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FRUITA, Wayne County — Capitol Reef National Park wants to ensure there's still fruit in Fruita for many more years to come.
Park officials announced late last week they intended to begin an orchard replanting project later this year. If approved, it would begin a long-term rehabilitation project of the historic orchards in the small southern Utah community.
The project would seek to reverse a trend of dying trees at orchards that have ties to the region for over a century. The park reports that over 100 orchard trees have died annually over the past five years alone.
As a part of the plan, 53 trees at the Guy Smith and Cook orchards would be removed and about 4.6 acres of orchard surface would be regraded this fall, according to a document published by the National Park Service. About 4,100 feet of irrigation ditch would be reinstalled during that time.
The work conducted this fall would prepare park employees to plant 200 sapling peach trees at the Guy Smith Orchard beginning in April 2022. About another 100 new trees would be planted annually through 2025; meanwhile, about 100 new trees would be planted annually from 2023 through 2025 in the Cook Orchard.
Fruita's orchards date back to 1880, which is when the modern community was settled. The pioneer settlers created orchards along the Fremont River and Sulphur Creek east of where the park visitor's center is located in Torrey.
There were never more than about 10 families that lived in the area at one time but there ended up being close to 20 orchard farms over the span of close to 90 years, according to a history of the region compiled by the National Park Service.
About 3,000 cherry, apricot, peach, nectarine, pear, apple, plum, mulberry, quince, almond, pecan and walnut trees were left behind by the time the last of the residents moved away in 1969. The Fruita Rural Historic District was later added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1997.
Capitol Reef National Monument was established in 1937 and became a national park in 1971. The National Park Service took over the maintenance of the trees after the families left. That includes pruning, grafting and keeping historic irrigation methods. It's one of the largest continually cultivated orchards among the park service system today. It's allowed the park to provide visitors fruit harvest and even educational experiences tied to the orchards.
However, park officials have dealt with issues regarding the orchards in recent years. For instance, about 134 trees were lost annually between 2015 and 2020, according to a document about the park's plan to rehabilitate the area.
"Many factors contribute to the decline of orchard trees. In the Fruita Rural Historic District, the primary reasons for tree decline and death are age, poor soil conditions and disease," the document stated.
It's believed that the vast majority of orchard trees in Fruita — an estimated 86% altogether — were planted before 1990 and 40% before 1950, which pose problems for the future of the orchards.
The document points out that fruit tree lifespans are "often much shorter than landscape trees such as cottonwoods." For example, peach trees traditionally live less than 50 years even in ideal conditions while apricot and cherry trees rarely exceed 100 years old.
At the same time, the soil conditions in the area haven't been good enough to carry nutrients and organic matter to help the trees live and produce fruit. Experts pointed out that pioneer settlers benefited from regular floods and also brought with them livestock that helped create good soil conditions at the beginning of the orchards' history.
The new proposed project would seek to use cured manure to provide trees with the needed organic matter.
A public comment portion of the plan will open Friday and is scheduled to continue through March 18. The park is also hosting three public meetings about the project during that time frame. The first will be hosted virtually at 5 p.m. on Feb. 25; the other two will be held 10 a.m. Feb. 26 and March 4 at the national park.
Anyone interested in attending on-site meetings are asked to RSVP by Feb. 12 by calling 435-425-4140 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
The regrading of orchard soils would begin in September, according to a timeline published by park officials. Hundreds of trees would be planted annually every spring between 2022 and 2025.