Fueling restoration: BLM Utah's mission to reclaim Westwater Canyon

Blake Johnson, Public Affairs Specialist (Fire)

In Utah's Canyon Country District, a team led by the Bureau of Land Management's Fuels Program embarked on a four-day mission along the Colorado River to help restore a riparian ecosystem.  The team included experts from the Moab BLM fuels staff; Grand County Noxious Weed Department; Utah Forestry, Fire and State Lands; and rangers from BLM and the Utah Division of Outdoor Recreation to guide the team through the turbulent stretches of the Colorado River. Their goal was to combat invasive species within the Westwater Wilderness Study Area. 

The team boats down the Colorado River through Westwater Canyon to access hard to reach tamarisk plants.
The team boats down the Colorado River through Westwater Canyon to access hard to reach tamarisk plants.

The team focused on tamarisk and knapweed, two invasive plants wreaking havoc in much of the southwest. Tamarisk, an aggressive invader, crowds out native plants, alters soil composition, diminishes wildlife habitats, and significantly reduces stream flows. Its thick foliage not only obstructs access to rivers and streams but also heightens the risk of wildfires. Knapweed invades spaces cleared of tamarisk, perpetuating the cycle of ecological imbalance. 

The group cut the tamarisk down to the stumps, followed by an immediate and careful application of herbicide to prevent regrowth. Knapweed was treated by direct herbicide application. The herbicide used on both species was specially chosen for its minimal impact on the surrounding riparian ecosystems, remaining inactive in soil and saline waters. 

 The team highlights tools they use to accomplish the tamarisk removal while keeping themselves and their co-workers safe. Their gloved hands hold chainsaws and folding saws.
The team highlights tools they use to accomplish the tamarisk removal while keeping themselves and their co-workers safe.

The operation was focused around the Miners Cabin and Little Hole campgrounds. These popular sites required urgent attention to preserve their ecological integrity and recreational value.  

Members of the team huddle around a fire on a riverside beach with the dark sky silhouetting mountains behind them as the moon can be seen in the far left.
Ending a long day with camping beachside.

This effort was part of a larger, ongoing campaign that began in 2010. Despite previous successes, the invasive nature of these species requires regular maintenance treatments. This was the first trip of its kind post-pandemic. The team was pleased to discover that the previously treated tamarisk showed minimal resprouting since their last visit. 

Over the course of their expedition, nearly 10 acres of land were treated, a significant stride in the battle against these invasive species. Their efforts not only helped reclaim the campsites from tamarisk and knapweed but also contributed to the protection of the natural habitat, crucial for species such as the bald eagle that have a historic presence along Westwater Canyon. 

The team’s work, often unnoticed by the casual visitor, plays a crucial role in helping to maintain the natural beauty and health of Westwater Canyon. As adventurers float down the canyon, they might enjoy the shade of cottonwoods or the soft sands of its beaches, not realizing that these serene experiences are partly thanks to the tireless efforts of BLM Utah, their volunteers and interagency partners. Their dedication reflects a desire for Westwater Canyon to be a vibrant, thriving habitat, not only for its human visitors, but also for the diverse wildlife that calls it home. 

A panoramic view of the Colorado River making its way through Westwater Canyon. Heavy green growth is along part of the shoreline.
Notice the abundance of green near the shoreline? That’s native willow – a good sign of active management.
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