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Groups improve riverbanks for wildlife and recreationists

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Cedaredge High School students learn about invasive species.

People who hike, fish and boat along Colorado's rivers appreciate the shade of majestic cottonwood trees. On the other hand, the sharp thorns of Russian olive trees cut skin and snag clothes. In many areas, the thorny trees are so thick that they block access to the river's edge. These invasive trees also take over native vegetation and reduce the diversity of wildlife.

To combat this noxious weed, the Uncompahgre Partnership (UP) assembled a corps of teammates to remove Russian olive along the Gunnison River. The crews worked over the past two years in the scenic Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area east of Delta.

Jim Free, the UP technical coordinator, headed up the efforts. According to Free, "Russian olive infestations are crowding out desirable native riparian trees such as cottonwoods and willows, reducing flora and fauna species diversity, causing water depletion, and altering the natural flooding regime along our rivers."

Members of River Restoration Adventures for Tomorrow (RRAFT) take high school students across the Gunnison River to make slash piles.Members of River Restoration Adventures for Tomorrow (RRAFT) loaded up their yellow rafts. They boated to seven islands to cut Russian olives with chainsaws. Next, they quickly treated the stumps to kill the roots, which prevents re-sprouting. RRAFT members also treated steep riverbanks that were inaccessible by land.

Other crews labored along the banks of the river. These included young adults with the Western Colorado Youth Conservation Corp. Supervised minimum security inmates from the Delta Correctional Center also worked hard to remove the invasive trees.

There were many challenges in this stretch of the Gunnison from Pleasure Park downriver for over 8 1⁄2 miles. Crews had to carry chainsaws down steep banks and had to watch out for poison ivy. Some of the trees were over 25-years-old with large trunks that needed to be cut down. Crews also had to hand-carry the tree trunks and limbs away from the native cottonwood trees. No heavy equipment was used to move the slash.

Altogether, people spent over 11,800 hours eradicating thousands of these thorny trees. Their work improved over 500 acres of riparian habitat.

Weed Busters fought another invader from Russia. The local firm treated Russian knapweed in high-use recreational areas on public lands.

Other partners in this effort included the Bureau of Land Management, Delta County, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Private Landowners, North Delta Canal and Relief Ditch Companies. Funding was provided by the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the Western Colorado Landscape Collaborative.

According to Free, "This project is an example that far more gets done together than could ever be achieved alone. Collaboration achieves conservation that is community-supported, regionally significant, and enduring for the generations that follow."

Thanks to these agencies, groups, private landowners, Ditch Companies and individuals, over 8 1⁄2 miles of the Gunnison River is free of these Russian invaders.

The vision of the Western Colorado Landscape Collaborative is "Sustaining healthy lands for vibrant communities." To learn more or to donate, go to http://www.westerncolc.org/.

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