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Restoring The Rio Mesa Orchard

When I first entered the orchard of the University of Utah’s Rio Mesa Center in the early spring, I found an unkempt patch of thorny Russian Thistle, cheat grass, and dead and dying fruit trees.  Established sometime in the 1970’s the mixed array of apple, pear, peach, apricot, and cherry trees were suffering from decades of neglect.

The Dolores River, running through Rio Mesa Center, is an important part of the aquatic ecosystem of the Colorado Plateau.

The Rio Mesa Center, formerly known as Entrada, is along the Dolores River in Southeastern Utah.  The University began leasing the remote 280-acre center in 2006.  As a “living laboratory” the desolate locale has attracted plenty of researchers fixated on everything from tamarix abatement, mapping harvester ant colonies with GPS, the hydrology of the Dolores River, to local monitoring of changing CO2 levels.   Yet the orchard of almost 70 fruit trees was left untouched until now.

For me, this began as an abstract idea for helping the University offset some of its carbon emissions by growing trees as part of the new Energy Efficiency and Sustainability Initiative.  I had been reading about nonprofits planting trees as “carbon offsets” and even preserving entire tropical forests for the same purpose.  Yet, the more I learned about the complex scientific field of carbon offsetting I realized it was over my head.  But when I learned about the Rio Mesa Center and the potential of its orchard I applied to the Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund (SCIF) for money to reinvigorate the orchard.  I received $2,800 for a project focused instead on teaching the values of trees in general, along with ecosystem restoration and growing sustainable food in the red rock desert.

Sarah Fink adding a peach tree sapling to the rejuvenated orchard.

The funny thing is I’ve never fancied myself an orchardist.  Growing up on the East Bench of Salt Lake for years I thought fruit just came from Albertson’s grocery store.  Meanwhile the apples and pears from my family’s backyard trees went literally to the birds year after year.

Now with the grant money I had to help Rio Mesa decide what new trees to purchase and when best to plant them.  I spent hours researching orchard management, tree pruning, heirloom fruits, and I spoke with local experts, like Tree Utah.  After writing a report for the Rio Mesa land-use committee they agreed that the existing orchard should be restored with new fruit trees. They also liked my suggestion that some more native Fremont Cottonwood trees, with their multiple historic and ecological values for river areas in the west, be planted along a nearby the sandy wash.

Students Taylor Thompson, Yasuhiro Tajima, and Soren Urry dig out a stubborn dead stump.

The next challenge was mustering enough volunteers to help carry out the project.  Luckily I was able to coordinate with the University’s Bennion Center who expressed much interest from the beginning.  The previous year the Bennion Center had taken a small group of students to Rio Mesa for an “Alternative Fall Break” and the coordinators thought it was worthwhile doing again.  When the school year began again we teamed-up for recruiting students and were thrilled when 22 applicants signed up for the desert work trip.

The students, mostly undergraduates, collectively contributed their different skills in everything from woodworking, operating excavators, managing

Taylor Thompson and Kate Call, the Rio Mesa caretaker, and others fix a barbed wire fence.

irrigation systems, computer tech skills, to laborious dirt digging.  Together we dug out old fence posts, ripped out overgrown skunk bush, rag weed, and that mean Russian Thistle.  We pulled out the dead tree stumps and planted the new sapling varieties of apple, apricot, peach, and cherry trees.  The center caretakers helped us fix the river irrigation system that was damaged months before during a massive hundred-year flash flood.  One student climbed a giant cottonwood and took cuttings for us to start saplings with.  Other students built frames for new solar showers.  Still others fixed a large gate and restrung barbed wire around the orchard to keep occasional bears and other wild animals out.

After four days the orchard was looking better than it had since Gerald Ford was President.  A flock of 25 chickens pecked and patrolled the freshly planted apple and peach trees, and clear irrigated river water was freely flowing.  The students had also cultivated new friendships and the Rio Mesa managers were thrilled to have so much youth flourishing in the desert clay for once.

For the future I can only hope this project helps future students understand skills like orchard management, self-reliance, and food sustainability.  Most of all, I hope the saplings we planted grow to be towering old professors in the coming years, lecturing wisdom in the wind.