Students work on trails, learn about ecology in summer program
July 24, 2017 — Buena Vista and Salida high school students attended a two-week educational work program with the Salida Trail Ecological Restoration Project (STERP) this summer.
Eight students attended each week for a total of 16 participants who received basic hands-on skills in ecological restoration, as well as eight hours in educational lessons. The kids earned pay through the Southwest Conservation Corps while pulling weeds, planting trees and shrubs, installing erosion control features, seeding, mulching, and hauling slash. Educational subjects focused on potential careers in natural resources as well as life-skills such as bird identification and the importance of pollinators in healthy natural systems.
“We organize the students’ days to make this a rich educational experience for them,” Project Coordinator Buffy Lenth said. “In addition to the educational presentation, we diversify their work so they learn different restoration techniques and learn something new on the trail every day.”
Lenth is the Conservancy’s watershed restoration specialist and has coordinated STERP activities for two years.
Funding for the students was provided by the Conservancy and its STERP partners: Salida-area Parks, Open-space and Trails (SPOT), Greater Arkansas River Nature Association (GARNA) the City of Salida and Chaffee County.
The Conservancy received a grant from the Colorado Garden Foundation for the cost of native trees, shrubs, grass seed and tools. The Foundation has supported the project for two years by granting more than $12,000 for native plants and necessary planting tools.
“We appreciate their support because without native plants to put into the ground to replace noxious weeds, this project would be reduced to an exercise in weed removal,” Executive Director Andrew Mackie said. “Trail users have really noticed a difference in the diversity of plants. The plantings we’ve done over the last few years are thriving and we have seen an increase in wildlife, such as the Monarch butterfly.”
STERP evolved out of grassroots efforts by neighbors to remove weeds and replace them with perennial plants along one block of the trail and Ditch Creek. They wanted to beautify an industrial trail section and restore the creek to natural habitat. The project has grown into a cooperative habitat restoration effort and now includes miles of trails in the city. Native vegetation has added interest for trail users while benefitting wildlife such as birds and small mammals. As new trees grow, they shade Ditch Creek, improving water quality for wildlife and community use.
Trail improvements continue through volunteer work days into September. Many residents pull weeds and help plant trees, broadcast wildflower seed and water new plantings. To get involved, contact Buffy Lenth.
Thank you to the major funders for this project!
WHAT THE PROJECT IS:
The project evolved out of grassroots efforts by landowners adjacent to one block of the trail and Ditch Creek to remove invasive weeds along the trail and replace them with perennial native plants in order to restore the creek to natural habitat and beautify a formerly industrial section of the trail.
Over the past few years, the project has grown into a cooperative habit restoration project involving the City of Salida; Salida-area Parks, Open-space and Trails (SPOT); Greater Arkansas River Nature Association (GARNA); Central Colorado Conservancy; Southwest Conservation Corps (SCC); and Chaffee County. These groups have now incorporated the larger trail system, creating the Salida Trail Ecological Restoration Project (STERP). The project has won an award from Audubon Rockies, and been recognized by The Nature Conservancy as a model for habitat restoration.
Unlike in a traditional, mowed-lawn, park-like setting, in this restored mountain prairie, tall grasses, shrubs and trees may grow near or right up to the side of the trail. Dead shrubs and trees may also be left undisturbed. These plants, living or dead, provide valuable habitat to wildlife, birds and pollinators, and are very helpful for outcompeting native weeds.
The project aims to restore natural conditions along the trail corridor with these goals:
- Fire prevention,
- Restoring healthy water quality and function to Ditch Creek,
- Providing habitat for pollinators and songbirds,
- Beautifying the trail,
- Providing a living “laboratory” to teach skills in ecological restoration and water-quality testing to Salida School District students each year.
- Giving volunteers involved in the trail training in restoring healthy environments,
- Providing trail-users an experience of nature and the associated physical and physiological benefits.
Our methods are simple and so far, have proved very successful. Using volunteers, and for the past three seasons, the SCC crews, we hand-pull invasive annual weeds including Kochia, tumbleweed and cheatgrass, and grub out or cut down noxious perennial weeds including Canada thistle, yellow and white sweetclover, Siberian elm, and Russian olive. We plant native plants to replace these invasive weeds, either hand-broadcasting seed mix and bark mulch (the city provides the latter, which we really appreciate!), or planting nursery-grown native shrubs and trees in habitat “islands.” This work provides students and SCC crews with basic skills in ecological restoration. And our many citizen volunteers find great satisfaction in contributing to making the trail, and thus Salida, a healthier and more beautiful place.
