- Associated Press - Monday, May 25, 2015

ZION NATIONAL PARK, Utah (AP) - Cottonwood trees dotting the red rock landscape of southern Utah’s Zion National Park could die out in 30 to 50 years, according to a National Park Service hydrologist.

Hydrologist Dave Sharrow said the cottonwoods are aging out and new trees are not growing in their place.

The trees release cotton seeds that float through the air. If they land on damp soil, they’ll take root and a new tree will start growing.

But Sharrow said that rarely happens in the park nowadays, thanks to human changes to the park and increased visitors.

Levees built in the 1930s pen up the Virgin River and protect a paved road in Zion Canyon from damage during spring flooding.

That’s kept soil dry.

Soil along the riverbanks is too inhospitable for the trees to take root because the levees have left the Virgin River running straight and fast rather than slow and bendy.

“So when the river floods, if any cottonwoods have grown, it takes them out,” Sharrow said. “It washes away all the young seedlings.”

For more than a decade, the park has asked for $7 million in federal money to remove the levees and protect the road another way, but Zion has not received the money, Sharrow told KSL-TV (https://bit.ly/1SyQC1F ).

He said if Zion eventually gets money for the project, it may only solve part of the issue because the parks’ unchecked deer population has been eating any cottonwood seedlings that do take hold.

Mountain lions, deer’s national predators, tend to avoid the park because they don’t like lots of people, Sharrow said.

Zion National Park sees about 3 million tourists a year.

Sharrow said the National Park Service has no plans to kill off deer, but without doing so, it may be impossible to stop the trees from dying off.

“The scenic beauty of these cottonwoods along the stream is tremendous,” Sharrow said. “We would really be a lesser park if we didn’t have them.”

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Information from: KSL-TV, https://www.ksl.com/

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