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Tamarisk Taking Over in Western States

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

It's one thing to pull weeds in your garden; it's quite another to tackle weeds in the Grand Canyon National Park. But volunteers led by the National Park Service are doing just that. They're uprooting tamarisk trees, which have invade the canyon, and they're doing it by hand. Sadie Babits reports from the front lines in the war against the tamarisks.

SADIE BABITS reporting:

The sunlight bounces off Paul Vanderheiden's wood oars as they strike the cold waters of the Colorado River.

(Soundbite of oars in the water)

BABITS: This longtime boatman paddles his gray raft past towering rock walls and points out sandy beaches dotted with tamarisks. These trees, with their sweeping green feathery branches, are everywhere, choking the entire Colorado River corridor through the Grand Canyon. Vanderheiden doesn't mind the tamarisks, but he knows they don't belong here.

Mr. PAUL VANDERHEIDEN: They're all I'm used to. I mean, they've always been here when I've been--since I started coming down, so I'm used to them. And they create some wonderful camps. They provide some wonderful shade in the summer. But being an environmental and elitist snob, you just kind of like to see things how it's supposed to be without the interference of humans.

(Soundbite of boats on the river)

BABITS: Farmers in the late 1800s brought tamarisks from Eurasia to create wind breaks and stabilize soil. But the trees quickly spread and now consume more than a million acres in the West. Those trees change wild ecosystems by crowding out native plants and guzzling up badly needed water. Three years ago the National Park Service declared war on tamarisks in Grand Canyon.

(Soundbite of bags being unloaded from a vehicle; horn honking)

BABITS: It's early Sunday afternoon, and Saddle Mountain trail head on the Grand Canyon's north rim looks like a giant yard sale with backpacks, food bags and equipment scattered across the dirt. Steve Till throws his backpack on the ground; a huge grins spreads across his face.

Mr. STEVE TILL (Tamarisk Removal Program): Yeah, the killing season is beginning today.

BABITS: Till is part of the park service's tamarisk removal program. In the Grand Canyon, the project won't tackle the main channel of the Colorado River. The tamarisks are so entrenched there it would be impossible to get rid of them all. So volunteer teams launch assaults on tamarisks in side canyons and around springs and seeps.

Ms. KATE WATERS(ph): I've got a few of these little pads that I could divvy out to people for data collection and a pen.

BABITS: Kate Waters has led 15 such trips this year. She moves quickly among the volunteers handing out the small notebooks.

Ms. WATERS: You look like you're responsible with numbers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BABITS: Volunteers will write down the location of every tamarisk they cut. This will help them make sure the trees don't grow back. While food is divvied out, Waters starts pulling out fuel bottles, first aid kits and small green saws.

Ms. WATERS: This is the ultimate tool if you're a backcountry tammy(ph) whacker, and it's a little foldable saw. It's about eight inches or so of a blade, and you can kind of just clip it onto your belt loop. And this is the primary tool that we use.

BABITS: Waters estimates this backpacking team will kill 6,000 tamarisks. She admits the task seems daunting given that one tamarisk can produce about 600,000 seeds, though Waters says there are plenty of success stories. Her favorite tale is about Cove Canyon, where a native white flower has returned to a place once overgrown by tamarisks.

Ms. WATERS: A year later we walked up there in the early morning, and there were 300 datura flowers blooming at the base of all of these skeletons of dead trees.

Unidentified Man: Yeah, last call water. Everybody got their jugs filled up?

BABITS: The tamarisk volunteers stand hunched over with heavy backpacks, some leaning on their hiking poles. The reality of the next seven days begins to sink in.

Ms. WATERS: OK. Let's go!

(Soundbite of footsteps)

BABITS: The nine tamarisk fighters fall into line and head off into the canyon. They'll be removing tamarisks by hand. But land managers in seven Western states are trying a different tactic. In August, they released beetles imported from Asia that eat only tamarisks. If the experiment is successful, it could do more than handsaws in stopping the tamarisk onslaught. For NPR News, I'm Sadie Babits.

ELLIOTT: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sadie Babits
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