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In the 1970s and 1980s, the Russian olive tree was introduced to the Animas Valley, north of Durango, for their decorative merits. Russian Olive grows fast and smells good, two ideal characteristics. However, the destructive habits of these non-native, invasive species were quickly discovered by residents in the valley. These silvery leafed trees gulp up 75 gallons of water a day and eagerly push out native trees, including willows and cottonwoods. They also began infesting fields, preventing local farmers from growing hay, and decreasing the overall grass quantity.

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Some locals began tackling the problem on their own by funding small removal projects, but the effort was minimal in response to the widely growing tree population. So, in 2016 MSI jumped in, wanting to spread the removal efforts beyond property owners whose land was under a conservation easement to all landowners within the valley. MSI applied and was awarded a total of $247,000 from the Colorado Water Conservation Board and Colorado Parks and Wildlife for a three-year project to remove the trees from Bakers Bridge to the New Mexico line. This phase of the project was executed from 2016-2018.

The removal process involves cutting down the trees and then spraying an environmentally safe herbicide on the roots to prevent it from growing back. So far, MSI has cleared an estimated 290 acres within the Animas River watershed, removing approximately 2,700 stems of Russian olive and 340 of the similarly invasive Tamarisk plants.

While many landowners are eager to see the Russian olives removed, what to do with the cut trees remained a challenge. One perk of Russian olive: it burns hot. Ponderosa Pine, commonly used to heat homes in this area, burns at 21.7 British thermal units (BTU), which in simple terms, means it burns hot and long. In comparison, Russian olive burns at 23 BTU.

So, in the fall of 2017, MSI partnered with the Durango Rotary Club, a local group in constant need of wood for their firewood distribution project, which helps low-income families and seniors. The Russian olive removal sites offered up the perfect solution.  Members volunteered about 40 hours of time to collect wood, move it to the staging location, and stack it. It will dry out for a season and then be split and distributed in 2018 or 2019. They have collected approximately 10 cords of woods from the various project sites, enough to heat an estimated 20 households for the duration of the winter.

Although the project is nearing its end, MSI is currently pursuing funding and looking to develop more partnerships in order to continue the work.

“Russian olive is better adapted to warmer climates. As temperatures warm in the Animas River Valley, this tree could become more prolific, and create a monoculture along our rivers and streams. We have the ability to take care of the problem now while it’s manageable, but we really need all landowners’ participation to make this program a success and to ensure the health of our watershed for years to come” says MSI’s Amanda M. Kuenzi.