The Escalante River is a wilderness treasure in the American West, perhaps the healthiest, least impacted and best protected tributary of the Colorado River.
From its headwaters at 11,000 feet in southern Utah’s forested plateau, the river flows 90 miles through the narrow sandstone canyons of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument before joining the Colorado River at Lake Powell.
But the Escalante has been under pressure for decades – from multiple-use management on federal lands, invasive species like tamarisk and Russian olive and pressure to open mining operations and other industry that might threaten cultural, historic and ecological values of the area.
Now the good news. The U.S. government’s recent proclamation to restore the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument to its original size – 1.87 million acres – will restore and improve protections for the river and the region from development and management that would damage this fragile desert riparian and aquatic ecosystem. The move reverses the previous administration’s decision to cut the size of the monument almost in half.
I talked with Peter Skidmore, a senior program officer in the foundation’s Environment program, about the importance of the decision and how a healthy Escalante supports nature and communities in the Southwest.
Question: What makes the Escalante River so special?
Peter: The Escalante was one of the last rivers in the continental United States to be mapped and it acts as the central artery supporting life in the national monument. It has been spared many of the impacts of other rivers, like the Colorado, in part because it is so remote and because its watershed has been federally protected as a Monument since 1996. It is one of the last places for visitors to experience an untrammeled Southwest wilderness river and riparian system where native plants and animals still dominate and interact in a natural balance. The area also offers some of the darkest skies and quietest conditions to experience wilderness in the lower 48, abundant cultural and historical resources and a broad spectrum of biodiversity.
Question: Why is the decision to restore the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument to its original size so important to the health of the ecosystem and communities in the region?
Peter: At the time of the original designation as a Monument in 1996, the boundaries were determined to be the smallest area that could reasonably protect the cultural, historical and ecological resources that defined the intent of the Monument. The original and restored Monument encompasses nearly the entire watershed of the Escalante River. Because the health of any river reflects the management and land use of its watershed, protecting the watershed is essential to protecting the health of the river. The proclamation includes a mandate to develop a single management plan for the entire Monument that protects its cultural and ecological resources and values.
A number of economic studies have shown communities in proximity to National Monuments benefit economically from those designations through stable and sustainable economic development focused on recreation and tourism. The restoration of the boundaries protects the Monument from development from other industries that would have provided only short-term economic benefits and jeopardized tourism and recreation.
How has the river been impacted over the past half century by invasive species?
Peter: The river has been under persistent threat from invasive species like Russian olive and tamarisk, originally introduced as ornamental trees or to reduce erosion. But these species did far more damage than good. They infested riparian areas along the length of the Escalante and its tributaries, creeks and washes. They overtook native species and channelized long stretches of the river, altering river flow and temperature and trammeling natural processes that create and maintain habitat for native fish. Russian olive also grows a thick, near-impenetrable barrier that overruns campsites and blocks river access for boaters.
How has the foundation and partners worked to restore the health of the Escalante River over the past decade?
Peter: Since 2009, the foundation has supported the Escalante River Watershed Partnership’s restoration project as part of efforts to improve riparian habitat, river flows and water supply throughout the Colorado River basin. Our partners’ work with private landowners and federal land managers has effectively and comprehensively removed Russian olive from roughly 400 miles of the river and its side canyons. The partnership’s crews manually removed Russian olive from the canyons tree by tree, allowing native plants to rebound with little additional intervention, because the system is otherwise healthy and resilient.
You have spent a lot of time – professionally and personally – on the Escalante over the past decade. What do you love about this river?
Peter: I love watching the sky turn to night without any interference from city lights and the only sound the running of water and the astounding chorus of spring frogs. I love to see a river changing each time I visit, creating and maintaining a diversity of aquatic and riparian habitat. I love the pace of a river and backpacking trip, slowing down to just miles per day, and the novelty and discovery of side canyons, each with its own character and wonder.
Can you describe the progress you have seen – from the water and on the riverbanks?
Peter: I did my first personal trip down the river in 2016. The stretches of river where olive removal hadn’t taken place were impenetrable, floating past a wall of thick, thorny shrub. And along the stretches where olive had been removed, native willow species were sprouting up to fill those voids and reset the natural succession of native plants in the valley. I did another river trip in 2020; the changes were even more dramatic. There were many stretches where the river was reclaiming its complexity – creating multiple channels, gravel bars, even log jams and eroding banks – all the ingredients needed to maintain complex and diverse aquatic and riparian habitat.
What makes you optimistic about the future of the Escalante?
Peter: The Escalante River Watershed Partnership and the individual people in the community I’ve had the privilege to spend time with on the river. The health of any river system is ultimately up to the communities in the watershed and the choices they make. The partnership represents that community and has fostered common ground among historically different values and ideals.