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 many...so 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."
A BRIEF HISTORY...
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
1987...TO BURN OR NOT TO BURN
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
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,
"‘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
"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 plan...at 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.
2004...A MISSING SPRING
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
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.