victories toward recovery belie the painstaking, time-consuming and unpredictable road of restoration.
Invasive plant species famously excel at taking over landscapes after fires or other destruction, and knapweed and Canadian thistle reign on Dog Island, creating a sea of weeds in which young native sumac shrubs can hardly be seen, much less thrive.
“Ecologically, this is a pretty sick island,” Schnurr said.
More than the proliferation of weeds, Schnurr mourns the loss of cottonwoods, staple riverside habitat that stabilizes river banks and shelters wild animals — and recreators — from the elements.
Some of the cottonwoods on Dog Island were probably over a hundred years old, Schnurr said, but only took a moment to burn down the night of the fire.
“We’ll never see old cottonwoods like this again on this stretch in my lifetime,” he said, gazing at the bleached white trunks of the dead trees.
After the 2015 Dog Island fire was doused, Schnurr was one of the first people to survey the damage and begin clean-up.
He and other BLM officials, including Collin Ewing, who manages the region’s National Conservation Areas, brought in a crew from the Western Colorado Conservation Corps, an organization that recruits youth volunteers to help with service projects, and began to clear out fallen trees and burnt tamarisk, another invasive plant overwhelming many parts of Ruby Horsethief.
By the fall of 2016, Graham and the Colorado Canyons Association had secured funding through the Colorado Water Conservation Board to restore three areas in Ruby Horsethief, one of which was Dog Island.
The association worked with Ewing, Schnurr and others to replant the island’s native species, like sumac, supplied by the Upper Colorado Plant Center in Meeker, a nonprofit that specializes in revegetating disturbed environments with natural growth.
The group also continued to clear out dead tamarisk, and they trimmed back extraneous cottonwood growth to encourage the recovering trees to focus their energy on establishment.
The game-plan for Dog Island now, a year after the original restorative push and two years after the burn, is to treat invasive weeds with herbicide and wait for nature to take its course, Schnurr said. He said once the weeds die, the native plants should move in to replace them.
But there’s more hands-on work to be done elsewhere in the canyons. Dog Island isn’t the only target for Schnurr’s and Graham’s conservation and restoration efforts.
Along the 25-mile Ruby Horsethief stretch, the Colorado snakes through the McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area and borders the Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness, protected lands managed for use by the BLM.
Too much revelry
With its easy access from the Grand Valley and numerous campsites along the way, people take advantage of this solitudinous but well-used river-run.
There were 21,000 permitted visitors who floated through Ruby Horsethief in the summer of 2016, said Graham, 85 percent of whom came from outside Mesa County and 75 percent of whom came from the Front Range.
While they do pay their fees — according to Ewing, over $100,000 in 2016’s high season, all of which goes back into the management of McInnis Canyons — many of these visitors don’t know much about responsible river use.
“Because this is such a flatwater stretch, you do have a lot of people who are brand new to the river,” said Graham.
While the permitting system does help educate floaters before they go out to revel in their public lands, said Ewing, the revelling doesn’t always go well.
Schnurr said he’s seen four human-caused fires in his time in the Mee Canyon area, where he’s been working to replant cottonwoods since 2005. In order to make such fires less damaging, Schnurr said much of the restoration along the river focuses on removing “fuels” from the shores — plants and dead wood that can lead a fire to jump from shrubs into the cottonwood canopies.
That’s one of the main tasks conservation area stewards are working on at Cottonwood Camp 5, where Schnurr said a past fire was squelched before it began to jump out of the brush and kill the cottonwoods.
But the largest river project is probably the removal of tamarisk, a tough invasive plant, originally from Eurasia, introduced by ranchers in the 1920s and 30s who grazed their animals along the Colorado and wanted to fight riverbank erosion worsened by hooves, said Graham.
Tamarisk has a notorious deep, gnarly root system that stabilizes riverbanks. Unfortunately, it also spreads like a weed, wiping out the native shrubbery that surrounds it, and grows tall, giving fire the height it needs to hop onto cottonwoods.
Worse, its complex root system makes it exasperatingly hard to remove.
“Eradicating tamarisk is extremely difficult,” said Graham. “It’s definitely an all-hands on deck situation.”
Schnurr said it took 7-8 years of collaborative restoration work among government and conservation groups to remove the tamarisk from Cottonwood Camp 5. But they prevailed.
“If you’re patient and you keep at it, you can turn some of these campsites around,” said Schnurr.
The BLM, the Colorado Canyons Association, the Western Colorado Conservation Corps and others have removed 8-9 acres of tamarisk from Horsethief Bottom, just a hop downriver from Loma. But the tamarisk is already resprouting.
“We’re going to be coming down here for years taking out these resprouts,” said Ewing.
While this might seem like a lot of effort to simply adjust the vegetation along the Colorado River, restoration helps ecosystems stay healthy and recover better from human impacts, said Graham.
Native plants and healthy forests support biological diversity, which in turn allows landscapes to continue to thrive in the face of pests, extreme weather and catastrophic events — like fires and floods.
And a healthy, sustainable ecosystem is fundamental to National Conservation Areas and wilderness, said Graham. Both designations are about caring for undeveloped or little-developed public lands in a way that will make them available for enjoyment by indefinite future generations.
Ewing said, proudly, that he’s seen the usage of Ruby Horsethief increase every year since the BLM began a permit system there in 2012, but they’re still only at 50 percent of the human capacity that stretch of the river can take.
He said it seems like it’s time for some updates to the management plan for the McInnis Canyons area. He expects to start talking to the local community this fall to see what people are thinking about the way the lands are run.