The banks of the North Platte are under attack from a hardy tree that was once a staple for homeowners building windbreaks or otherwise looking for a fast-growing tree for their landscapes.
The Russian olive, listed as a noxious plant by the Wyoming Department of Agriculture, crowds out its native counterparts, accounting for more than 30 percent of the basin’s water consumption.
The tree’s seeds can lie dormant in the soil for three years. Once established, Russian olive is a tough opponent.
In Casper last week, the invasive species faced another tough opponent.
Members of the Wyoming Conservation Corps, a group of 18- to 24-year-olds from the University of Wyoming and as far away as Virginia, brought their skills to the North Platte to aide in the removal of the healthy stand of Russian olive growing along Platte River trails.
The corps used chainsaws and herbicide to combat the more than 15-foot tall trees growing in portions of the river bank.
“These are the worst trees ever,” said team member Ross Bulawa. “They’re a super-invasive species. We’re just trying to mitigate the inevitable. They’re really tough, and they just take over everything. You just have to close your eyes and chainsaw through to get to the tree.”
Bulawa, a junior who has a double major in environment and natural resources and American studies at the University of Wyoming, came to the state from Houston. He’s one of eight on the crew, which consists of people whose backgrounds range from engineering to dietetics.
WCC members work in conjunction with the University of Wyoming and Americorps, a civic engagement program that funds community service projects across the United States.
The task issued by Platte River Parkway is a challenge for the group.
“We’re used to cutting down beetle-killed pines,” said team leader Madison Graulty. “Your saw just kind of moves through that like butter compared to this, where it takes a good 20 minutes to cut down a tree instead of five. It’s a challenge, but our crew is motivated and looks at a challenge and gets the job done.”
The young conservationists are spending the summer traveling the state working to improve trails, build fences, remove invasive species and assist in the conservation of sage grouse.
By the end of the summer, they will have traveled to Lander, Curt Gowdy State Park, Guernsey and the Bighorn Canyon.
For the members, working with the crew is more than just a summer filled with manual labor.
“It’s about pushing yourself, just doing things you didn’t know you could do and having your teammates pushing you to do that,” crew member Lindsay Patrick said. “Pushing yourself past the brink was the biggest thing in all of this.”
Patrick, a University of Wyoming mechanical engineering major from Centennial, Colorado, was a chainsaw mechanic last summer. The small-engine experience has proved valuable with the WCC. Her skills help keep the most popular tool on the river in operation.
“Everyone switches off on sawing,” Patrick said. “It’s the most fun. The rest of the crew just tries to help out the person running the saw as much as possible. It increases the safety and morale.”
In many cases, the group’s conservation work wouldn’t happen without Americorps and the WCC.
“We’ve sat down, and the city has looked at it and scratched their heads on how to get this done, and they're helping as well by providing equipment,” said Platte River Parkway board member Keith Tyler. “But this is what these guys are trained to do, and it’s what they’re geared up to do, so we’re taking advantage of their skills.”
The WCC is modeled after the Civilian Conservation Corps, a part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policy in the 1930s. At that time, the CCC provided jobs to many young men suffering without work during the Great Depression.
The group promoted a sense of community involvement and work to improve the natural environment in the United States.
“The CCC started that whole legacy of getting people out to work on the environment, and that’s what we’re doing,” said WCC field supervisor Sam Murray. “It goes back to that thought of the value of hard work. It’s a whole summer of character building. Hard skills aren’t what we’re really looking for. You can teach that, but you can’t teach the other traits.”
The group will complete its work on the North Platte River next week before continuing its travels in Guernsey.
Hard work remains to be finished over the summer, but the group members agree this is exactly the way they want to spend their summer.
“I don’t think any of us knew what we were getting into when we signed up for this, but I think we all love it,” Patrick said.
Reach general assignment reporter Trevor Graff at 307-266-0639 or Trevor.Graff@trib.com. Follow him on Twitter @TrevGraff.