AUTHOR’S NOTE: At the outset this story is incomplete. While most of what follows is an account of a tamarisk control project in the late 1980s, I had hoped to update Arches National Park’s tamarisk control program, including detailed current information about success rates and the cost of the NPS efforts to eradicate exotic plants. About two months ago, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request (FOIA) with Arches NP to obtain that information and was supposed to receive the material in 30 days. But four days past the deadline, I received a letter from Southeast Group Superintendent Tony Schetzsle, explaining, "We are unable to meet that date due to previously planned activities requiring our staff to be devoted to prior projects," and advised me that he was "applying an additional 45 days to provide the information you requested."

If the activities were "previously planned," it seems the park could have notified me earlier, before I committed this issue to the theme of exotic plant eradication, but the deed is done (or not done) and we’ll have to live with it. When the FOIA request is fulfilled, I will share the information it contains in a future issue...JS

The only non-human living entity I have ever tried to hit and inflict physical pain upon is a tamarisk tree. Not only is it an invasive, water-sucking exotic plant that has no business strangling every watercourse in the American West, the hot, suffocating jungle-like mass of tangled branches creates a hiking nightmare. I once became so trapped in a stand of tammies along Salt Wash that I began lashing out at the resilient little tamarisk tentacles with my walking stick...I wanted to hurt them.

Tamarisk has choked canyons and washes across the Southwest, it has altered the banks of the Colorado River, it drinks millions of gallons of water and allegedly diminishes wildlife diversity. It is the scourge if why am I defending it? Because as Abbey often said, "Somebody has to do it."

Or maybe it’s simply, "Don’t start fighting your enemies until you know how to defeat them."

Tamarisk is so pervasive in parts of Arches National Park that many of us have come to accept its presence, albeit reluctantly. Trying to eliminate a small thicket of tamarisk is liking placing a band-aid on an avulsed wound. It’s hopeless.

The dense stands of tamarisk at Wolfe Ranch altered its appearance so drastically that when John Wesley Wolfe’s daughter returned to the ranch in the late 1960s, she barely recognized the place. The persistent exotic grows along the Colorado River from the Gulf of California to the river’s upper reaches. At Arches it has crept up every side canyon along the way. Tamarisk dominates Salt Wash and Courthouse Wash, the park’s two major perennial streams. Tamarisk has been found growing along the park road, where it gets an extra shot of water when rain water runs off the asphalt. I’ve found it growing in potholes, a dozen miles from the nearest stream.

Trying to just cut it is a hopeless and futile task. The roots run deep and the plant will grow back, fuller and denser than ever. Fire has no effect. As a result the NPS has resorted to poisoning tamarisk. Early in the project, the NPS used a chemical called 2-4-D, a toxin so deadly that its use was stopped and replaced with another chemical called Garlon. It has been used effectively for 15 years.

Effective to a point. Despite heavy treatments, some of the tamarisk always comes back and annual or semi-annual applications of the poison are absolutely necessary. In addition, tamarisk spreads itself so easily. A mature tamarisk plant conservatively produces 100,000 seeds that can be carried by the wind and deposited miles away. When it lands in a wet location, germination is a certainty. And so, when the NPS dedicates its time, money and resources to the elimination of tamarisk, even in a confined location, it is making that commitment forever...for Eternity. Until the End of Time. Even weed warrior Bill Wolverton (featured in the story that precedes this one) acknowledges that his efforts along the Escalante River will have been an exercise in futility if his exotic plant elimination work isn’t maintained in the future. There is no alternative.

But even if the NPS dedicates itself to tamarisk eradication for the next hundred Millennia, is it a good idea? I began to have my doubts when I discovered the "Secret Spring."


One day, almost 25 years ago, I was shirking my duties as a seasonal ranger and hiding as best I could from the tourists who had invaded the park for Memorial Day Weekend. I had sought refuge on the old 4WD road that follows the spine of a ridge near the western edge of Salt Valley. From my vantage point on the rim, I could look across the valley to the Devils Garden and Fiery Furnace. I could see the park road and the bustle of activity–the moving glint and glare of reflected Winnebago motorhomes and Airstream trailers and yupstermobiles. Unable to endure that scene any more, I let my eyes fall to the valley itself, into the grey mancos badlands that dominate the south end of the confusing geology created by a collapsed salt dome, millions of years ago.

