Wharton: This urban South Jordan property is for the birds
South Jordan • Tucked in the middle of strip malls, townhouses and sprawling office towers, the 120-acre Jordan River Migratory Bird Reserve is a place that's for the birds.
The not-open-to-the-public reserve is a work in progress. Hundreds of local volunteers continue to work on planting native trees such as cottonwoods and box elders each year, while removing invasive species such as Russian olives, phragmites and tamarisk.
Restoration ecologist Karri Smith has documented 91 species of birds on the property during the past several years. Eighty-seven-year-old Keith Johnson, a volunteer with Great Salt Lake Audubon, said foxes and mule deer use the open space that runs from about 9800 to 11400 South on the east side of the Jordan River.
Ownership of the bird reserve is mixed. Great Salt Lake Audubon, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, owns a portion, as does South Jordan City. The Utah Reclamation and Conservation Commission purchased a large chunk as mitigation for the Central Utah Project. And the Harrison family owns 5 acres.
Ty Harrison, an emeritus professor of biology at Westminster College and an avid conservationist, is a member of that family and has been involved in the project from its outset.
According to Harrison, the roots of the preservation effort began in 1991 when the U.S. Department of Interior received a $2.3 million damage settlement for injuries to natural resources along the Jordan River near Midvale. This was the Sharon Steel Superfund cleanup site.
In 1995, Harrison, Great Salt Lake Audubon, TreeUtah, IHI Environmental and other organizations proposed using some of the Superfund money to create the reserve upstream from the mill site to avoid any toxic sediment contamination.
The groups' vision included, according to Harrison, "recreating a riparian gallery forest as a sizable stopping and nesting place in the middle of the Salt Lake Valley for spring-migrating song birds on the Pacific Flyway. The presettlement riparian ecosystem along the Jordan River had been destroyed over the last 100 years by domestic animal grazing and flood control channelization of the river."
The original 31 acres included an area near the mouth of Little Willow Creek where it enters the Jordan River. As the project developed, that would be important because the creek was channeled to meander and to create some ponds.
These days, volunteers such as Johnson join Tyler Murdock, an Americorps intern who is ecological restoration coordinator for the project, in working to improve the property and teaching students that they won't always see immediate results from their work.
"Ecological restoration work is not an immediate-satisfaction endeavor," Murdock said. "Significant visual results only come with time and patience."
Johnson put it another way.
"These kids are out planting seedlings as big as your thumb," said the Audubon volunteer. "You tell them that in 20 years when you get older you will appreciate this stuff, because of the change in vegetation and landscape."
Public access to the area is closed, though the managers often lead field trips into the area and are always looking for volunteers. That said, the big, lush area can be viewed from the Jordan River Parkway trail west of the river, and it makes for an island of green in a sea of development surrounding it.
"This is the last bit of open space that will ever be preserved along the Jordan River," Harrison said.
Murdock echoed that sentiment.
"In urban environments, we always talk about saving and preserving land outside of cities," he said. "But it is critical to have open space and ecosystem and land we can preserve. We need to be getting youth involved in these projects. It's critical. The Jordan River is a unique river. We've done a lot of damage to it, but I don't think it's gone. It's got a lot of life left."
Twitter: @tribtomwharton Jordan River Migratory Bird Reserve
Breeding neotropical migratory birds • Common yellowthroat, Bullock's oriole, lazuli bunting, western flycatcher, Audubon's warbler, yellow warbler, cliff swallow, barn swallow, northern rough-winged swallow.
Other birds of interest, some resident, some migratory • Caspian tern, song sparrow, American goldfinch, brown-headed cowbird, red-winged blackbird, Virginia rail, yellow-headed blackbird, great egret, killdeer, great blue heron, American avocet, double-crested cormorant, American white pelican, ring-necked pheasant, American robin, house finch, European starling, mourning dove, black-billed magpie, Canada goose, California quail, mallard.
Source: Rob Wilson, Great Salt Lake Audubon
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