Russian olive, tamarisk tamed

After years of battling the scourge of Western rivers, land managers along one stretch of the Colorado finally seem to have the upper hand on tamarisk. 

The nonprofit Conservation Lands Foundation announced this week the final phase in a 15-year, large-scale effort to remove invasive tamarisk and Russian olive trees from the popular Ruby-Horsethief stretch west of Grand Junction. The latest round of work was made possible through a $10,000 grant from the RBC Blue Water Project, a long-term effort to restore the 25-mile stretch of river, which flows through the newly deemed McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area. The grant will help fund an eight-person crew from the Western Colorado Conservation Corps, which will cut out tamarisk and Russian olive trees via chainsaw from the banks and campsites along the Colorado River. The stretch runs between the Loma and Westwater accesses.

Although land managers and biologists acknowledge that tamarisk – which guzzle water, choke riverbanks and habitat and out-compete native plants – may never be completely eliminated, the latest efforts along Ruby-Horsethief have brought the problem to a manageable level.

It is hoped that this fall will mark the last time a large-scale chainsaw crew will be needed to cut invasive species from the riverbank. Once completed, BLM staff and volunteers will continue to plant and protect cottonwoods, willows and other natives and monitor habitat and campsites.

“We will always need to monitor and keep the spread of invasive species in check,” Bureau of Land Management Ranger Troy Schnurr, who has been guiding riparian restoration work on Ruby-Horsethief, said. “But after this season the really heavy and large-scale work we have needed conservation crews to address is coming to a close. It’s an important and gratifying accomplishment – for the river and for all those who enjoy it.”

The stretch of river is managed by the BLM and is one of the most popular in the state for boating and camping. The area is visited by approximately 10,000 people annually, and so far this year, 1,470 permits have been issued to float and camp along the river. It is part of the National Conservation Lands, the most ecologically rich and culturally significant public lands managed by BLM.

It is hoped work to restore the river will not only improve the recreation experience but help conserve one of the country’s most important water resources. “Cutting out tamarisk and Russian olive is an extremely arduous but critical task, as these invasive plants pose a threat to the Colorado River’s water supply,” said Jeff Roberts, director of WCCC. “This gift will help protect the river so that the native flora and fauna can continue to depend on it, and people can continue to enjoy its beauty.”

Piñon Ridge permit denied again

It’s looking like it’s lights out for the proposed Piñon Ridge uranium mill. A district judge in Denver once again ruled against the Paradox Valley mill and mine, which would have been the country’s first new uranium mill in almost 35 years.

In a court ruling issued last week, District Judge Robert McGahey sided with plaintiffs that the second hearing for the mill, ordered after a previous judge invalidated the first license approved by the State of Colorado in 2011, did not comply with court orders. Under that order, an independent hearing officer was required to listen to and review public testimony at a second hearing, in November 2012, and make an “initial decision” as to whether Energy Fuels’ had met all application criteria under state law.

However, according to complaints filed by the Telluride-based Sheep Mountain Alliance and Rocky Mountain Wild, despite both parties presenting “solid evidence” that Energy Fuels’ application was based on false information and environmental review was incomplete, the officer advised the state to proceed with the license. Following that recommendation, the state issued a second license to Energy Fuels in April 2013, which the groups again challenged. The judge once again agreed, ruling that the hearing officer “failed to make a conclusion” as to whether Energy Fuels’ met all criteria, particularly review of environmental impacts, for issuance of a license.

“The application lacks sufficient analysis of impacts to wildlife and the environment,” Rocky Mountain Wild lawyer Matt Sandler said in a news release. “This decision is a win for the wildlife and the natural resources of this region. Our hope is that this remand will finally highlight the deficient environmental analysis included in the application.”

 The two conservation groups, which have led the fight against Piñon Ridge, welcomed the news as a death knell.

“This process has been mishandled by the state agency from the start,” Sheep Mountain Executive Director Hilary Cooper said in a news release. “If the state chooses to continue this process, it will be taking action on a 2009 application for a project that will most likely never be built.” 

In the meantime, Energy Fuels acquired the White Mesa Uranium Mill in Blanding, Utah, and announced it will not build Piñon Ridge due to economic conditions. Energy Fuels has since entered into a contract to sell the Piñon Ridge property to George Glasier, the original founder of Energy Fuels, who is backed by Baobab Asset Management, Inc.

Missy Votel