Eradicating Invaders at the Grand Canyon

UT student hikes into the Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon was the destination for a group of students who spent spring break working with the National Park Service to identify and eradicate invasive plant species. Breathtaking views were a bonus. [Photos by Manuel Trevino] 

While some students spent spring break relaxing by the beach, one group of Longhorns embarked on a service learning trip to Grand Canyon National Park with the Recreational Sports Outdoor Recreation Program.

The students worked alongside National Park Service biologists to learn about the impact of the non-native tamarisk plant on the Grand Canyon ecosystem and how to help eradicate it. But before they started learning those details, they had to hike more than 16 miles to their base camp on the canyon floor with backpacks weighing as much as 65 pounds.

Senior Chloe Beck, junior Catherine Lux and sophomore Sean Moorhead shared some of their journal entries with usread on!

STUDENT NAME with the invasive plant tamarisk in the Grand Canyon
Chloe Beck cuts stalks of the invasive plant tamarisk to prepare the plant for herbicide. 

Day One: Discovering the Pest

CHLOE BECK (Senior, College of Liberal Arts): We made our heaviest breakfast this morning, breakfast tacos with eggs, potatoes, cheese and bacon. I can't think of a better way to start off our first, and heaviest hike. Once the three people from the National Park Service showed up we made introductions to Greg the intern, Marybeth the biologist and Josh the head of the Invasive Plants Team. Basically, the tamarisk is an invasive type of salt-cedar that is out-competing the native plants in the Grand Canyon. It has really thick foliage that prevents other plants from getting sunlight and nutrients. Our job is to locate, identify and then cut down and herbicide any tamarisk we found. At first I really didn't think I would be able to pick that out amongst a bunch of trees little did I know that identifying tamarisk would become second nature.

Day Two: Getting Into Nature

CATHERINE LUX (Junior, College of Liberal Arts): Fewf! That last hike in was killer! Although we were doing rolling hills and not just downhill, it was still quite difficult. I am proud of myself for making it through. Work will be nothing but good times.

SEAN MOORHEAD (Sophomore, College of Natural Sciences): It's really interesting seeing everyone make use of their time without electronics. This is something more people need to experience. Even though I've only been here for a few days, I'm really sad to think of having to leave. This canyon is just stunning. (Watch a video Sean created about the trip.)

herbicide on the stumps of invasive species at the Grand Canyon
Herbicide on the stumps of invasive species at the Grand Canyon. 

Day Three: The Crimson Loggers

CHLOE BECK: Catherine found a Tamarisk sapling almost immediately, which was a great motivator for us to see it and to get started. Whenever we found Tamarisk it was this really rewarding feeling to saw it down and call over Marybeth or Josh to herbicide it. We dubbed ourselves the "Crimson Loggers," a nod to the red color of the tree.

Day Four: Soaking up Scenery

CHLOE BECK: It became easy to forget where you were when you spent so much time looking at brush, so I just kept reminding myself to look up and take it all in. I must have taken nine million photos of the canyon walls, sure that I couldn't ever capture its beauty because how can you bring such grandiosity into a frame?

Day Five: Satisfying Work 

CHLOE BECK: Right at the very end of the day we came across a whole forest of Tamarisk. Must have been at least 15 mature trees, probably more. I cut down one trunk that might have been over one foot across by far the biggest one I had seen anywhere. I thought I was going to be sawing for hours, but nothing was as satisfying as getting that monster out of the ground.

SEAN MOORHEAD: Felt kinda sad after finishing the last section of canyon today and beginning our hike back to the bunkhouse. It's been an incredible experience getting to explore and work out here finding tamarisk. The hike back to the rim should be great, but I'm definitely sad to leave this place. Life is so much simpler when you remove the everyday distractions that seem to so drastically control our lives.

Students hike into the Grand Canyon
The students hiked 16 miles to their base camp, each carrying up to 65 pounds of gear. 

Day Six: Bright Angel Trail

CHLOE BECK: After lunch we set out again, this time up Bright Angel Trail, just five miles but at a much steeper incline. The worst part we were warned about was called "The Devil's Corkscrew," which was a series of very steep switchbacks. However, knowing that was the worst that there would be on this part made it easy to get through because I knew that all I had to do was get past it and then it would be easier.

Day Seven: Saying Goodbye

CATHERINE LUX: Back in the car. I am sad to be leaving the Canyon today, although I am looking forward to being home. Once again this year I am leaving feeling accomplished and am satisfied with my choice so spend my time working, rather than going to South by Southwest or just hanging around at home. Until next year, my dear Canyon, I bid thee adieu.

Epilogue

After annihilating some 450 tamarisk trees over four-and-a-half days, the students and their guides emerged from the Grand Canyon once again with an experience that none of them will ever forget.

This journey was one of many organized as part of the Recreational Sports Adventure Trip Program, blending recreation, education and service into a single experience for students. The next trip heads to Central America in May for a part surfing, part sea turtle conservation project in Costa Rica. To get involved in these programs, contact Chris Burnett or visit the UT Recreational Sports' Outdoor Recreation website.