The man who saves the National Park vistas
Chain saw in hand, Ranger Bill Wolverton is a one-man force against invasive species.
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Unfortunately it's an era of dwindling Park Service resources. Priorities favor crowd control at busy areas over resource management in the remote backcountry. Even the $80 million "Salt Cedar and Russian Olive Control Demonstration Act," passed by Congress in October to fund "demonstration programs" to rid Western lands of the two species, is no guarantee that money will flow to Glen Canyon's wild areas.Skip to next paragraph
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Despite Wolverton's dedication and success, no one associated with the legislation has asked him about his methods, which he modestly claims are nothing innovative. "I would not be bothered if no one consulted me."
But Wolverton's unsung accomplishment is "extraordinary," according to Spence. "In four to five years he's controlled 70 percent of the Russian olive in the Glen Canyon portion of the Escalante River corridor," he says. "This is unheard of for anything in the Park Service."
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A former railroad mechanical engineer, Wolverton began a second career with the Park Service, first in 1986 as a volunteer, then as a paid seasonal ranger. But the avid rock climber, rafter, canyoner, and former emergency medical technician, fell hard for the Glen Canyon wilderness in the early 1980s. Which made the onslaught by the "weed" all the more heartbreaking.
"I went back through some color slides that I'd taken. In 1980, there was not a Russian olive to be seen," he remembers. "Today it is nothing but Russian olive." He also recalls the first time he rafted down the Escalante, the trees blocked the river. Their thorny branches, he says, "wanted to suck you under."
That was enough to persuade Wolverton to begin the battle. "I saw the disaster coming and just started whittling away at it, and showed progress could be made and was being made."
With no formal training in geology or botany, Wolverton launched his first anti-invasives salvo in 1993, "whacking away" at tamarisk in a place called Coyote Gulch. But tamarisk proved less an issue: It doesn't tend to overwhelm the native species nor obstruct river passages. So he concentrated his efforts on Russian olive, teaming up with the Sierra Club, Utah Backcountry Volunteers, and Wilderness Volunteers, which sponsors week-long service trips twice a year.
When he's not with volunteer groups, he hikes solo deep into the backcountry, tools and jugs of herbicide in his backpack, eschewing for days the trappings of modern living.
"He doesn't need all the stuff that the rest of us have," says Debbie Northcutt, executive director of Wilderness Volunteers. She has led trips with Wolverton for eight years. "I don't know that I'd call him a loner, but he's very comfortable being by himself."
The irony is that Wolverton's work is suddenly in jeopardy. Despite the $80 million legislative windfall, Spence says his office may cut Wolverton's position. "After November I'm not sure where I'm going to get the money," Spence says. "I may need to talk to Bill about him not coming back, but I hope not. It would be disastrous for the park."
Meanwhile, Wolverton keeps on track, even if, over the long term, his work may not last. Private and other federal lands upstream – like 35 miles of the Escalante River in the adjacent Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument – mean seeds can contaminate previously cleared areas. And Russian olives can tenaciously resprout.
"It doesn't feel like a losing battle yet," he says. "It's still too early in the game."
Here in Glen Canyon, Wolverton has taken matters into his own hands, hoping to restore the natural order – or save nature from itself. He's encouraged by his headway, even if it's only a quarter-mile a day, and the way the river looks free from Russian olive. That few witness his labor "really doesn't matter," he says. "It's sort of like wilderness. I support it even in those places that I know I will never get to." He says he'll be done with his part in about five years, but intends to remain involved even after retirement. "Now that I've started," he says, "I'm going to see it through."
Who can stop him?