Within that moonscape, something caught my eye--it was an unnatural flash of green. I reached for my binoculars for a closer look and even from this distance, could make out several large cottonwood trees and what appeared to be a thicket of old tammies. I made a note of this anomaly and planned a visit there on my next scheduled backcountry day. The following week, I took my first exploratory hike to a place I’d never heard mentioned by the other rangers. What I found was an odd oasis in the desert.

The sight of a spring fed patch of green is startling because it’s so unexpected. The hike to the spring winds through elephant backs of Mancos shale and there is no clue of the teeming life to be found until that last turn of the wash. I emerged from the badlands near the oasis’s southern end and began walking upstream beneath a canopy of tamarisk. Unlike the thickets I was accustomed to along the Colorado, many of these were trees—some of them a foot thick–-and there was little evidence of new growth. The floor of the wash began to appear damp and eventually a trickle of water appeared over the sand. Near the north end of the oasis, several mature cottonwoods grew by the wash. Just beyond them, I discovered a pool of water, hidden in the shade of some tammies–beyond this point, the desert reclaimed the land.

The pool was insignificant by most standards; it was no more than a foot deep and three feet wide and perhaps eight feet long. But for the next ten years, that pool was always there and it provided water to a variety of animals. From here, it was at least three miles to the nearest permanent water.

What I discovered at the spring in the weeks and months and years ahead was a diversity of wildlife that was unmatched anywhere else in the park. In the spring and early summer, fledgling Great Horned Owls resided in the branches of the cottonwoods and even in the tamarisk. A Cooper’s Hawk nest was occupied every spring for a decade. Deer and coyotes regularly visited the spring. I saw or noted the sign of kit fox and ringtail cats. It was, in effect, a meeting place for Life in an otherwise very inhospitable location. As the summer wore on, the flowing water stopped and the pool shrank, but it never disappeared. Even in September, standing water, shaded by the tammies, had survived the intense desert heat.

I wondered if I should tell anyone about this magical spot. I hesitated for two reasons—first, even then, I’d knew that identifying "secret places" could have a devastating effect. Too many well-intentioned admirers can spoil just about anything. Second, I realized that "beauty is often in the eye of the beholder." A dedicated tamarisk hater would only want to tear it down. In this case, I thought tammie eradication could do more harm than good. So I proclaimed my discovery the "Secret Spring" and decided to keep it mostly to myself. In ten years I revealed the Secret Spring to my fellow ranger Mike Salamacha, a dedicated tamarisk foe and to the Chief Ranger, also no fan of exotic plants. Both of them agreed–the best way to protect this area was by leaving it alone and for a decade, it stayed that way.


In 1987 everything changed. Arches National Park found itself with a new superintendent, a vacant chief ranger position and, for the most part, a new seasonal staff. I’d left the NPS in the fall of 1986. Salamacha transferred to another park. But the acting chief ranger, a strong proponent of tamarisk removal, had discovered the "Secret Spring" on his own in 1985 and moved forward with a plan to remove the tamarisk.

It was only by accident that I became aware of the project. In March 1987, as a civilian now, I made a sentimental hike to the spring, just to visit and to say hello. I was surprised to find a large cache of fire tools near the spring; clearly a controlled burn was in the works. I inquired about the equipment and discovered that indeed a prescribed fire had been planned for March 27, 1987. The fire was postponed until autumn when the NPS could not locate a qualified fire boss to supervise the burn.

The plan called for the burning of the tamarisk in place; that is, the NPS intended to torch the tamarisk where it grew, despite the fact that many of the exotic plants grew near and even under the very cottonwood trees the NPS maintained it was trying to save. Such an approach would have been devastating. In addition, the park proposed to go forward without writing an environmental assessment. It was to be the largest controlled burn in the park’s history and its largest eradication project using herbicides; yet the NPS believed the project did not require public notification or input.

In the months that followed, I tried to shine as much light as possible on the planned tamarisk burn. This was in the pre-Zephyr days, and so I resorted to writing letters to NPS officials and the Times-Independent. At first, the Park Service response was infuriating. The Southeast Utah Group Superintendent, Harvey Wickware, suggested that I limit future discussions of tamarisk removal to the park’s resource specialist. "I think this will be a much more effective method of communication," he wrote in May 1987, "than us developing letter writing campaigns."

