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Environmentalists work to restore native vegetation along Gila River

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SAFFORD – Along the Gila River, as they have along river and stream banks around the Southwest, invasive tamarisks have crowded out native vegetation and proceeded to suck up water voraciously.

But word that a beetle introduced elsewhere to kill off tamarisks is expected to spread into this area in the next three to five years isn’t entirely good news here.

That’s because the tamarisks, also known as salt cedar, have become homes in the Safford Valley to two species of endangered birds that once lived in native trees.

With that in mind, the Gila Watershed Partnership of Arizona is working to restore the Gila River’s native vegetation and habitat before tamarisk beetles arrive and begin dining on the tamarisks’ leaves.

“If we don’t do this, when those tamarisks are gone it’s just going to be a big dead burned forest along the river,” said Steve Eady, executive director of the Gila Watershed Partnership of Arizona. “There won’t be any value of them in terms of sustaining riverbanks.”

Of particular concern: making sure the Southwest willow flycatcher and yellow-billed cuckoo, endangered birds for which the Gila River is deemed a critical area, have someplace to live if tamarisks wither.

Tamarisks, which are native to Asia, were introduced to the Gila River area about 100 years ago as ornamental vegetation. Since then, the trees have thrived at the expense of pretty much everything else along waterways.

A mature tamarisk consumes 200-300 gallons of water a day and produces 250 million tiny seeds each year that are spread by the wind. They also soak up salt, which sterilizes topsoil when tamarisk leaves drop.

“That just kills everything else that could be living there,” Eady said.

As part of a larger effort to control invasive species, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released tamarisk beetles in 2001 in locations including Colorado and Texas.

The Gila Watershed Partnership of Arizona, along with the Arizona Conservation Corps, is clearing areas of tamarisks around the river and replanting native vegetation, like cottonwood, coyote willow and Goodding’s willow trees. The goal: Having 200 acres ready when tamarisk beetles arrive.

Shawn Stone, a restoration specialist with the Gila Watershed Partnership of Arizona, said the work is about more than just helping the endangered birds.

“We’re not so honed in on creating a habitat for the Southwestern willow flycatcher … that we’re neglecting the other species in the system,” he said.

The organization began working on the project in February and will continue until mid-April before resuming work in October. Eady said the project deadlines are set so they won’t disturb the birds’ nesting schedules.

The Arizona Conservations Corps uses saws and an excavator with a mulching head to take down tamarisks and then applies an herbicide to keep them from growing back. Along with trees, crews are planting native grasses and shrubs, among other plants.

Stone said removing the tamarisks will prevent wildfires, as tamarisks burn faster and more intensely than other trees.

“We’re hoping this approach we’re taking, which is patchwork throughout the valley, will provide fire breaks,” Stone said.

Stone said the project draws attention to the needs of the Gila River area.

“I think that the Gila gets overlooked a lot,” he said. “It’s the second-largest river in Arizona, and since it’s primarily populated by rural communities it’s not getting the attention it rightly deserves.”