Riparian Restoration at Lees Ferry

On a snowy February night following a crowd-raising talk, we joined conservationist Dave Foreman over a beer at Beaver Street Brewery in Flagstaff. An aspiring young activist asked him what the Sky Island Wildlands Network, a new landscape-scale conservation plan for southeastern Arizona, southwestern New Mexico, and northern Mexico, offered the region's citizens. He replied simply: “…an opportunity to welcome the natives home—jaguar, Mexican wolf, thick-billed parrot.” What he spoke of is ecological healing: “Saving the Pieces, Healing the Wounds,” an expression Grand Canyon Wildlands Council President Kim Crumbo borrowed from Aldo Leopold's prescient writings. This is the effort to “rewild,” to restore native species in naturally functioning ecosystems. David Brower once said “You put a ‘re' in front of it, and I'm for it.” Here in the Grand Canyon Ecoregion, we can start by restoring ecosystem function and “welcoming home” top predators and wide-ranging species—river otter, gray wolf, Colorado pikeminnow.
Your next visit to lees ferry may hold a bit of a surprise: the riverbank downstream from the launch ramp is no longer dominated by non-native tamarisk. Historical photos from the 1870s through the 1920s clearly show large cottonwood and willow trees along the shoreline at Lees Ferry, but tamarisk colonized the terraces after large floods from the 1930s until the completion of Glen Canyon Dam. A few old willow trees still remain; however, no successful establishment of native trees has been observed there in the past three decades. The restoration site was burned to the ground by a wildfire in 1987, but only tamarisk trees survived the fire.
In 1999, Grand Canyon Wildlands Council proposed a bold riparian restoration project for the area, to clear the tamarisk and plant native trees and shrubs. This project was funded by the

Arizona Water Protection Fund, and strongly supported by Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, which oversaw the necessary nepa compliance. We advertised these plans to the river running community at last years gts and in several articles in the bqr. We invited those who regularly use the Ferry to a meeting a couple of months ago to discuss short term management issues. From this meeting we agreed to proceed with the plan, and: 1) leave a small stand of tamarisk for shade for river runners right at the launch ramp; 2) maintain access to the river bank for fishermen, and leave a couple of areas open for private river runner camping.
In early February 2000, Grand Canyon Wildlands Council, Phillips Consulting and Flagstaff Native Plant and Seed removed ten acres of this non-native weedy tree along the river. We cleared the land with a d-7 Cat, leaving in place the big piles of river driftwood that had been hidden in the dense tamarisk growth. Following clearing, the riverbank terraces are being replanted with native Fremont cottonwood and Goodding willow, as well as other native trees and shrubs. The stock for the 1,500 plantings were primarily taken from the vicinity of Lees Ferry and propagated in the Flagstaff Native Plant and Seed nursery in Flagstaff. The planting will be completed by May, and the new plants will be watered for the next two years, and carefully monitored for survivorship, growth and bird life. We are fencing each tree as protection from beaver, rabbits and deer. Based on his experiences with a 250 acre riparian restoration project in Parker, Arizona, Fred Phillips expects the new cottonwood and Goodding willow saplings to grow to more than ten feet in height within two years, large enough to be weaned from the watering system. Within three years many of the cottonwood trees are likely to be 20 feet tall. So, with a bit of patience, we will soon see the riverbanks at Lees Ferry restored to native vegetation and hear the sound of cottonwood leaves blowing in the afternoon wind. We hope you share our enthusiasm in bringing about this very exciting change.
Larry Stevens and Kelly Burke