Arches National Park superintendent, Paul Guraedy, insisted that the original March 27 burn date would not have conflicted with nearby Cooper’s Hawk nest and mating season, despite the fact that I saw the hawks in the Cottonwoods on March 26 and he maintained that the fire would have no effect on adjacent native vegetation. Further, Guraedy continued to cite other NPS tamarisk control projects, including the alleged eradication of tamarisk in Horseshoe Canyon at Canyonlands National Park and at Eagle Borax Spring in Death Valley. In neither case did the facts support the presumption of success. At Death Valley, a prescribed burn had in fact eliminated the tamarisk, but at a high price. During the burn, unexpected high winds ignited adjacent rare mesquite (In Death Valley, all native vegetation is rare.). Acres of mesquite were destroyed and years later, NPS rangers still described the scene there as "charred devastation."

As for the Horseshoe Canyon project, at the same time the NPS was congratulating itself for "removing" all the tamarisk along several miles of the canyon bottom, a friend and I counted several thousand new seedlings. Since then, the park has been more vigilante in its yearly control of new growth, but the lesson is clear—if the Park Service ever walks away from its annual checks, the tamarisk will return with a vengeance.

Other citizens added their voices of concern, including Dave May, the former chief naturalist at Canyonlands National Park. Dave’s letter to the NPS was especially effective. Among his observations:

"Tamarisk is a typical ‘pioneer’ species, in that it becomes established in very dense stands on unoccupied habitat where it has no competition; by its growth habits it then modifies the habitat. The forgoing series of events can be seen to be occurring on numerous tamarisk-infected sites in this region, and in every case the tamarisk thickets appear eventually to be invaded by native plants. I know of no sites where the normal sequence of stages in plant succession has progressed to the point of eliminating tamarisk, but there are several at which tamarisk is old and deteriorating and not replacing itself"

This is exactly what was happening at the Secret Spring. In fact, the case could be made that were it not for the tamarisk thickets stabilizing the banks of the wash, the cottonwoods would never have been able to take root in the first place. And indeed, most of the tamarisk was very old; little evidence of new tammie growth could be found anywhere.

Dave also noted that, "The proposed burn would inevitably destroy nesting and cover sites (escape habitat) now being utilized by native animals." His comments were substantiated by Moab veterinarian Paul Bingham, a raptor rehabilitator and Marilyn Bicking, a well-respected raptor specialist who lived in Moab in the late 1980s. Coopers Hawks are accipiters and are not soaring hunters; they prefer a thicket-type environment to hunt their prey, using the foliage of trees as cover. In effect, a non-native plant created a favorable habitat for a native bird.

And a bulletin of the Audubon Society of Western Colorado described the observations of Steven Carothers, an Arizona environmental consultant and a long-time observer of tamarisk in the Grand Canyon. He noted that, "smaller stands of tamarisk will match in bird density, any other type with equal foliage volume. The Bell’s vireo even seems to prefer salt cedar and has recently extended its range upriver." In fact, numerous nests could be observed at the Secret Spring site and I asked the NPS to identify them.

Then Ed Abbey leapt into the fray. The debate gained some coverage in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel. I took Abbey and a reporter to the site and the story, including Ed’s comments, appeared in the July 6, 1987 edition. "Abbey," the reporter noted, "consistently skeptical about the park management system, said he has observed that the Park Service has a difficult time admitting mistakes, and too often subscribes to the philosophy: ‘In order to save it, destroy it.’

"‘When in doubt, do nothing, Abbey advised in this case. ‘When there’s a doubt about it, leave it alone.’"


Finally, it appeared that the Park Service was listening. The burn was delayed again in October 1987 and the NPS agreed to complete an environmental assessment. In late 1987, the Park Service released the assessment and it received a great deal of public comment and criticism. In fact, there were enough intelligent and well-conceived letters to the superintendent to impress one of the park’s resource specialists to call for an indefinite delay.

On July 5, 1988, Kate Kitchell, Resource Management Specialist sent a memo to Wickware and Guraedy. Kitchell wrote:

"Although we thought when the EA for this project was released that we had thought this proposal through completely, the criticism received from the public suggests otherwise. While we received several supportive comments...there was also some strong negative, but very constructive criticism that has led me to conclude that the proposed action should be postponed until we have better defined project objectives....Prior to moving forward, we must properly assess the impacts, actions necessary to mitigate impacts, and completely understand the manpower requirements for conducting the eradications and associated monitoring. I also think that we should be committed to publishing the results of this activity to move forward the state of the knowledge of tamarisk control in the southwest....Let us work together to respond and revise the project over the next year."

