The man who saves the National Park vistas
Chain saw in hand, Ranger Bill Wolverton is a one-man force against invasive species.
Dressed in a worn National Park Service uniform, chain saw in hand and frame pack slung on his back, Bill Wolverton stands in the chilly, thigh-deep waters of the Escalante River.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The chain saw won't work. The engine sputters, then the chain, stretched from overuse, jams. He curses softly to himself. But the malfunction doesn't stop Mr. Wolverton's mostly one-man crusade against what he calls an "awful weed."
Arming himself with curved-blade saw and loppers, he engages his enemy in hand-to-hand combat. His legs are like tree trunks. Thorns whip his arms and face. His boots fill with water. It's a slow, hard fight. His foe, the Russian olive tree, is difficult to kill. The invasive species has spread rapaciously through Utah's Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, nearly choking the Escalante, one of the West's last free-flowing rivers.
But this soft-spoken warrior is not partial to war cries. He saws methodically, carving a tunnel through the underbrush with a handsaw just to reach the trunk. Then, after 15 minutes, he slices through the trunk, sprays the ring of cambium with an herbicide, and moves to the next tree.
He has his work cut out for him. Thousands of Russian olives thrive here, as does a second invasive species, the tamarisk (also called salt cedar). And Wolverton, almost paternally, sees it as his mission to stop them. "In my view, the Escalante River canyons are a world-class wilderness that do not deserve to be taken over," he says, his methodical western drawl belying his fervor for the cause, even if, as he freely admits, only a few hundred tourists each year ever see what has become his life work. Hordes may flock to nearby parks – Zion, Bryce, or the Grand Canyon – gawking at sheer drops behind the safety of guardrails and buying postcards of sunsets. But few trudge deep into Glen Canyon's labyrinth of gulches and washes; rounded slickrock; and sheer, red walls.
Wolverton is a National Park Service ranger, but not the gun-toting, tour-guiding, Ranger Rick kind. Quietly and without complaint, he does the grunt work of preserving vistas that hardly anyone will appreciate.
For this man who has made the weed his mission, there was never an official assignment. "He does what he wants," says John Spence, National Park Service botanist and Wolverton's boss. Mr. Spence and other colleagues say Wolverton is a maverick who doesn't stop by the office much. They say he knows Glen Canyon better than anyone – how to navigate its unmarked trails and "Indian routes" that wend through a rocky landscape with little shade and even scanter water. And lugging a 70-pound pack, he barely breaks a sweat – outpacing workers half his age who join him on the trails. The man is driven.
"Nobody told me to do this," Wolverton says. "It's fair to say I don't work for the Park Service. I work for these canyons."
With the help of volunteer groups, he has cleared the stubborn trees from a 35-mile swath along the Escalante. He's got 15 miles more to go in his jurisdiction – not to mention dozens of miles of riverbed in adjacent federal lands.
So his impressive effort is always shadowed by the possibility that it is a losing battle.
* * *
The Russian olive was never native to Utah or the West. But like many invasive species, it was introduced for a reason: In the 1930s and '40s, farmers planted seedlings as windbreaks. The seeds spread, dropped by birds and carried by waterways. The drought-resistant tree took off, crowding out native vegetation like the cottonwood and willow, and clogging canyons from here to Idaho and Arizona.
"They have ruined thousands of acres of good land, and are still spreading like wildfire. No one is doing anything about it," wrote Lorell E. Roberts in a letter to Wolverton two years ago. Mr. Roberts speaks from experience: In high school in 1934, he was one of the unwitting propagators of the "weed" in question, planting Russian olive as a Future Farmer of America. When he heard of Wolverton's mission, he wanted to know what could be done in his own northeastern corner of Utah.