Listening to Non-Native Voices
Seeing Invasive Species In A New Light
Charred and skeletal tamarisk lines the highways paralleling the Colorado River near Moab. The scene resembles a
warzone - and, in essence, it is. The Bureau of Land Management here is a decade into a no-holds-barred tamarisk
eradication effort that involves cutting and burning the trees, clearing the riverbanks of its non-native thickets.
For the first time in a generation or more, the mighty Colorado is visible from the canyon's bottomlands.
Further down the Colorado River drainage, a volunteer-driven initiative is under way to remove Russian olive from the Escalante River. More than 40 river miles have been cleared of the exotic tree in recent years. The dead wood is largely left for the river fates to pull downstream when the rains fall and the waters rise. The mucky bottom of Lake Powell must be a veritable ghost forest of the invading flora.
Tamarisk and Russian olive are familiar figures to desert dwellers. Introduced in the mid-1800s as ornamentals and windbreaks, these trees from Asia and southern Europe have exhibited a divide-and-conquer mentality throughout the Southwest's waterways. The invasives choke out natives such as willow and cottonwood while also channelizing watercourses so the usual ebb-and-flow patterns of seasonal flooding are altered. And tamarisk, especially, sucks up more than its share of water in this arid land.
Invasive species are regarded as an affliction in need of treatment, a kind of botanical cancer that is sucking the life out of precious riparian areas. In response, property owners and land management agencies have gone on a ruthless rampage - one to match the force of the root-bound invasion - to rid the region of non-natives. However, amidst this slash-and-burn approach, the potential benefits of these invasives - their resource values - are literally going up in smoke.
Yet, a small but burgeoning movement is afoot to find the small pockets of beauty amidst the botanical battle.
"When we go to potlucks, we bring wood," jokes Scott Anderson as his wife, Katy, feeds the fire in the stove box.
Their home is cozy on this cold, fall evening. Jackets and hats lay piled around the room, unnecessary accoutrements
in the warm presence of fire, community and beer.
The home is alive with elements of the surrounding desert. Tables are made of stone and stumps gathered in the vicinity. The flooring once stood as Moab-area trees. The fire is fueled by scraps from the woodshop.
Together, Scott and Katy are Triassic Industries, a Moab-based business focused on the sustainable use of area resources, including stone, animals and wood. What began as a simple jewelry-making operation out of the back of the Toyota pickup (to make beer money, asserts Scott), has now blossomed into a thriving business, replete with a fully equipped shop, machinery for their tree removal service, a biodiesel-powered truck, and a few sometimes-employees. The Andersons make jewelry, furniture, kitchen items, lumber and sculpture out of the desert's offerings. The wood generally comes from underutilized species and is often salvaged from tree removal jobs - including regional tamarisk and Russian olive eradication efforts.
"We try to make stuff out of anything we can find within a relatively close distance to us," says Scott. "Then we take the waste from making something and turn that into something. And we take the waste from that and turn it into something. And then, whatever we have left over, we just burn it in the stove." Scott pauses then adds emphatically, "I hate wasting things."
The couple is young and spirited, just as imbued with the essence of desert as their home. Scott's elemental energy fuels strong opinions, often punctuated by four-letter words. Katy's manner, on the other hand, is more subtle and restrained. Her wit is no less wicked; it just sneaks up from behind like a big cat. Though they both hail from points east, they are now native to this place.
"I want to do more with things that don't have an apparent use," says Scott. "None of the invasives are of high value. You're not going to make a lot of money from it. But if you've got to get rid of it anyway, why not do something with it?"
Their entire bedroom floor is made of Russian olive; its deep brown tones are surprising and beautiful.
The Andersons first found inspiration in invasives years ago while driving along a tamarisk burn site. They took a piece home just to have a peek inside. The band-saw uncovered striations of red and pink to match the multihued landscape.
"We thought we should just figure out if it was good wood on our own and not listen to the stories about it," explains Katy.
Tamarisk and Russian olive have a bad rap that extends beyond their landscape-level impacts. Myths abound about the trees: they don't burn well, they stink, they're poisonous. Considering this vilification, it's little wonder that few people think to use the wood for anything. Scott and Katy hope that their creations - from spoons to tables - will help to educate others and crack some persistent myths.
