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A Journey of Rediscovery Down a Remote, Recovering River

July 7, 2020
Peter Skidmore rafts down the Escalante, a wild river returning to health

“I could spend the rest of my life doing this. I cannot imagine another kind of place where I find such peace, where my professional, recreational, personal and spiritual interests can merge in such harmony. Whether desert or Arctic river, river trips soothe, refresh, recharge me.” Escalante River Journal Entry, Day 2.

For 10 years, the Walton Family Foundation has supported riparian restoration of the 87-mile-long Escalante River in southern Utah.

Four years ago, I took a rafting trip down the river to see the progress in efforts to remove invasive species like Russian olive, which over decades have damaged riparian areas along the Escalante’s length, choking out native species and altering its natural habitat.

I returned in May on a 10-day trip to witness firsthand the river’s continued transformation and to experience the Escalante at its most glorious, on warm sunny days and clear and dark nights sleeping under the stars, framed by the deep canyon walls that have protected this waterway for millennia.

The author, Peter Skidmore, paddles a stretch of the Escalante River, which at low water is technically challenging to navigate.

The Escalante River at low water is technically challenging paddling, navigating sharp turns, rock gardens, log jams and overhanging willows.

The ‘river’ is at these times more like a creek. But this also provides opportunity to evaluate how it is responding to restoration treatments.

As of 2019, 100% of the Escalante River has been treated by removing all Russian olive trees. Like any weed or invasive plant, an initial treatment will not ensure that they do not come back. Initial treatment cannot remove seedlings that have gone unnoticed, and a substantial seed bank remains.

Along the river, I observed some reaches with no Russian olive, some with occasional to frequent young trees and a very few mature trees.

Native plant species are thriving again on the Escalante River following the removal of invasive Russian olive trees.

While the initial treatment and subsequent maintenance has been comprehensive and effective, what I saw reinforces the critical importance of monitoring and maintaining what has been achieved.

I was forced to think deeply, critically, about the concept of ‘restoration’ and to articulate through campfire dialogue, and debate, the intent and outcomes of what our partners have undertaken.

Peter Skidmore relaxes on the banks of the Escalante River.

One of my two travel companions was a former reality TV show host from various survival shows, who has made the Escalante area his home. He has seen one of his primary food sources, wild turkeys, diminish as their primary food source, Russian olive fruits, has declined. And, he’s seen chainsaw-wielding crews supported by horse packer teams actively ‘managing’ this otherwise wild, remote place for a decade.

I shared with him my observations of the fundamental changes in the river’s character.

What had become an entrenched, narrow, tree-walled straight channel, due to the invasion of Russian olive, is giving way to complex, diverse stream character that changes mile by mile.

A 'messy' stretch of the Escalante River signals its increasing complexity and diversity - evidence of its recovery.

To a casual observer, it looks messier. And it is messier.

There are trees falling in the river and log jams. There are sharp turns into eroding stream banks. There are wide and shallow areas with numerous channels and narrow, deep areas providing deep pools.

Cottonwood seeds were falling on us like snow, settling on fresh sandbars where they will take root.

There are also signs everywhere of native trees and shrubs re-establishing without human intervention. Cottonwood seeds were falling on us like snow, settling on fresh sandbars where they will take root. Stems of willows liberated from banks by beavers are re-sprouting on sandbars.

Cottonwood seeds have recently settled on fresh, damp sand along the Escalante River.

While the evolution of river character may take years to decades, the Escalante is firmly on a path to full recovery.

It is a recovery that will be evidenced by the river’s “messy,” complex and diverse character. Why is this diversity and complexity so important?

Beaver-littered cottonwood stems are sprouting and taking root on the Escalante River.

In addition to creating ideal conditions for regeneration of native plants, consider, for a moment, the needs of any single species of fish.

It will require different water temperature, depth, velocity and cover from predators for each stage of its life, from eggs maturing in the streambed gravels, to fry that emerge from the gravels and seek shelter from predators in quiet back-waters, to young that feed on aquatic bugs that fledge in riffles or fall from riverbank bushes, to adults that need deep pools for foraging or to shelter from drought or winter freeze, and ultimately, to spawn again in gravel with just the right flow through it to oxygenate eggs as they mature.

That is just one species of fish. Multiply this by a dozen species, and then add frogs, toads, salamanders, snakes that eat them, birds that eat them, and otters, beaver, and willow and cottonwood that seed and sprout with cycles of flood only on freshly deposited sands of certain moisture following certain flood flows.

A Russian olive tree grows among native willows and cottonwoods on the Escalante River. The invasive species has been removed along the entire length of the river, but a substantial seed bank remains.

By virtue of exponential math, the different micro-habitat requirements for this community of native plants and wildlife is literally infinite.

This suite of micro-habitats can only be accomplished where rivers are given the space and freedom to adjust through scour, erosion and deposition creating these myriad habitat micro-variations. This level of complexity cannot be otherwise created.

Healthy rivers require freedom space. Through our support of partners over the past 10 years in the Escalante River and others, we’ve gifted the river the chance to be dynamic and evolve. Now, we must be diligent in protecting that freedom space.

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