Monday, April 28, 2008

Hells Canyon by Tractor

The Nature Conservancy's Hells Canyon staff is used to unusual working conditions. This is, after all, a canyon that caused Lewis and Clark to make a detour. To find non-native weeds, they're often sitting in a helicopter as it goes 40 miles per hour just above the ground, while zipping in and out of side canyons--a difficult test for even the toughest of stomachs. The seasonal staff are often on foot in the steepest canyon on the continent. It's hard work. And hot. As Mike Atchison, who leads the field crew, says: "You follow the canyon's cues or you end up feeling like your brains have been fried."

So it's probably not that unusual that this spring, the Hells Canyon staff loaded a jet boat with a Kubota 4-wheel-drive tractor and headed to the Conservancy's Garden Creek Preserve, deep in the canyon. Why?

Last year, Hells Canyon burned, including Garden Creek Preserve (above). The Chimney Complex Fire burned 80 square miles, including much of the remaining native bunchgrass habitat as well as trees along the creeks and waterways. Lush fields used by grazing elk and deer overnight resembled Craters of the Moon.
Fire is a natural part of the landscape, and many natural habitats are very resilient to it. However, there is one complicating factor in the canyon: non-native weeds. These weeds can quickly overtake a burned area. Once these weeds are established, native plants take a long time to recover.

And so, with the generosity of a private donor, the Conservancy brought in the tractor, as well as a rugged rangeland seeder and some hard-working staff and volunteers.

Some of the native grasslands will bounce back on their own, especially on north slopes and higher elevations. But on lower elevations (above), the Conservancy must restore these areas using native grasses, or risk invasion by non-native plants.
This April native bunch grass and forb seed was purchased and planted on the lower elevation benches, utilizing the tractor brought in by jet boat. The Conservancy's always intrepid Western Idaho conservation manager, Art Talsma, put in 13-hour days to ensure that every place that needed seed was covered.

Staff and volunteers also planted 600 native trees, including cottonwood, serviceberry and ponderosa pine. These trees will help control erosion, and provide great cover for birds and other wildlife. More trees will be planted this fall. (The white flags in the photo above mark where trees were planted along one of the creeks).

These conservation practices are labor intensive for field staff, and the Conservancy thanks all those who helped out. The work will help protect what makes Hells Canyon so special: the beautiful grassland and spring wildflowers, abundant wildlife and world-class outdoor recreation opportunities in this remote landscape.

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