Kitchell’s written comments, which she generously shared with me, were a refreshing break from the Park Service’s somewhat defensive and intractable past. Here was a trained park official, not only welcoming public scrutiny but actually proposing to modify park policy as a result. Her memo went on to identify seven areas of concern, all of them initially raised by the public, that she insisted must be resolved before any tamarisk eradication program moved forward at Arches National Park. We all breathed a sigh of relief—the Secret Spring was safe, at least for the time being.

Almost two years passed. I’d started the Zephyr in early 1989 and devoted a lot of my time to Grand County issues, especially the proposed Book Cliffs Highway proposal. I’d received word that the tamarisk project was on indefinite hold. I’d also heard that Kitchell had left the Park Service and joined the Bureau of Land Management which worried me some. But surely her recommendations would be observed and followed.

Then one day, in early 1990, I bumped into a Park Service friend from Canyonlands National Park. We reminisced about "the good old days" in the NPS for a while; then he said, "Too bad you lost your tamarisk battle...I think it’s stupid too."

"What?" I asked. "What are you talking about?"

He told me the entire ugly story. I fired off a note to Supt. Guraedy. A few weeks later, I received this reply:

"I am writing to correct an oversight made in connection with the Environmental Assessment on the Salt Valley Wash Spring Tamarisk Control. This plan was abandoned when the Director prohibited prescribed fires of any type...We should have written, at that point, and advised you that the Environmental Assessment had been withdrawn...I regret that we simply overlooked the need to close out this Environmental Assessment.

"Nothing more was done on exotic species until Spring 1989. We still wanted to control tamarisk and wrote a Tamarisk Management Plan to accomplish this goal. The Plan was approved in May of 1989...We have been following this the Salt Valley Wash Spring (and) I am delighted to report that water is again coming from the Salt Valley Spring, in spite of the drought.

"We appreciate your interest in Arches National Park. We also regret that you were not informed about the fate of the Environmental Assessment...Hopefully, this will not discourage your participation in future projects."

I protested the park’s action (The Zephyr was up and running now and I had a good rant) but it was a waste of time now...the deed had been done. Former Canyonlands National Park Resource Management Specialist Jeff Connors wrote a long defense of NPS tamarisk control efforts in the July 1990 Zephyr. "Sorry the NPS did not inform you or the public," he explained, "but glad to hear they are doing the work. That spring could be greatly improved by the removal of the tamarisk."

The Secret Spring was gone...I wouldn’t fully appreciate how gone for 14 years.


It took me four years to actually visit the Secret Spring after the tamarisk removal, but the shock was worse than expected---I couldn’t find the spring. The small perennial pool was gone. Not a trace of it survived. I was stunned. I tried to understand what had happened and this is the best explanation I could muster...

The small pool was in the middle of Salt Valley Wash. Upstream from the tamarisk, the wash looked like any other desert drainage–dry, wide, sandy in places and rocky in others. But when the wash met the tamarisk, the landscape changed. If nothing else tamarisk controls erosion and stabilizes watercourse banks and it had done its job here. Despite flash floods, the nature of the wash here didn’t change. It was woody, shady and well-defined. Year after year, the pool survived.

But without the tamarisk, the next flood scoured the previously stabilized stretch of Salt Valley Wash and altered the stream bed so drastically that water now fails to reach the surface. My guess is the water is still down there, but buried under several feet of rock and silt. I left disheartened and angry; all I could do was hope that time and nature would correct this and that water would flow again at the Secret Spring.

Last week, I made another trip...nothing has changed. The pool never came back. The wash is almost completely bone dry. I could find no sign of the Cooper’s Hawk nest that was once such a familiar sight in the cottonwood tree adjacent to the pool. Huge piles of slash–cut tamarisk trees—still cover the ground near the wash and Russian Thistle, another exotic, flourishes in many locations near the burn area. The only encouraging sight was the cottonwoods, which have survived, though they have certainly not multiplied and grown in numbers once predicted by the Park Service, once the project was completed.

And so, for all their hard work and all the thousands of dollars spent over the last 15 years to keep tamarisk out of the Secret Spring, Arches National Park has nothing to show for its efforts except a dusty wash, a dry hole and the memory of a place that should have been left alone.