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Opinion

Service-learning gives meaning to spring break

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April 4, 2013

Destination 2013 participants in Moab, Utah, worked on conservation of the Colorado Plateau over spring break. Pictured from left to right: Jake Bengtson, Tim Emahiser, Nick Stennes, Sara Stites, Candace Anderson, Haily Henderson, Gregg Heinselman, Josey Pukrop, Molly Breitmün, Darren Ward, Melissa Burton and Stacey Kunde.
Destination 2013 participants in Moab, Utah, worked on conservation of the Colorado Plateau over spring break. Pictured from left to right: Jake Bengtson, Tim Emahiser, Nick Stennes, Sara Stites, Candace Anderson, Haily Henderson, Gregg Heinselman, Josey Pukrop, Molly Breitmün, Darren Ward, Melissa Burton and Stacey Kunde.

Tamarisk, or salt cedar, heavily lines the banks of the Colorado River in Southeastern Utah. The small, invasive tree is common in the desert Southwest of the United States, but it is not native to the continent.

Originally from the Mediterranean, Tamarisk was introduced as an ornamental about 100 years ago, and was subsequently used as a riverbank stabilizer because of its long taproots and its ability to densely thrive along areas with saline soils. Tamarisk did prove to be an effective soil stabilizer, but its holistic effect has been devastating. It naturally causes the soil to become more saline, its sheer density chokes out native plants and hogs up to 200 gallons of precious water per day.

I had the privilege to go on the UWRF Destination conservation trip to Moab, Utah, this spring break. Learning about Tamarisk and the ecology of the Colorado Plateau while camping and exploring the region leaves me feeling I got to enjoy my break while partaking in meaningful service.

Our work site, Jackson Bottom, was on the Colorado River. Specifically, it was the property of Intrepid Potash: a company mining water-soluble potassium for use as an agricultural fertilizer. The deep orange shades of the sandstone cliffs that surrounded us against the brilliant blue of the sky affirmed this area’s popularity as a movie set backdrop. Except for the hum of the extraction facility in the distance, we were rarely distracted by signs of civilization. Though “Jeep Week” had begun, the safaris of loud vehicles, and the explosion of people in Moab didn’t destroy the serenity of Jackson Bottom.

Our group of 12 from River Falls was joined with fellow ‘Alternative Spring Break’ participants from University of Colorado-Boulder and University of Nevada-Las Vegas. Depending on the task, we would work collaboratively with the other schools or get our own independent project to complete. We all had the pleasure of removing Kochia (pronounced “co-sha”), a drought resistant annual that seemed to grow thick wherever the Tamarisk had been removed in past years. The Kochia we pulled was dry and prickly, causing sneezing, scratches, and our clothing to be inundated with its abundant seeds. Often, when the wind picked up, we witnessed a textbook display of ‘tumbleweed’ if we hadn’t gotten around to stomping down the brittle, yellowed weed.

The Tamarisks of Jackson Bottom have been purposefully defoliated by a leaf beetle introduced from Asia. This blow to the plant has been followed by a youth corps using the site as a chain saw training site, taking down paths of the resilient yet skeletal-looking trees to further open the land up for light, water, and root growth for native species to thrive.

Since 1995, Michael Smith and Tamsin McCormick, our guides from Plateau Restoration, have been working to preserve the native habitat of the Colorado Plateau while engaging and educating students and tourists. Although they had never hosted three school service-learning groups all at once before, Tamsin and Michael made themselves available for our individual interests and questions about the project.

Hoping to learn more about the possible long-term affects of our actions, Tamsin took me and a friend on a 20 minute hike to show us the portion of riverbank that had been undercut and collapsed into the river. Since the site has no form of irrigation, all water for the plantings we put in were hauled in from town or brought up from the steep riverbank by a bucket brigade. The Tamarisks were less compact here and a few scattered willow transplants had successfully taken root in the water table. Of the slippery mud slopes to choose from, this was certainly the least precarious and had been the preferred river access for their operation.

Eventually the Jackson Bottom site will have semi-mobile water pumps leading from the river into the flood irrigation channels we dug out and planted with native grasses that can survive saline soils. The day after Tamsin gave us the narrated walk, UWRF students got to work on this specific site. It was so satisfying to plant the willow cuttings we had prepared into the soft bank that we had learned firsthand was vulnerable yet useful to the project’s outcomes.

Though we mostly used pit toilets throughout the week and awoke a few days to frost lining the inside of our tents, the beauty of the land and the friendships we made eclipsed the discomforts. The middle of the days reached a sunny seventy degrees and we had abundant free time to explore Moab and nearby Arches National Park. Destination is a highlight of my time at UWRF so far. Consider signing up next year so you can be a part of the experience, too.

Upcoming sustainability events

The Thirst Project, at 5:00 p.m. on Thursday, April 11, in the University Center’s Kinni Theatre. Sherry Rehnelt, UWRF Bookstore Manager, has arranged for representatives from the Thirst project to visit campus. “The Thirst Project is a nonprofit organization working to raise awareness about the global water crisis – a problem that affects more than one billion people. Thirst helps build water wells around the world to generate and promote access to clean drinking water. A freshwater well in most developing nations costs as little as $5,000 to build, and can change an entire community’s lives forever.” For more detailed information go to: http://www.thirstproject.org/.

UWRF Surplus Sale, from 9 a.m. to noon, Friday, April 12 at Rodli Hall. Past items at the surplus sale have included lockers, wooden picture frames, computers, desks, chairs, wooden picture frames, shelving, lighting fixtures, and much more. By supporting this sale, you can help our Facilities Management divert surplus items from going into campus dumpsters. Enter through the loading dock entrance across from Centennial Science Hall. If you have questions or would like to be added to the surplus lists, please contact Mark Klapatch, assistant custodial supervisor, at mark.klapatch@uwrf.edu.

To feature your sustainability events (two weeks notice), ideas, successes stories, gripes, etc., email: molly.breitmun@my.uwrf.edu.

Molly Breitmün is a non-traditional student majoring in conservation with a minor in GIS. Her interest in campus sustainability was fostered by becoming an undergraduate fellow for the St. Croix Institute for Sustainable Community Development as well as by her peers in the Student Alliance for Local and Sustainable Agriculture.