Restoring a Remote River in the Heart of a Western Wilderness
Writing about Utah in his famous Wilderness Letter, author and conservationist Wallace Stegner described the magic of discovering “the sudden poetry of springs” trickling under hidden cliffs in a remote backcountry gorge.
“Save a piece of country like that intact, and it does not matter in the slightest that only a few people every year will go into it. That is precisely its value,” he wrote.
This is how Stephanie Minnaert feels about the Escalante River, the secluded desert stream that snakes 90 miles through a stunning Utah landscape of forested plateaus and red sandstone canyons.
“This is one of the most beautiful places in the whole world,” she says. “The river systems carve these deep, dark canyons into a vast, surrounding desert. It's unique and spectacular.”
Stephanie moved to southern Utah from Boulder, Colorado, to indulge her passion for canyoneering in and around Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. She initially found work managing a lodge in the town of Escalante, then landed a dream job as public lands coordinator for the nonprofit Grand Staircase Escalante Partners.
Now, she’s tasked with protecting the river and all of its secret nooks and crannies.
The Escalante was one of the last rivers in the continental United States to be mapped and it remains one of the last places where it is possible for people to escape into untrammeled, off-the-grid wilderness.
But the river has been under persistent threat from invasive species like Russian olive and tamarisk trees, which have infested riparian areas along the length of the Escalante and its tributaries, creeks and washes.
Stephanie is the de facto field general for an army of conservation corps members – armed with chainsaws and hand tools – who are removing the invasives and restoring natural habitat and riparian areas on public lands along the river.
Grand Staircase Escalante Partners works closely on restoration with the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and the National Parks Service; the river and its tributaries flow through land managed by all three agencies.
“It has become a monoculture of invasive species in a lot of those areas. Russian olive takes over riverbanks. It is so thick and dense that there isn’t even grass or anything growing underneath it,” says Stephanie. She recalls “crawling on hands and knees” through Russian olive thickets with coworkers last summer just to find the remnants of a tributary creek.
“In some places there is nothing but bare soil and Russian olive. The sun doesn’t even hit the ground.”
Russian olive poses an existential threat to the health of riparian areas throughout the Colorado River basin. The tree overtakes native species, overruns campsites and channelizes rivers, altering water flow and temperature and trammeling natural processes that create and maintain habitat for native fish.
“Russian olive basically create a canal – and canals are great for carrying water. But they are not so great for biodiversity and allowing the water to [occasionally spill over its banks]. That’s what a healthy system does,” Stephanie says.
The Walton Family Foundation supports Grand Staircase Escalante Partners’ restoration project as part of its effort to improve river flows and water supply throughout the Colorado River basin.
“If we have a healthier river, utilize this resource in the best way possible, then that has positive impacts for all of the Colorado River,” Stephanie says.
Because many of the work sites along the Escalante are remote and unreachable by road, restoration crews frequently hike up to 10 miles into the backcountry – carrying camping gear and tools – for eight-day shifts. Other supplies - including gasoline and herbicide for treating Russian olive stumps – are carried in and out on horseback.
As a conservationist and canyoneer, Stephanie has experienced parts of the Colorado Plateau that few others will ever see. She has rappelled 300 feet down into tiny slot canyons and hiked 12 hours to hear the “sudden poetry of springs” flowing over ancient rocks.
“I believe in the work that we’re doing and I believe in this place. These bodies of water are a scarce and precious resource,” says Stephanie, reflecting on her personal commitment to the Escalante.
“I am absolutely passionate about the West. I am drawn to this area because of the landscape. What’s really important to me is that we protect it for future generations.”
Water in the West is a series of stories about the people working to address threats to water supply in the Colorado River basin and find conservation solutions that make economic sense for people and communities.