Chain saw in hand, Ranger Bill Wolverton is a one-man force against invasive species.
Dressed in a worn National Park Service uniform, chain saw in hand and frame pack slung on his back, Bill Wolverton stands in the chilly, thigh-deep waters of the Escalante River.
The chain saw won't work. The engine sputters, then the chain, stretched from overuse, jams. He curses softly to himself. But the malfunction doesn't stop Mr. Wolverton's mostly one-man crusade against what he calls an "awful weed."
Arming himself with curved-blade saw and loppers, he engages his enemy in hand-to-hand combat. His legs are like tree trunks. Thorns whip his arms and face. His boots fill with water. It's a slow, hard fight. His foe, the Russian olive tree, is difficult to kill. The invasive species has spread rapaciously through Utah's Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, nearly choking the Escalante, one of the West's last free-flowing rivers.
But this soft-spoken warrior is not partial to war cries. He saws methodically, carving a tunnel through the underbrush with a handsaw just to reach the trunk. Then, after 15 minutes, he slices through the trunk, sprays the ring of cambium with an herbicide, and moves to the next tree.
He has his work cut out for him. Thousands of Russian olives thrive here, as does a second invasive species, the tamarisk (also called salt cedar). And Wolverton, almost paternally, sees it as his mission to stop them. "In my view, the Escalante River canyons are a world-class wilderness that do not deserve to be taken over," he says, his methodical western drawl belying his fervor for the cause, even if, as he freely admits, only a few hundred tourists each year ever see what has become his life work. Hordes may flock to nearby parks – Zion, Bryce, or the Grand Canyon – gawking at sheer drops behind the safety of guardrails and buying postcards of sunsets. But few trudge deep into Glen Canyon's labyrinth of gulches and washes; rounded slickrock; and sheer, red walls.
Wolverton is a National Park Service ranger, but not the gun-toting, tour-guiding, Ranger Rick kind. Quietly and without complaint, he does the grunt work of preserving vistas that hardly anyone will appreciate.
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