Protecting the River’s Edge from an Invasive Threat

From The Walton Family Foundation (Peter Skidmore):

In the Colorado River Basin, RiversEdge West leads a coordinated effort to restore critical habitat

Doug King’s family has been ranching the lands around the Dolores River in Southwest Colorado since the 1930’s. “It’s beautiful−I call it John Wayne country,” Doug says, proudly. “I’m the third generation on the land, my son will be the fourth generation, and his son will be the fifth.”

Over the decades, Doug experienced firsthand the steady, relentless creep of invasive plant species like tamarisk and Russian olive and its impact on the land he has cared for his whole life. The damage has been extensive, threatening the larger riparian—or river bank—habitat that in the Colorado River Basin ultimately supports more than 40 million lives across two nations.

As the unwelcome vegetation pressed in on essential farmland and fish and wildlife habitat, Doug and many others in the region understood it was time to lock arms and push back.

Originally conceptualized in 1999 to discuss strategies for addressing invasive plant species along rivers in western Colorado, the then-named Tamarisk Coalition was fueled by a desire to shape a landscape-scale solution. The group had observed that conventional site-by-site eradication simply wasn’t able to move quickly enough.

“People were getting grants to do five acres or half a mile” of tamarisk removal, recalls Tim Carlson, the coalition’s first executive director. “That wasn’t going to solve the problem. We started with a bold approach: If we were going to solve this problem, it’s got to be a regional solution.”

The introduction of the tamarisk is a story of unintended consequences. Long thought to prevent erosion along the banks of western rivers, its presence was so valued in earlier days that Boy Scouts would receive badges for planting it. But the persistent shrub with scale-like leaves took to its adopted habitat like a parasite, displacing native vegetation.

Restoring and sustaining the overall health of the Colorado River Basin has been a primary goal of the Walton Family Foundation’s Environment Program since its inception nearly a decade ago. And, the program’s first grant to the Tamarisk Coalition in 2009 supported its restoration efforts along the San Miguel and Dolores river systems. Gradually, the foundation expanded its support to also include work along the Escalante, Verde and Gila systems.

“We have a great relationship with the foundation where we present innovative ideas, and they help us scale up these efforts. The investment affects a vast landscape, bolsters our work and has helped us promote best practices to other organizations,” says Cara Kukuraitis, outreach and education coordinator for the organization now known as RiversEdge West.

The organization changed its name in 2018 to reflect its broader work in Western riparian areas and the surrounding communities. But it retains its unique and core operating model—to facilitate collaboration and information-sharing across diverse groups and individuals to accomplish riparian restoration at a larger scale than any one partner can attain on its own. As a result, RiversEdge West now supports 20 ambitious multi-stakeholder partnerships encompassing federal, state, and community organizations throughout the American West, teaching best practices to over 300 local public and private restoration organizations and successfully restoring some 11,500 acres—and counting—of riparian habitat.

The state of Colorado is among the group’s core partners.

“Our relationship with RiversEdge West has allowed Colorado Parks and Wildlife to more effectively meet our mission of improving the wildlife habitat within the state,” explains Peter Firmin, manager of the James M. Robb-Colorado River State Park.

“The networking and training opportunities provided by RiversEdge West allow us to leverage intellectual and financial resources to improve habitat along the Colorado River. As a group, we are able to accomplish more than we could as individuals.”

The work of RiversEdge West and its growing network is bolstered by an array of technical tools. For example, a multi-partner geodatabase stores and shares data with land managers, so they can see how their projects connect and positively impact the landscape over time.

“The data helps us establish and measure progress against quantitative goals, so the project can jump from removing tamarisk by just cutting trees to collecting data on the extent of the problem and promoting ways to encourage the ecosystem’s overall health,” says Cara.

It is a testament to the organization’s enduring value that its annual conference attracts upwards of 200 representatives from Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, California, Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Utah and Mexico to connect on riparian restoration science.

The organization also is working to convey the broad importance of these efforts through its ongoing “Riverside Stories” web series, which tells the personal stories of people who call this land home and are working to restore this habitat for future generations. Among them is Doug and his family.

“I have a theory that we should leave the land better than how we got it,” Doug notes in sharing his story. “The Colorado River is soon going to be the most important resource in the West. We are just caretakers. You are only going to be here 50-60 years, and then somebody else is going to have this land.

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