Volunteers face frost and thorns to clear out invasive species, protect native plants at nature preserve

ST. GEORGE — Despite a freezing chill hanging in the air, more than a dozen volunteers gathered at White Dome Nature Preserve on Saturday morning to remove invasive plants growing in the protected area. 

After the first hour of removing weeds, volunteers had already made a towering pile of tumbleweeds, St. George, Utah, Dec. 11, 2021 | Photo by Ammon Teare, St. George News

Long-time residents, international visitors and even high school students set to work with garden tools and gloves to eliminate tumbleweeds (Russian thistle) and halogeton (more commonly known as saltlover) ringing the parking lot and littering parts of the preserve. 

Organized by The Nature Conservancy of Utah, the volunteer’s efforts will help protect threatened plant species like dwarf bear poppy and Siler’s pincushion cactus. Andrea Nelson, community engagement manager for The Nature Conservancy, said the weekend project was the second of its kind held this year at White Dome Nature Preserve.

“Every time we come out here and pull them out, we’re removing seeds from the seed bank,” she said. “Even though it comes back and it feels disheartening to see that, if we keep coming back and keep pulling it out eventually there will be less and less of it. That means more space for globemallow, dwarf bear poppy and the other plants that call this place home.”

Over the course of the first hour, volunteers had removed hundreds of cubic feet of tumbleweed, and the trailhead and parking lot were noticeably bare.

Sasan Yousefpour, an Iranian-born man living in Japan, was visiting some local friends with his wife when he decided to help with the cleanup project. He said he hopes that more people, especially today’s youth, will get involved with conservation efforts and help maintain the Earth’s beauty and health.

International visitors Sasan Yousefpour and Aiko Abe joined volunteer efforts to clear destructive plants clogging the parking lot and trails of the nature preserve, St. George, Utah, Dec. 11, 2021 | Photo by Ammon Teare, St. George News

When explaining why he wanted to offer help so far from his home, he said, “We all live on the same planet, so anything that happens here might have a direct or indirect effect on where I live. I think it’s important to keep nature clean, protected and preserved.”

The growth of local municipalities and a continuing interest in outdoor recreation has crowded out some plant and animal species that are endemic to this region. As part of an ongoing effort to preserve local flora and fauna, the White Dome Nature Preserve was established to set aside habitat in the gypsum badlands south of St. George.

Located about a mile north of the Arizona border on River Road, the preserve grew out of a collaboration between The Nature Conservancy, the city of St. George, the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Washington County.

While the area might be described as “striking” and “stark” in the wintertime, the preserve blooms into life each spring. In April and May, dwarf bear poppy — a species found only in Washington County — puts out hundreds of white and yellow flowers above its green “bear claw” leaves.

File photo of a bearclaw poppy in bloom. This specimen was tagged by Dixie State University biology students, St. George, Utah, April 24, 2018 | Photo by Joyce Kuzmanic, St. George News

“People can come and see an explosion of blooms and have a really aesthetic experience, but also learn a bit about all the things that the poppy requires to exist,” said Kristine Crandall, a volunteer with years of history at the preserve. “These plants have evolved in this landscape, so just to protect those as representatives of the natural conditions of this place feels really important.”

Equally important, if less visible, are more unobtrusive organisms like Siler’s pincushion cactus and the microbes that compose the cryptobiotic soil. Foot traffic, ATVs and mountain bikes taken off established trails can harm these organisms and disturb the ecological balance for years.

“St. George is awesome because it’s this wonderful town surrounded by endless recreation possibilities: there’s Pine Valley Mountain, the Mojave Desert and gypsum badlands,” Nelson said. “There’s a balancing act between recreation and protection, but if we can continue like we have here at White Dome we can keep these places open and healthy to benefit our neighborhoods and the natural community.”

Those interested in learning about more volunteer opportunities to protect local wilderness areas and wildlife can contact Nelson or visit the Utah homepage for The Nature Conservancy.

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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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