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Invasive Russian olive trees removed, put to good use

Long battle against invasive plant continues at Juniper School
Greta Binzen, left, and Corinna Mokotoff, both with Southwest Conservation Corps, remove several Russian olive trees Saturday in front of the Juniper School in Bodo Park. The removal is the latest in a yearslong battle against the invasive species.

The Mountain Studies Institute has turned its latest effort to combat the invasive Russian olive plant into an educational opportunity and a way to help people in need.

Southwest Colorado organizations, like the institute, have been combating the nonnative plant for years. That effort continued Saturday with the removal Russian olive plants from the Juniper School property in Bodo Industrial Park. Chain saws buzzed as Southwestern Conservation Corps crew members felled the silver-leaved trees on the property.

“This is a great educational outreach opportunity,” said Jennie Humphrey, SCC crew leader. “I see so many Russian olives planted around businesses. Hopefully, this will start some momentum of getting those removed.”

About 10 feet from her, close to the wall of the Juniper School, a small Russian Olive plant was sprouting. The crew planned to remove about 10 large trees and a row of smaller saplings during the two-day project.

Russian olive plants, with silvery leaves and olive-shaped fruit, can reach up to 30 feet in height with branches bearing 1- to 2-inch thorns.

Lisa Slupianek, with Southwest Conservation Corps, uses an ax on a Russian olive tree Saturday at the Juniper School. The Durango Daybreak Rotary Club will deliver the wood to senior citizens or low-income families in need.

The plants, native to Europe and Asia, were introduced to Southwest Colorado in the 1970s and 1980s by the federal government. They were used as ornamental landscaping or to create windbreaks.

Now, Russian olive plants are considered a “List B noxious weed,” which requires local governments to manage and limit their spread under Colorado state law.

The nonnative plant swallows up nearly 75 gallons of water a day per tree. Along the Animas River corridor, Russian Olives have pushed out native species, like cottonwoods and willows.

The species is persistent: Its stumps and roots can still sprout new saplings. The best way to prevent new sprouting is to treat the stump with recommended herbicides, according to a Colorado Department of Agriculture fact sheet.

Then as the climate in the Animas River corridor warms, the desert species could become more prolific, said Amanda Kuenzi, institute spokeswoman, in an email to The Durango Herald.

“By removing the seed source now, we are enhancing the ‘climate resilience’ of the Animas River, so we can ensure long-term watershed health and the native plant community,” she said.

The Mountain Studies Institute, which coordinated the removal, will teach Juniper School students about invasive and native species as part of the project.

The fight against the invasive species has been going on for years with partnerships between the SCC, Mountain Studies Institute, Durango Rotary, local governments and residents.

Not only is the project removing invasive plants, but the Mountain Studies Institute will also spend five weeks teaching Juniper School students about native plant communities and invasive species, like the Russian olive.

The school will not be missing its plant life for long. The city of Durango will be replacing them with noninvasive species to beautify the school grounds, Kuenzi said.

The Russian olive tree wood, which burns hotter and longer than Ponderosa pine, will be put to use.

The Durango Daybreak Rotary Club collected some of the trees for its firewood assistance program, which started in 2005. The club members will age the wood for a season before splitting and delivering it to low-income seniors and families.

Russian olives were first introduced to the Durango area in the 1970s and 1980s. They can out-compete native plants, like willows and cottonwoods.

The group has enough aged wood to help 30 families heat their homes for part of this winter season.

“Everyone is really pleased to get it,” said Travis Ward, Durango Daybreak Rotary Club member. “It’s not a survival difference: They get along, but it helps them.”

smullane@durangoherald.com

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