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Last ride for Dinosaur’s original Weed Warrior

JENSEN, Uintah County — The Yampa River is wild, untamed. It’s home to some of the west’s most jaw-dropping desert scenery and has big, dangerous whitewater.

Every year, thousands of people enter a lottery, hoping for a permit that will grant them a chance to dip their oars in the Yampa or in the Green through Lodore Canyon. Those two rivers join into one, right at the heart of Dinosaur National Monument.

Ever since the mid 1900s, a plant imported from Asia has made a terrible mess of the river banks.

“It was so aggressive it that really pushed out a lot of native species that the native wildlife depends on,” said NPS ecologist Tamara Naumann.

She 22 years ago dedicated herself to the cause of combating tamarisk and reclaiming infested beaches.

“In the early years, people would float by and say ‘hey, you’re wasting my tax dollars. You’re emptying the ocean with a thimble. That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen’. I thought ‘at least I’m not sitting on the couch, I’m trying to make it better’,” Naumann said.

That spirit proved infectious. Naumann started getting attention from boaters who wanted to help. Each summer they teamed up to float down the Green and Yampa, braving white water and weather – only to then spend days working with shovels and saws.

“They show up with their own boats and they bring their own food and they’ll work a 10 or 11 hour day in 100-degree heat in the mosquitoes. And they come back the next year and do the same, which is quite astonishing,” Naumann said.

Their work has paid off. Over the last two decades, campsites have re-emerged where before tamarisk formed an impenetrable wall. Native willows have re-established themselves, providing critical habitat for birds and other animals.

“We’re not going to get rid of these noxious weeds or the things that are introduced, but you have to learn how to manage it,” volunteer Ben Beall said.

Beall, a member of the group Friends of the Yampa, has been coming back to volunteer, year after year. His sons, who started coming as children, are now grown men. Some other volunteer families are now three generations in.

“I think the tamarisk is something we don’t need to worry about as much now as we did 22 years ago, so that feels good,” Naumann said. But she’s nearing retirement. “My goal is to finish what I started and it’s not up to me what happens next. I’m sure other young people with different ideas will come along and have some new inspiring thing.”

Naumann made the last trip of her career down the rivers in June. It’s not clear if anyone else at the monument will pick up the torch once she leaves.

“We’re hoping it’s not an end of an era. Friends of the Yampa is looking at kind of like taking over some of the work… I think it will carry on,” Beall said.

That’s an encouraging hope. At a time when the West seems torn over issues of the environment and public lands, the Weed Warriors have quietly shown another way – collaboration instead of confrontation.