Mike McKibbin

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October 17, 2012
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Invasive trees under attack along I-70

Russian olive and tamarisk trees are a growing problem for Scott Balcomb, "pun intended," the Glenwood Springs lawyer said.

The invasive trees are being removed on land he and others own outside Silt, and is part of a Garfield County project to clear the problem trees from 500 acres between Silt and Rifle.

County Vegetation Manager Steve Anthony said the project includes the Wheeler State Wildlife Area, private property owned by a partnership that includes Balcomb, and a Colorado Department of Transportation parcel.

"We wanted to tie all the parcels together so we could address the tamarisk along the entire corridor," Anthony said.

The land is located adjacent to I-70 and the Colorado River between Silt and Rifle.

Previous tamarisk removal projects were done along Mamm Creek and at the Rifle rest area, Anthony said.

Balcomb said Russian olives are the target on his property, but thinks he will have to deal with tamarisk in the near future.

"If you don't get on top of this, they'll crowd out everything else," Balcomb said. "You won't have a place for birds, since they don't like the tamarisk trees, and you just can't grow anything."

Anthony said the project included work by the State Wildland Inmate Fire Team from the Rifle Minimum Security Correctional Center, mechanical removal using equipment such as a hydroaxe, and a crew from the Western Colorado Conservation Corps from Grand Junction.

A Western Colorado Conservation Corps crew is working 11 weeks on the project, Anthony said, through November.

The six-person crew - all in their 20s - work four days a week, said crew leader Eddica Tuttle.

"We go through some in-house training on how to safely use saws," Tuttle said. "But these trees are really a mess, so we're trying to cut in very thick stands. They really weave in and out of each other."

Crews start work at 7 a.m. and stop around 5 p.m., Tuttle said.

"It's challenging and tough work," she added.

Removal is done with a "cut-stump-treatment" process, Anthony said.

Work is done in the spring and fall, when the Colorado River is lower, so tamarisk and Russian olive trees on several islands can be removed, Anthony noted.

Balcomb said the control methods for the invasive trees are expensive, but the county program is very helpful.

The county commissioners have contributed $55,000 a year for the work in the last five years, Anthony said, with landowners paying the cost of herbicide treatment of the tree stumps, to prevent sprouts.

"Somewhere around ten percent of the tree stumps will send out sprouts," he added.

The Middle Colorado River Watershed Partnership has helped obtain state funds for the project, said coordinator Laurie Rink. The state money comes from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment's supplemental environmental project fund, Rink explained. That money is paid by companies fined for violating environmental regulations, she said.

Landowners are responsible for chemical, labor and other costs, if those methods are used on their property, Anthony noted.

The county provides labor to cut and treat the stumps, while landowners are responsible to deal with any slash piles and follow-up treatment, Anthony added.

Tamarisk beetles, a natural pest of the trees, have been used along Mamm Creek and at the Rifle Creek Golf Course, Anthony said.

"I'd say we released about 20,000 of the beetles in the last two years," he said. "We hope they'll help prevent the tree stumps from sprouting."

The tamarisk leaf beetle, from the same area of the world as the tamarisk plant, feeds almost exclusively on tamarisk. In three to five years, the beetles kill the tamarisk plant.

Tamarisk consume around 30 gallons of water a day, a rate similar to cottonwoods and willows, he said.

"But the density is much less with the native trees compared to the tamarisk," Anthony added.

Tamarisk trees also prevent cottonwood saplings from growing to maturity, Anthony added, since they shade the saplings from the sunshine needed for growth.

"So most of the cottonwoods are old growth trees," he said. "When the wind blows them down, they don't get replaced."

Cottonwood trees provide nesting homes to blue herons, eagles and other raptors, Anthony said.

Previously, Balcomb used a track hoe to remove Russian olives and hopes the tamarisk beetles will help get the growth of those invasive trees under control.

"Russian olives are pretty good for the birds, they like the olives," Balcomb said. "So it's too bad you can't keep a few. But that isn't the case. I remember planting these with my dad."

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The Post Independent Updated Oct 17, 2012 05:55PM Published Oct 17, 2012 05:48PM Copyright 2012 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.