Restoring healthy riverscapes in Taylor Park
Up in the skies at 2,000 feet, a group of local conservationists relished the lush, vibrant green landscape of Taylor Park below. It’s not every day they get to see their conservation and restoration efforts from a bird’s eye view, or rather, a plane’s eye view.
The unique opportunity provided by EcoFlight brought together representatives from High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA), Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District (UGRWCD), the National Forest Foundation (NFF) and the Gunnison Ranger District. EcoFlight provides aerial perspectives through small aircraft, low elevation flights that educate and advocate environmental stewardship. During the flight, the passengers observed pre- and post- process-based restoration (PBR) work on Trail Creek in addition to other headwater streams in the Taylor Park area identified as potential PBR restoration sites, including Lower Texas Creek and Lower/Middle Willow Creek.
And the focus behind the restoration work? “We’re kind of obsessed with beavers,” said Joe Lavorini of the NFF.
Trail Creek is a tributary to the Taylor River and was once home to active beavers who helped create water pockets for vast riparian life. However, most of the natural stream-wetland corridors in these areas have become incised, simplified and dried up. The beaver population is now just 10% of what it once was.
The Trail Creek PBR efforts are part of a greater vision to work with beavers to restore degraded riverscapes throughout Taylor Park and the greater Upper Gunnison Basin Headwaters.
“Many headwater streams in Taylor Park are characterized by incised channels, a lack of structural diversity and degrading habitat diversity,” explained HCCA stewardship program director Eli Smith.
“Healthy riverscapes and wetlands build resiliency against drought, flood, wildfire and other emerging demands on public lands. By implementing small hand-built structures that mimic, promote and sustain natural processes, there is an opportunity to restore hydrologic functions, promote habitat diversity and improve riparian and wetland vegetation.”
The Trail Creek restoration project began in 2021 with Gunnison Valley Riverscapes (GVR), a group of restoration practitioners, contractors and volunteers representing local land management partners. GVR worked together to build 62 structural treatments along 0.3 miles of riverscape corridor. These structures, called beaver dam analogs (BDAs), are built of native materials and mimic the function of beaver dams to help promote and maintain wetland health.
The goal is that beavers will relocate to those areas and help take over the maintenance of the man-made structures, explained Cheryl Cwelich, UGRWCD water resource specialist.
And so far, the restoration efforts have paid off. Shortly after the first season of the project, a pair of beavers moved back into the site. “That’s a huge success, to have beavers move back into a site we’ve worked on,” said Smith. “This helped increase the magnitude of wetland recovery.” Smith noted that there are some more beavers upstream and downstream from the area as well. “So we’re trying to fill in those gaps where beavers can fully populate an entire stretch.”
Last year in Phase II of the project, GVR installed 254 structural treatments along 1.1 miles of riverscape corridor. According to Smith, initial results showed increased aquatic habitat and diversity, increased wetland area and improved habitat suitability for dispersing beavers.
To date, the project has included the work of 138 volunteers, creation of 316 structures and captured 1.4 miles along Trail Creek. GVR is currently preparing to enter Phase III of the project, which is planned to cover 1.25 miles of stream corridor and include an estimated 136 restoration structures.
In the air, the EcoFlight passengers all took notice of the lush, healthy landscape and how much water was present in the PBR areas. “I can already see the difference. Look how green and wet it is,” observed Smith. “There’s decent water but there’s a lot of room to add more structures and encourage more robust beaver populations.”
“I’m so grateful to see all that water on the landscape and to observe how all these waterways are interconnected. This restoration is so important, we’re helping that water stay on the landscape just a little bit longer,” said Cwelich.
“That’s the name of the game, keeping that water intact as long as possible,” said Smith. “It’s very rewarding to see the scale of our restoration work from above.”