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Restoring the Escalante River One Mile at a Time

Keeping the river healthy for future generations through innovative partnerships

Free-flowing rivers that carve red rock canyons are a defining feature of the American West, and are a valuable resource for native fish, migratory birds, mammals large and small, and local communities. However, in Southern Utah, invasive species, drought and increased water use are threatening the health of the Escalante River and the people, plants and animals that depend on it.

Over the past 40 years, Russian olive trees – initially planted as wind breaks and decoration – have taken over, smothering the banks, sucking up water and disrupting the river’s flows. As Kristina Waggoner, Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) field director and project coordinator of the Escalante River Watershed Partnership (ERWP) explains, the trees are now choking the river.

“In some places, they’re so thick that you can’t see the river, much less the other side,” Kristina said. 

So in 2009, with support from the Walton Family Foundation, GSEP teamed up with landowners, public and private agencies, scientists, local businesses and conservation groups to restore balance to the Escalante River. Halfway through its 10-year action plan, ERWP is steadily improving the health of the river, one mile at a time.

“We are just over two-thirds of the way done… the river is 90 miles long, and we have cleared out over 70 miles. Our goal is to finish by 2018,” Kristina said.

And while ERWP is restoring habitat for fish and wildlife, it’s helping local communities too. Restoration has spurred tourism and markets for products like coasters and cutting boards – locally made from the Russian olive trees that ERWP removes. Together, Escalante River residents are showing how innovative partnerships help keep the river and communities healthy for future generations. And as ERWP closes in on achieving its goal, Kristina is keeping the partnership’s future in mind.

“My hope is that we can sustain our energy as a coalition to continue to work together [in the area] as other needs arise,” she said.