"Hopefully, what we do inspires other people to do a similar thing," says Katy. "What we do is so physically difficult, we're not worried about the competition side of it. We just want to inspire people to make things locally. And," she adds with a smile, "it's fun to find people who have preconceived ideas and blow them away."
Bob Willis, from Ouray, Colo., has been a woodworker for 35 years. He specializes in intricately crafted wall hangings, furniture, and vessels laboriously carved out of root systems, some of which have walls only one-eighth of an inch thick. Often, he will spend years with a piece of wood before carving, intuiting its internal intricacies and liberating its voice.
"You develop an x-ray type of imagination as you're looking at a piece of wood. If I go directly into a piece without studying it, sometimes I'm very off and the wood will not be utilized to its fullest. It's a process."
Willis began working with invasives years ago when a group involved in an eradication effort brought him some of the waste wood. He's become enamored with the root systems of the Russian olive and the gradations of red that a single piece of tamarisk can exhibit. However, he is quick to acknowledge that coaxing out such beauty is not an easy endeavor.
"Russian olive is very unruly. Hard to tame. It's a wild wood. And the tamarisk soaks up so much water, it tends to have silica in the wood that will dull your tools. But it's quite gorgeous." He adds with a sigh, "but it's a lot of work to tame it. It's wild and wooly. Sometimes the piece of wood wants to argue with you a little bit, and you have to learn how to let the wood do its own thinking."
Willis is adept at not imposing his ideas on the wood. The voice of each tree clearly comes through in his vessels, speaking a language not of human origin - one of wobbly spirals and negative space.
"I think I've learned some things about myself from working with it," Willis says of the organic material that has been his lifelong companion. "The ability to be patient with something, to coax something out, to be kind to it, to be focused on it, and just enjoy it. That's what it has taught me."
Few people consider the resource values of invasives. The need for patience - and a willingness to listen to the wood
- are limiting and intimidating factors. And the fire hazard that tamarisk presents is one reason why agencies like
the Bureau of Land Management don't do more to promote alternate uses.
Brian Keating, the Fuels Program Manager for the BLM's Canyon Country Fire Zone, points out that the agency has offered up free use permits for those wanting to make tamarisk crafts, and firewood permits are available. However, low public interest and high fire danger precipitate the agency's need to burn the thick stands of weeds.
"The work the BLM has been doing with tamarisk removal was first initiated due to the fire hazard that it presented," explains Keating. "For anyone who has lived in the Moab area for a while, they have seen and experienced many river fires that were fueled by tamarisk. The BLM has aggressively been treating high priority areas to remove tamarisk in an effort to reduce the fire hazard, protect public and fire fighter safety and protect infrastructure and native vegetation along the river.
"When we have historically opened up treatment areas for biomass utilization, it often takes many months and even years before there is enough interest or effort to remove the biomass. Unfortunately, when treating the high priority areas, we do not have the luxury of waiting that long for all the biomass to be removed."
Keating says the BLM is willing to work with anyone that has a proposal for the utilization of invasives. The agency even has a program in place to engender community involvement in biomass removal. As a part of this Stewardship Contracting program, subsidies are offered to companies seeking to innovate with invasives removal and use.
As the BLM waits for public interest in non-natives to emerge, the Forest Service is beginning to peer into the little-explored realm of invasives utilization. The agency's Forest Products Laboratory is currently researching the effects of using tamarisk wood flour (instead of pine) in manufacturing wood-plastic composites. In promotional material, the lab states, "We anticipate that this project will establish an outlet for exotic-invasive species, thereby improving public lands."
Widespread use of invasives may never be economically feasible (as Scott says, "If tamarisk grew straight and tall,
long and big, Weyerhaeuser would already be down here."), but there appears to be an emerging consciousness regarding
its smaller-scale utility.
With every salad bowl, sculpture and spoon crafted by patient and attentive hands, another bit of creativity and beauty is saved from simply going up in smoke. Every time the voice of tamarisk or Russian olive is coaxed out of a root ball or burl, a life is enriched for having heard it.
And in the process, western waterways are being restored.
"We're changing the way people think about waste," says Scott. "What a paradise we live in. And to not use it - or to just plow it under and take it to the landfill - I think that's a shame."
He takes a deep breath, finally unwinding from his day of arduous tree work. He relaxes into his desert home, a milieu of warmth and wood and unearthed beauty.
"We have everything we need right here. Heaven is on earth."
Jen Jackson is a part-time Russian olive slayer from Moab.