There are few endeavors more complicated than trying to save an endangered species. So many factors are involved: loss of habitat, cost, public opinion, climate change, invasive species, and of course, our activities. We humans keep altering the landscape with roads, dams, cities, and farms, making it more and more difficult for endangered species. And then there are the animals and plants themselves; most endangered species are specialists or rare to begin with. 

It's a daunting task, and yet, to our credit as human beings, we keep trying. President Richard Nixon, when he signed the Endangered Species Act in 1973, gave a speech in which he said, "Nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed." (He should have mentioned plants, as well, but that's beside the point.) I think we all, at least in the abstract, agree with President Nixon. Every time I log onto Facebook, people are sharing some gorgeous video or photo of polar bears or orchids or exotic birds. We love them for their beauty and their wildness, but seem to gloss over their actual necessity to our world. Biodiversity is critical to the health of the Earth, and to our health as well. Each component of a landscape or ecosystem is important to its functioning, and unfortunately, all around us are ecosystems that are in distress--the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon being one of them.

Before the completion of the Glen Canyon Dam in 1963, the Colorado River flowed warm and sediment-laden. Huge spring floods helped to replenish beaches, and sandbars and other natural habitats for native plants and wildlife. The dam now blocks 95% of the sediment, the river runs cold, and flows no longer respond to winter melt or summer rains. Tamarisk, a Eurasian invasive (also known as salt cedar), has displaced native vegetation such as cottonwoods and willows, which relied on the ever-changing river flows for nutrients and seed dispersal. And of course, native wildlife has been affected by the loss of native vegetation and altered river flows.

In spite of this, and with determination in their hearts, 21 intrepid people (including eight volunteers) rowed and hiked to River Mile 71 in Grand Canyon National Park this past January to spend 17 days restoring habitat along the river. The Arboretum took the lead, working with Mariposa Consulting, and the National Park Service, through NAU's Cooperative Ecosystem Study Unit. The group removed tamarisk from about three quarters of an acre, and planted wild-collected Goodding's willow, coyote willow, and cottonwood to provide habitat for the endangered Southwestern willow flycatcher, a bird native to riparian areas. Once common in the southwest, the flycatcher has fallen victim to destruction of riparian vegetation, livestock overgrazing, and water diversion. Today there are fewer than 1,000 nesting pairs; the most recent survey in the Grand Canyon identified 16 high-priority nesting sites.

Our folks were there, in miserable weather conditions--for 17 days--working to save the flycatcher, and to restore habitat for other critters as well. I am so proud of the Arboretum's work, and my fellow human beings. 

Lynne Nemeth is Executive Director of The Arboretum at Flagstaff. To reach her with comments or ideas, please email Lynne.Nemeth@thearb.org.