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A Trip Down the Escalante River

July 25, 2016
A journey on a river at risk, searching for signs of improvement and restoration

Through our grantees and partners, nearly 400 miles of the Escalante River and its tributaries have been treated for invasive plants that have been choking out native species, threatening the river’s health and disrupting its flow. Environment Program Officer Peter Skidmore paddled the river to see firsthand the benefits of our partners’ work. These are excerpts from his journal on the 12-day journey.

I can’t think of anything more peaceful than floating down a river.

This river is the sum total of everything that has ever happened to it. Its present day character is inescapably tied to its history. The small floods that come every few years and big ones every few decades. The native peoples and their land use hundreds of years ago, the tens of thousands of sheep and cows that were brought in and grazed the system to nubbins a century ago, but that have been kept out in recent decades. The uneven cycle of floodplain building and erosion and changing character of the river channel, its riffles and rock gardens and pools and sand bars, the tumbling in of boulders of all sizes from the canyon walls.

In light of all this history making the river what it is today, how will we decide how and what to manage going forward?

The native vegetation has rebounded so quickly and thoroughly that, even though I carry a map of the year each segment of river was treated by our partners, I cannot differentiate among them now. What tremendous capacity these systems have for recovery if given the chance!

When we made it downriver where Lake Powell was recently inundating the canyon, beyond where Russian olive trees had been present or treated, I saw that all the new vegetation is native willows and cottonwood, and the recovery seems to be a combination of the tamarisk beetle and lowering of the river so that tamarisk tree roots are no longer receiving water. But the most impressive thing is that nearly 100% of new vegetation is native. This is such an encouraging response to what we’ve been hoping to achieve.

As we paddled down toward the lake, the river became a broad mudflat delta, then gave way to Lake Powell, at first brown from river sediment, then green. Paddling a surreal landscape of green water and towering red and white sandstone, then around a bend in the walls.

Restoration has led to a dramatic increase in recreational use of the river, particularly for boaters. Combined with the relatively recent development and popularity of ultralight pack rafts that can be easily carried into and out of the canyon, packrafting is now popular, and associated tourism is flourishing in local communities. The local outfitters in Escalante express that they are seeing packrafters every day come in for last-minute supplies, gear and questions about routes.

On my last day, I could have gone right back and started over again in a heartbeat. I’m thankful for healthy, wild rivers to recharge, remember what’s important – and to see the important work of our grantees and the Escalante River Watershed Partnership protecting our natural resources.

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