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Community Projects

SCIF Project with Office of Sustainability and Bennion Center

Rio Mesa Orchard

Waiting for a Message
by Rochelle Mass

Trees help you see slices of sky between branches,
point to things you could never reach.
Trees help you watch the growing happen,
watch blossoms burst then dry,
see shade twist to the pace of a sun,
birds tear at unwilling seeds.

Trees take the eye to where it is,
where it was,
then over to distant hills,
faraway to other places and times,
long ago.

A tree is a lens,
a viewfinder, a window.
I wait below
for a message
of what is yet to come.

This project came about in the spring of 2010 when Ross Chambless, a graduate student in Environmental Humanities, began exploring ways the University of Utah could promote sustainability and reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by planting trees.

His attention was soon directed to the Bonderman Field Station at Rio Mesa, where the University maintains an historic orchard with around 45 apple, cherry, apricot, pear, and peach trees. As many of the old trees had died off, Rio Mesa also needed to use its allotted water rights from the Dolores River or risk losing them. Through the Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund (SCIF), managed by the Office of Sustainability, Chambless received $2,800 for revitalizing and expanding the orchard with new fruit trees. The fruits grown at the orchard will eventually be sold at the Moab Farmer's Market. In addition, it was decided that native Fremont Cottonwoods (Populas fremontii) would be planted around the site using the remaining funds. During the University's 2010 Fall Break, student volunteers will help plant new fruit trees and Fremont Cottonwoods at the Center.

While the impetus for the idea had been to plant trees and measure carbon sequestration, this project has gradually evolved into something more expansive. This project will emphasize the intrinsic human and ecosystemic values of maintaining fruit trees and native Fremont Cottonwoods. Carbon offsetting by planting and preserving trees is a concept being examined by international companies, NGOs, and other U.S. universities as a potentially viable way for measuring and verifying reductions of CO2 emissions. However this research typically requires lots of research funding and instrumentation, and is being performed in expansive forests around the world and not necessarily in dry desert climates like Utah's.

In time, this orchard will grow into a beneficial learning tool for future students for understanding:

  • The benefits and sustainable values of local, organically grown fruit.
  • How to prune, water, and maintain fruit trees.
  • To appreciate the values of heirloom fruit varieties.
  • The benefits and importance of producing and sharing fruits for local communities, like the Moab Farmer's Market.
  • The necessary symbiotic relationships between fruit orchards, pollinators, and other local wildlife.

Additionally, the students will be able to study the multiple benefits that native Fremont Cottonwoods bring to the environment and humans. Populas fremontii were used by Native Americans as medicine, for treating injuries, making drums, baskets, building material, and firewood. Fremont Cottonwoods also provide essential habitat for many animals and birds along riparian corridors throughout the Colorado Plateau. They are also fast-growing, and typically grow to be very large (30 ft. wide, by 60 ft. tall or more), and are known for their longevity.

Last Updated: 7/2/19