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.
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.
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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.
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.
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?