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As Nature's Ally, He's Enemy of the Tamarisk

May 12, 1988|MARY ELLEN STROTE | This is free-lance writer Mary Ellen Strote's first article for Orange County Life

Shade is precious in the desert. The urge to escape the sun's shimmering heat is irresistible. But at 10 o'clock on a recent Saturday morning in a nature preserve in Coachella Valley's Thousand Palms, with the temperature 95 degrees and rising, Anaheim resident Bill Neill donned a yellow hard hat and earplugs, jerked the cord on his chain saw and began cutting down trees.

Neill, 39, enjoys shade as much as the next person, but not when it comes from the tamarisk tree, a feathery, gray-green import from Eurasia that over the course of a century has taken over a million acres of desert in 15 states, including 16,000 in California.

"Tamarisk is a virulent pest in the desert," Neill said. "It kills off native trees, it takes water from the ground at a high rate, and it is a poor source of food and shelter for wildlife."

Once established, the tree will not succumb to fire, herbicide or native American insect pests. In fact, one of the tamarisk's few predators in California is Bill Neill himself.

Slight of build, in a floppy blue shirt and stained white pants and wearing a caved-in straw hat, Neill doesn't appear particularly ominous. A petroleum engineer at Unocal Research, with degrees in geology and petroleum engineering from UCLA, Stanford and USC, he looks more like the mild-mannered graduate student he was for five years than the leader in a one-man war against a tree species.

Yet, armed with pruning shears, saws and bottles of herbicide for spraying stumps, and followed by the many volunteers he somehow inspires, this reverse Johnny Appleseed has had a major impact on the tamarisk invasion of California.

District biologist Larry Foreman of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Riverside lauded Neill as an organizer and leader.

"The tamarisk problem is devastating," Foreman said. "The Southwest's largest and best desert riparian areas are badly degraded. But Bill Neill has made a significant contribution in removing tamarisk from public lands. We really need people like him."

Neill's dislike of the tree began obliquely. "I am interested in exotic animals and I was producing and directing a film about wild burros when I first saw tamarisk growing in Death Valley," he said. "That was, oh, maybe 1982. When I started noticing it in other areas, I took on its removal as a personal activity.

"I learned that the tree re-sprouts fast and you can't go back every month to cut it down. So I talked to BLM officials and decided to use herbicides as they had done successfully in Death Valley. But first I had to petition Washington, D.C., for an approval to use the herbicide."

Neill won't admit to any passion for killing tamarisk.

"It is like weeding your garden. You start without much enthusiasm, but you feel satisfied when you're finished. It is just a chore to be done.

"Let's face it, as an environmental activity, it's not as glamorous as planting trees or saving land. Cutting tamarisk is destructive. Maybe using the chain saw is somewhat macho, but working with lopping shears under a hot sun with flies buzzing around your head is like stoop labor. It takes lots of commitment."

One large tamarisk can absorb 200 gallons of water per day, about the amount a small family uses. According to the Nature Conservancy, "the nursery trade brought several deciduous species . . . to this country from Eurasia in the 1850s for use as an ornamental, as a windbreak and as a means of erosion control. Virtually unknown in the wild at the turn of the century, by 1920 tamarisk had spread, on its own, to some 10,000 acres of stream side and flood plain."

Neill said, "A single large tamarisk tree produces a half-million seeds a year which disperse widely by wind and germinate wherever the soil remains moist for several weeks."

Cameron Barrows, director of the Nature Conservancy's 13,000-acre Coachella Valley Preserve where Neill is working this day, hopes to prevent the kind of damage tamarisk has done at the Colorado River.

"Tamarisk has replaced the native willow, mesquite and cottonwood," Barrows said. "As the habitat changes, bird species suffer. There's a whole slew of birds that should be there but aren't because of tamarisk. The least Bell's vireo, the yellow-billed cuckoo . . . they're gone."

Neill seldom works alone. Over the years, hundreds of people have volunteered for his tamarisk "bashes."

"Here at Thousand Palms, most of them have been Nature Conservancy volunteers," Barrows said. We also get a lot of help from the Ecology Crisis class from Marina High School in Huntington Beach. Others have been members of the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, Pomona College students and juvenile offenders from the county court in Indio. We'll use anyone who wants to cut down a tamarisk tree."

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