Box 1363, Moab, UT 84532 – 435-259-7733 – Toll-Free 866-202-1847

Thorn’s in the Colorado River’s Bouquet

When spending time on the Colorado River, we are given countless opportunities for botanical sight-seeing and to develope a greater appreciation for the natural world.

The biodiversity of plant life found along riparian areas stand out in sharp contrast – a backdrop of red rock highlights floral endowments aplenty. The wind fluttering through the leaves of cottonwood trees. The trembling of needle-and-thread grass near the water's edge. Globe mallows and narrowleaf four-o'clock bloom brightly hued to complement the setting sun's palette.

Upon closer inspection, however, the plant communities of riverine environment are changing at a dramatic rate. The plants which alter the integrity of the native ecosystem are interesting and beautiful, but have devastating consequences. The time has come for an increased awareness and true activism in preventing the spread of invasive plants.

Consider Elaeagnus angustifolia, a silvery tree with rusty bark and beautiful yellow flowers. The sweet-sour smell of the tree in bloom is as attractive as the specimens themselves. otherwise known as Russian olive, this tree species was planted to increase shade and establish effective windbreaks. All too successful, the tree has surely out-competed native plants for light – even girdling them on their way to the top. The invasive canopy spreads thickly to conquer wet areas, even in sites long established with native vegetation. Longlived seeds of Russian olives can yield new growth up to three years after dispersal, and are often conveniently transported by animals. The plant, mostly inedible, is not preferred by grazing wildlife or livestock. These trees even alter the chemistry of the soil to improve their success. With long, deep tap roots, Russian olive's drink more than their fair share from the water table. If all of these adaptations do not appear threatening, consider their long thorns which have been known to injure wildlife, rangeland mammals, and humans alike. According to Kathleen Cain (The Cottonwood Tree, 2007), "[Russian olives] could replace the cottonwoods before the end of the twenty-first century."

Unless we become more proactive in addressing this issue, sightseers of the Colorado Plateau can expect to see the river's edges replaced with thick stands of Russian olives in the very near future – similar to the riparan zones along the San Juan. The easy-to-access sand bars and lunch spots will be no longer available to rafters. Gone will be the once plentiful corridors for thirsty wildlife. With these changes will come the total loss of integrity of the Colorado River.

We must continue to observe and promote the values of naturally native plant communities. We must work to remove invasive species including Russian olive (mechanical and chemical treatments including the "frill cut method" which kills the top poriton of the tree while still providing habitat for wildlife), and replace those invasives with hardy native vegetation. We must monitor and reassess treatments areas – this is not a "set it and forget it" endeavor. Restoring the Colorado River to its true quality requires commitment, time, and funds. 

At Plateau Restoration, Inc., we rely on dedicated partners to help in the fight against the spread of Russian olives. In order to promote healthy riparian environments, we work hard to monitor and restore threatened habitats using a variety of treatment methods. But we cannot do this without your help – be aware of the horticultural changes taking place throughout our region, take part in local community efforts and restoration projects, speak out to encourage legislation which provides cost-effective solutions to the spread of invasive species, and generously donate to this cause.

With your help, the true beauty of the Colorado River will be observable for many generations to come.

Have we forgotten the true meaning of wilderness?


Edward Abbey once wrote, “The love of wilderness is more than a hunger for what is always beyond reach; it is also an expression of loyalty to the earth, the earth which bore us and sustains us, the only home we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need — if only we had the eyes to see.”  

In today's increasingly technology-dependent world, part of me wonders if Abbey's inspiring words have been lost, forgotten, or ignored. Even in Moab, Utah, where Abbey wrote Desert Solitaire, you would expect such salt-of-the-earth ideas to stick – not only in the minds of those who self-identify as outdoor enthusiasts, but in their environmental behaviors as well.

The world-class opportunities for outdoor recreation in Moab are hard to deny. Almost everywhere you look, outfitters, gear companies, and extreme attractions are clustering around the small highway which connects Interstate 70 to Arches NP and Canyonlands NP.

Visitors from all over the world have ventured to experience these geologic formations, which undoubtedly took millions of years to deposit and erode, up close. But it is more than just an inspiring vista. It is a vacation. A free-for-all, if you will.

One could hardly deny the increased traffic in the Moab area this Memorial Day weekend. At one point, the exhausting line of gridlocked cars, trucks, and RVs extended clear into Crescent Junction. At the supermarket, one could not even turn around a grocery cart if they wanted to. Even Arches was shut down due to the flooding of tourists wishing to enter the park on Saturday morning. 

With visitation in this popular area going through the roof, how can this exponential growth be sustainable? What does increased visitation really mean for the future of outdoor recreation in this small community? And how will the natural places just beyond the city streets, old buildings, and newly developed hotels in Moab be affected over the long term?



Now more than ever, we need to reconnect with the earth. By exploring natural spaces sans technology, we can rediscover the what it means to be human. 

Hiking along Devils Garden in Arches, I begin to step away from any reminder of civilization. Birds buzz so loudly that you can hear the sounds of their wings echoing off of the canyon's walls. As I crest a large fin, a section of horizontal sedimentary strata, near Double-O Arch, I find myself in a land devoid of human presence. An aliveness within me, something I have not felt since childhood, stirs.

What is this place?

Am I still in a National Park? Or am I in an area which can no longer be defined in simple, human, "civilized" terms? This area is so vast, so real, yet so unimaginably unfathomable.

Gaining a true sense of the earth's dynamic treasures is no simple task; geologic landforms and living landscapes can confound even the brightest of environmental visionaries. 

Canyons and archways, cottonwood groves and vistas, even small patches of soil, so rich with aliveness – ensuring the protection of such naural landscapes from harm is equal to protecting ourselves.

To truly understand wilderness, one must experience the great outdoors for oneself. This means free of bicycles, ATVs, smart phones, social media, and any other devices which may cloud our perspective or seek to seperate us from the natural world. When going into nature, we should be truly free of our own entitled and arrogant perspectives. Free of ourselves and our demanding egos. Free to listen to the sounds of silence.

Society must recognize the ever-expanding, non-monetary values associated with these natural areas in order to improve the quality of our own lives. Supporting the designation of vast tracts of untrammeled land is a cause worth of your full-fledged support.


If you are interested in learning more, or how you or your organization can become an environmental leader in an ever-changing world to protect natural spaces, consider taking part in a minimal impact wilderness experience with Plateau Restoration. Enjoy the out of doors with an experienced and responsible guide. The compassionate and ethical experts at Plateau Restoration delight in inspiring others to foster more holistic environmental values. If you are unable to visit the Moab area, consider a generous donation in support of restoring habitats for wildlife and preserving the integrity of wilderness settings.


John Aldridge is the Conservation Media/Marketing and Field Intern with Plateau Restoration, Inc. for the summer 2015 season.