In the golden hour just before sunset, the evening light filters through the trees along the banks of the Escalante River and sets each leaf aglow in a soft hue of emerald green. Sunbeams burst through the branches and strike the narrow stream, which sparkles in response.
It’s a moment that reminds Sue Fearon why she cherishes this landscape – and why she moved here, to the edge of a Western wilderness, more than three decades ago.
“It’s just an amazingly special and intricate place,” she says. “The way the light hits the ground, the way the river smells. There’s an inherent beauty.”
The Escalante is that rare jewel in the American West – a free-flowing river so remote it wasn’t even mapped until the late 19th century. Its waters gather at 11,000 feet, in southern Utah’s forested plateau, and slip through the narrow sandstone canyons of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument before joining the Colorado River at Lake Powell.
A Connecticut native, Sue has explored the river’s nooks and crannies – by foot, by kayak and on horseback – since she arrived following college in 1985. She raised horses and cattle and tended to orchards on a 40-acre farm tucked into a side canyon of the main river.
“The Escalante is the ultimate wilderness. You can cross a road and disappear into the most amazing wild, untrammeled country.”
It’s also a river threatened by an unwanted invader – Russian olive, a woody invasive that crowds the riverbank, competing with and squeezing out native habitat. Over the years, Sue watched as Russian olive, “one plant at a time,” took over hundreds of miles of riparian habitat on the Escalante and its tributaries.
“The only thing that can grow under the shade of a Russian olive, pretty much, is a Russian olive,” Sue says. “It was horrifying to see the transformation, to see this incredible invader take over such a gentle and beautiful canyon system.”
The threats from Russian olive are pervasive. The tree hampers water flow and grows a thick, near-impenetrable barrier that overruns campsites and blocks river access for boaters. For farmers and ranchers, reduced water flow impacts their ability to irrigate hay crops and grow forage for livestock.
Russian olive constrains the river channel, armors its banks and alters the natural floodplain, preventing the revival of native habitat. Over time, river habitat is simplified and its water stays colder, impacting native fish that prefer more complex habitat and warmer water.
The good news is that people and communities are fighting back. Since 2009, the Escalante River Watershed Partnership (ERWP) – supported by the Walton Family Foundation – has waged a campaign to remove Russian olive and other invasives, such as tamarisk, on public and private lands along the river.
Sue leads ERWP’s work with private landowners whose livelihoods – and lifestyles – are at risk. Restoration can improve access to forage for domestic stock, control erosion and improve water quality.
Because restoration is expensive and labor-intensive, Sue develops cost-sharing agreements to offset landowner costs.
“Landowners see the threats. The tree is an impediment that blocks off a river they used to use,” Sue says.
“The payoff of restoration is that [landowners] win back a beautiful riparian area, a beautiful creek or wash, that is highly functional. It’s the river they envisioned, or that they knew in their youth.”
But even five years ago, many landowners questioned if they could control Russian olive. “The problem seemed insurmountable.”
ERWP developed a plan to treat the invasives and plant native trees and shrubs in their place.
To date, 89 miles of the Escalante and 175 miles of tributary streams have been treated.
On a recent afternoon, Sue showed visitors an eight-acre section of restored riverbank on private land in the town of Escalante. A local contractor had cut the Russian olives to their stumps, applied herbicide and chipped the debris. Then the landowner, volunteers and a team from ERWP replanted oak, sage, sunflower and seeded native grasses.
“A year ago, this was a complete forest of 30-foot-tall, mature Russian olive that you had to crawl through to get to the river,” she says. “Now, it’s starting to look like a typical riparian meadow.”
The challenge is to keep it that way. Sue works with landowners on long-term management plans to remove regrowth, monitor for secondary weeds and temporarily limit livestock grazing.
“The battle is absolutely winnable,” Sue says.
“The legacy on private lands will take time to realize because every landowner is a land manager. They have a vision for their land and we have this aspirational plan to restore river health. We are building trust with landowners – and forming a financial and technical partnership to restore their property.”
After years of taking on Russian olive, Sue believes the Escalante is “on the cusp” of gaining the upper hand. Already, restoration has produced an increase in recreational use on the Escalante, particularly for boaters and hikers who have better access to the riverbank.
That brings Sue deep personal and professional satisfaction.
“I came here 32 years ago. I fell in love with the place and stayed,” she says. “I jokingly tell people my car broke down here and I'm still waiting on parts, but that's not true. I have the best job, in the best place.”