Features and Occasionals

Where Have All the Willows Gone?

By Katherine Pioli

Three men hunch low to the ground examining something closely. “Western ragweed, 8%,” says the white-haired man wearing a floppy fisherman’s hat. “Cheatgrass, 5%; hound’s tongue, 5%; whitetop 10%,” he continues without hesitation. A young woman standing near the scrum scribbles furiously as the plant names are spoken. “Are we doing this in Latin or common names?” asks another of the men. Latin is better, they decide and then move on, continuing with both common and Latin names.

It is spring and I have joined three scientists on a fieldtrip to the Jordan River. My guides are Ty Harrison, an emeritas professor of biology at Westminster College specializing in restoration ecology; Arthur Morris, ecologist and conservation stewardship director for Utah Open Lands; and Marc Coles-Ritchie, vegetation ecologist. We stand on a white and weedy strip of the Jordan’s banks, a stone’s throw from the state prison, near the southernmost point of the Jordan Parkway Trail.

It is peaceful down here by the water. Groves of Russian olive trees throw abundant shade. Phragmites (frag-mite-eez) grasses sway in the sky while wispy tamarisk limbs tickle the water. Joggers, walkers and cyclists pass along the trail, no doubt drawn by the cool shade, the mallards and geese taking wing, the gentle flow of water. To most, this place is a sanctuary. But to my three guides kneeling on the ground examining plants along the banks, it is an ecological disaster and a system on the verge of collapse.

We are here today cataloging plants, a preliminary step in the process of restoration, an attempt to reverse the damage of nearly a century and restore the habitat to something that would be more familiar to the native people who, archeological diggings have shown, once lived on a small rise not 200 yards from where we stand.

Harrison, Morris and Coles-Ritchie roll out a yard tape and pick a number at random. Finding the digit on their line, they drop a 2 by 2-foot square of pvc-pipe, kneel and start naming vegetation in the random sample. Whitetop, wild lettuce, cheatgrass, cranesbill, reed canarygrass, aster, thistle, lance-leaf plantain, more cheatgrass. Little of what we are finding is native. Whitetop is from southwestern Asia and cheatgrass from Asia and Africa. Though some thistle are native (mountain and elk thistle), the abundant musk, bull and Canadian thistles are all invasive.

Thousands of years ago the Jor­dan was not a single long river but segments of water caught in leftover sediments from the ancient Lake Bonneville. Over time, ponds, pools and short canals formed into a massive riparian area, more marsh or flood plain or delta than river. Until not very long ago, this wetland habitat spread over nearly 12,500 acres of the valley.

When Mormon pioneers settled here in the late 1800s, they immediately began a campaign to control the water, opening land to grazing and to minimize flooding damage to crops. They channeled the water into the narrow path it follows today, drying up the wetlands. At the same time, discharge from agriculture began to degrade the water quality.

Up until this time willows likely dominated the vegetative landscape along the river flood plain, along with native grasses—Indian ricegrass, bluebunch wheatgrass, basin wildrye. A few native cottonwoods may have existed, though many were transplanted by the pioneers from populations in the Uinta Basin and southern areas of the state.

By contrast, what we see today, and what to most of us seems like a healthy natural ecosystem, is greatly out of balance. The grove of Russian olive trees, though beautiful, are invaders from western Asia and southeastern Europe introduced to the US in the 1800s as ornamentals. Their seeds spread to the wild and were established in Utah by the 1920s. Though their fruits are edible to birds, the trees cannot support the diverse insect life that native birds rely on for feed. Russian olive’s roots clog marshlands and its thick canopy prevents understory growth.

The lovely willowy tamarisk, imported as a solution to soil erosion, likewise comes from Eurasia and Africa. It, too, does not support the same levels of native wildlife populations as native plants and it expertly chokes out other flora by secreting salt into the soil, poisoning other plants around it.

“This is a 100-year flood plain we are standing on,” Ty Harrison, the plant identification expert in the group, tells me while on a break from hunching over naming plants. Thirty feet away, tamarisk grow so closely to one another I can’t see the river. Under our feet the ground is white and brittle and nearly devoid of vegetation. This short section saw minimal flooding two years ago during spring runoff. The last major flood came 25 years ago.

“There are some native plants here,” Harrison continues, “wild rose and squaw bush. But this would have once been a willow thicket, peachleaf willows.”

“Sounds less diverse than it is now,” says Morris.

“Structurally, it was,” says Harrison. “If I could have my way I would like to see cottonwoods here, and native willows in dense patches with canarygrass and western wheatgrass underneath.”

An ecosystem is energy, Harrison explains as we continue our walk down the bank, pushing through the scratchy net of tamarisk. A healthy ecosystem cycles and recycles, flowing energy naturally from sun to plants to animals. The Russian olive, cheatgrass and other non-natives, Harrison points out, do not allow for the proper flow of energy.

With some money and a lot of work, Harrison can almost guarantee a restored ecosystem within 10 years.

US environmentalism: a brief history

To early European settlers, the apparent endless abundance of fish, forests, game and water encouraged a first-come-first-serve mentality.

But pollution, deforestation and other horrors of overuse and over-harvest soon encouraged different thinking. George Marsh, looking at Europe’s depleted resources, warned of a similar fate brewing for America in his 1864 book Man and Nature: of Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action. He argued for better land use practices, lest the new country lose its growing strength and national identity.

Such thought set the stage for utilitarian conservation, an era that saw the creation of the National Forest system, led by national figures like Gifford Pinchot and Theo­dore Roosevelt.

The thoughts and teachings of Emerson and Thoreau (now long dead) encouraged a second wave of environmentalism, romantic preservation. Wilderness and its beauty became valuable for its own sake, a matter of national pride. Aldo Leopold argued for harmony between men and land. To Leopold, people were not separate from nature but rather part of the natural community. This period culminated with the passage of the Wilder­ness Act of 1964.

In the 1960s, a third movement took a turn back to the anthropo­centric utilitarian movement but with more sinister undertones. Apocalyptic environmentalism portends not only the end of species or ecosystems but the world as we know it and very possibly the human race. From Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring to Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, the apocalyptic environmental conscience is motivated by evidence of environmental decline and our own extinction.

Wading through the tamarisk, Harrison and I stumble upon a single peachleaf willow. Somehow, this little smooth-branched, pink-barked willow has come back to the bank. Or maybe it has hung on through all odds. Harrison muses that in another 100 years, birds may bring in enough native seed to naturally restore the plain with native grasses. Or, he says, maybe not.

This article was originally published on June 28, 2013.