About 20 AmeriCorps VISTA members are working with the Grand Junction-based Western Colorado Conservation Center over the next two weeks on a collaborative effort to clear Russian olive from the banks of the North Fork and Gunnison rivers in the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area.
"I love the work," said Malik Orman, 21, who is originally from Denver. He is serving his second season with the WCCC and was recently promoted from crew member to assistant crew leader.
The project is a cooperative effort of the Uncompahgre Partnership. For 15 years the partnership has worked with numerous organizations to balance economic, cultural, social and ecological values while improving the health of the ecosystems. Partners include the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Western Area Power Administration and Tri-State Generation.
The project is funded through a Phreatophyte Control Grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said Jim Free, coordinator with the Uncompahgre Partnership. Phreatophytes are fast-growing, deep-rooted, water-consuming plants that include Russian olive and tamarisk. The invasive species, native to Europe and Asia, grow along river banks and other bodies of water, and degrade riparian areas, restrict channel capacity, destroy natural habitat, and choke out native species including cottonwood and willow.
While tamarisk is also a problem within the NCA, for now, organizations including the Mesa County-based Tamarisk Coalition are relying on the tamarisk beetle to eradicate the plant in the Colorado River Basin, said Free. Until a biological control method is identified for Russian olive, eradication efforts through physical means will continue.
AmeriCorps VISTA workers between the ages of 16 and 25 will spend eight days on the North Fork and Gunnison rivers clearing Russian olive.
Modeled after President Franklin Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps, WSCC was started by Mesa County Partners to give young adults civic and professional training. They begin training in late February and work through fall, said Orman. It's seasonal and doesn't pay a lot, but the experience and training opens doors to other opportunities to work with the Forest Service, National Parks Service, and on fire crews.
Marcus Kissner, Veteran Services Coordinator for the WSCC, said crew members come from all walks of life. Workers pack personal protective gear, chain saws, herbicides, food and water for the day. The emphasis of their work is on safety, said Kissner. All of the workers have received extensive instruction prior to being given assignments, and the day starts with warm-ups and a safety talk.
Removing established Russian olive trees isn't easy work, said Free. Workers must cut established trees down, cut and scatter the limbs, and treat stumps with an herbicide. Within the next year the workers will return to the area to deal with all the suckers that sprout up from stumps and will begin to re-establish native species including cottonwood trees and willow. "After two or three years we will pretty much eliminate the Russian olive," said Free.
In addition to the WSCC, Delta Correctional Center and River Restoration Adventures, a Gunnison-based non-profit dedicated to river conservation, is also involved in the project. The Uncompahgre Partnership is also coordinating with the Relief Ditch Company and ditch companies on the North Delta Canal, as well as about a half dozen private land owners willing to allow access to their land and removal of invasive species, said Free.