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In Southern Utah, A Restored River Helps Residents and Visitors ‘Recharge the Soul’

May 14, 2019
Efforts to remove the invasive Russian olive are improving the health of the Escalante River

For Nathan Waggoner, the Escalante River offers respite. It’s a place where he can escape into the quiet for a few hours, with nothing more to do than fly fish and relax.

“Fly fishing, for me, has always been a wonderful excuse to get outside,” Nathan says. “It really recharges the soul to be out on the river and fishing, just kind of moving slowly on the river corridors. It’s a nice calming place to be.”

The Escalante is a wilderness treasure in the American West, so remote that it was one of the last rivers in the continental United States to be mapped.

The river rises in southern Utah’s forested plateau, then flows through the narrow sandstone canyons of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument before joining the Colorado River at Lake Powell.

“It provides everything for us,” says Nathan, who operates Escalante Outfitters, guiding visitors on fishing excursions and backcountry tours from the town of Escalante. “A healthy watershed is an integral part of our business. A healthy river means healthy business.”

Escalante River. Nathan Waggoner video image
Riverside Stories | Nathan Waggoner
Utah's Escalante River is a place of respite for outfitter Nathan Waggoner.

But the Escalante has been under persistent threat from invasive species like Russian olive trees, which have infested riparian areas along its length.

The tree overtakes native species, overruns campsites and channelizes rivers, altering water flow and temperature and trammeling natural processes that create and maintain habitat for native fish.

Russian Olive crowds out native riparian species and alters water conditions on the Escalante River.

Russian olive “grows up in small shoots and just crowds right along the river’s edge because it wants that water as much as possible,” Nathan says.

“It actually shades the river, changing the water temperature, which affects the native fish species and the river … Our river changed so drastically that it was functioning as a completely different ecosystem with the Russian olive in it.”

Nathan supports longstanding work by groups such as the Escalante River Watershed Partnership (ERWP) and RiversEdgeWest to remove Russian olive, and restore native riparian habitat.

For more than a decade, the Walton Family Foundation has been a partner in the fight invasive species along the Escalante and other Colorado River tributaries, including the Verde, Gila and Dolores Rivers.

On the Escalante, many of the restoration work sites are remote and unreachable by road. Nathan assists restoration crews that must haul supplies into the backcountry on horseback.

He is encouraged by the progress being made to restore the river.

“As we cut out the Russian olive, we can see our banks receding down to more of a natural state,” he says.

“There’s more spawning ground for native fish in the waters. It just makes the whole (river) come back to life again.”

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