We have made a significant dent in the annual invasive weed cover in the areas we have worked. These are the plants that are the biggest issue for fire danger, since they sprout and grow quickly after spring and summer moisture, and then die, leaving behind a prodigious crop of seeds, as soils dry out in late summer, making for swaths of highly flammable vegetation. By hand-weeding, we remove both fuel (flammable dead plants) and seeds, thus reducing the population of these non-native weeds. By seeding in and planting perennial natives, we replace with vegetation that is much less flammable, since it stays green through more than one season.
Perennial native plants also help build healthy soils and help shade and clean the water in Ditch Creek. Water quality testing by the sixth-grade classes in spring of 2015 showed that the native plants along the trail between Second and Third streets lowered average water temperature, increased dissolved oxygen, and lowered the levels of nitrates and phosphates in the water, all indicators of improved water quality. The water quality results are particularly heartening since Ditch Creek runs into the Arkansas in the middle of a 102-mile stretch of the river designated as Gold-Medal Trout Waters in 2015. The native wildflowers, grasses and shrubs also provide habitat for pollinators and songbirds, and beautify the trail, something that trail users comment about to volunteers working on the trail.
AWARDS & RECOGNITION:
In 2015, STERP was given the Habitat Hero Award by Audubon Rockies, which lauded the “visionary” nature of the project as a model for restoring songbird and pollinator habitat along a heavily used trail corridor and restoring nature in urban places, as well as an example of cooperative effort between government, volunteers and non-profit groups. The Nature Conservancy also recognized the Project as an example of community-based habitat restoration.
The Project is also being used for scientific research as well. Dominique Naccarato is collecting vegetation data along the trail for work toward her Master’s Degree in Ecological Management through Western State University, and one of her fellow grad students is planning a project to collect data on trail use. STERP is also attracting interest from researchers and other communities: In the past three summers, we have given tours of Monarch Spur Trail to groups of researchers from Colorado State University-Pueblo, community-based conservation non-profits and researchers from Denver Botanic Garden. In 2015, Canyon Ranch Institute invited one project founder to Tucson to talk about the project’s benefits to community health and wellness, and its model of community engagement and cooperation.
STERP provides a model for other communities in trail management, habitat restoration, providing habitat for imperiled pollinators and songbirds, community wellness through exposure to the outdoors and physical fitness, engagement and cooperation, and reconnecting adults and kids to nature.
- Removing and controlling invasive plants. Many non-native plants have been introduced into Colorado. Lacking natural control mechanisms, some of these plants become a serious threat to native plants and ecosystems. Also, invasives are a problem for ranchers and are a fire hazard to local communities.
The primary target species for control along some of Salida’s trails include:
- Restoring native grasses, shrubs and trees. Native plant species benefit local wildlife. Our insects, birds, mammals, and other creatures are adapted to eating the leaves, nectar, fruits, and seeds from our local plants. We have been reseeding wildflowers and grasses along the trails. Some of the grasses we plant include: Indian Ricegrass, Western Wheatgrass, Sand Dropseed, and Mountain Brome.
- Increasing suitable habitat for native birds and pollinators. Many of our native pollinators are facing difficult times. The long-term use of pesticides and habitat destruction has reduced numerous beneficial pollinators, including bees and butterflies. We are working to bring back our pollinators by planting the flowers and host plants they need to survive. Healthy populations of pollinators are vital to local agriculture. Some of the species we are planting include:
- Restoring the small creek running along a section of the Monarch Spur Trail. This water course is called Ditch Creek and has been highly altered over the years. The creek empties into the Gold Medal Trout Waters of the Arkansas River. Revegetating the banks of the creek will help shade and cool the water and increase dissolved oxygen needed for many species of aquatic life. Plants also help remove pollutants and trap sediment, both unwanted items in the Arkansas River. Trees we have planted include: Narrowleaf Cottonwood, Willows, Chokecherry, Red-osier Dogwood, and New Mexico Privet.
- Training volunteers to be stewards of our natural areas. We are working with our partners to train individuals to recognize invasive species and help remove these plants from along the trails.
- Providing education to trail users and residents about ecological restoration. Education plays a key component in helping the public understand why we remove invasive plants and creating wildlife habitat benefiting the public.
At Central Colorado Conservancy, we are excited to partner on this project and bring our restoration expertise to this collaborative effort. The Conservancy has experience in range management, stream restoration, wildlife habitat manipulation, invasives control, and growing native plants.
Central Colorado Conservancy has organized three Southwest Conservation Crews in 2016 to work on the Salida Trail Ecological Restoration Project. The crews range in age from 15 to 24. Each individual is getting hands-on experience in restoration practices. They also receive training in ecology and natural history.