In the West, all communities depend on rivers for clean drinking water and crops, not to mention boating and fishing. Rivers are a way of life and a beautiful source of inspiration. But, we’re sure you already know this.
Amy, our corporate partnerships manager, had a touching experience a little over a month ago that really demonstrated how important rivers are—to everyone.
“I was volunteering for the Roaring Fork Conservancy, picking up trash along the Colorado River. An unhoused man watched me working for just a moment, then immediately stepped in to help,” she said. “He mentioned that he didn’t like to wake up next to all the trash and that it made him sad to see rivers treated like that. The rivers were a safe space for him, a beautiful one at that. He continued to state how the rivers are for all of us, and that we should treat them with respect. I had to admit, I 100% agree with him”.
Together they spent an hour picking up trash. “To see someone constantly on the go, who doesn’t have stable housing, giving his time to clean up our rivers touched my heart. We all need to judge a little less and love a little more. Perhaps we can all learn something from that,” she mentioned.
Together we’ve had a conservation impact of $2.2 million dollars—thank you, friends—with over 5,000 acres of riparian habitat restored. We’ve supported neighbors in need with educational trips on the Gunnison and Colorado Rivers, funded a new boat ramp in Delta, and helped construct beaver dam analogs at the headwaters of the Taylor River to reconnect wetlands and floodplains. Plus we’ve sent crews out to four tributaries of the Colorado River where they will spend 31 weeks removing invasive species and nurturing native habitat for hundreds of species. And we are not done yet! There are many more projects in the works and we look forward to watching the impact grow.
Outside of work, we’ve got plans! Ann, our executive director, is already systematic about collecting and reusing water as her shower warms up. This year, she will celebrate National Rivers Month by fully transitioning to native flowers in her garden. She removed her last few non-natives last fall and is looking forward to seeing the new blooms, and water savings, this month. “My mom is always hoping she can influence people to ‘natify’, a word she coined several years ago,” Ann states, smiling. Ann shares her love of native plants and trees. “Not only am I using little to no water, but I’m creating habitat for bees, butterflies, hummingbirds and bats. Native plants make my pollinator and birdwatching better!”
Amy plans to stand up paddleboard and dive back into her photography hobby, starting with rivers as a focal point. At home, she pledges to shorten her showers and reuse vegetable-steamed water for all her plants!
How do you plan to celebrate? One easy way is just to educate yourself. To get you started, we’re sharing five facts we found interesting.
In 1948, to improve riparian habitat in Idaho’s backcountry, Fish and Game captured 76 beavers and parachuted them to a roadless area in the Chamberlin Basin. All but one survived and got right to work.
The Snake River flows through Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. It is famous for Hells Canyon, the deepest river gorge in North America. It’s also one of two rivers in the United States that flows north!
Twenty countries in the world do not have permanent, natural rivers.
The Yellowstone River is the longest undammed river in the contiguous United States, flowing about 692 miles. It starts in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, passes through Montana, and eventually joins the Missouri River.
In 1900, under the cover of night, the Sanitary District of Chicago reversed the flow of the Chicago River, increasing its flow from Lake Michigan and doubling the size of the Illinois River.
Whatever you decide to do, have fun, learn lots and enjoy the rivers! We hope your month is full of many amazing memories. Share your river experiences with us online using hashtags #ForeverOurRivers and #NationalRiversMonth. We’d love to see how you chose to celebrate!
Have you ever experienced a moment when you feel like your head is so full of thoughts that it feels like it’s going to explode? Do you have a difficult time remembering the timeline of your memories? If you live with neurological conditions such as anxiety, depression or even Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), the world feels like that—loud and chaotic—almost all of the time.
Many people think that mental health is all about what’s going on in your brain, but the truth is that it’s also about what’s going on with your body. When you feel good physically it can help you feel good mentally, and vice versa. Many studies demonstrate that spending time in nature helps you feel better. But did you know that spending time along bodies of water, like rivers and streams, can induce a meditative state that makes us smarter, happier and healthier, calmer—and even more creative?
“When I lived in Vail, I used to hike up and journal next to the creeks. It was a traumatic time in my life with the passing of my mom. After that, it was as though my mind became harder to navigate. I was in a dark place. However, I’d sit next to the creek and it’d help soothe me and clear my head,” says CJ, river enthusiast from Glenwood Springs, Colorado. “While all bodies of water are uplifting, the moving water is representative of clearing things out— moving things along. I find peace in that.”
The mere sight or sound of water can induce a flood of neurochemicals that promote wellness, increase blood flow to the brain and heart, and relax us. They can also help take us away from our busy lives for a little while. Plus, they’re beautiful! Whether you’re looking out over a river from a boat or just walking along its banks, there’s something about the way it flows and sounds that helps settle your mind.
CJ was diagnosed with ADHD as an adult. After reflecting upon that news, she found it made sense. Throughout her life, her brain felt like a computer screen with too many tabs open. Rivers and streams have always been her happy place but she has felt even more connected to them in the last year since finding out. They bring her peace in the midst of chaos. “I need the rivers and will always follow them. If they cease to exist here, I will go to where they are,” she mentioned.
That’s exactly what has been done throughout history. Our ancestors lived near rivers because they provided water, food, transportation and other necessities for survival. But they also provided something else— peace.
When we are near a river, we can feel at peace with ourselves, our surroundings and the world around us. “It’s about letting your cares flow away,” CJ continues. “When I’m river rafting or paddleboarding, my brain quiets down and all of my thoughts are pushed aside because I have to be present in the moment. I can’t afford not to be.”
When you think about it, rivers are like a metaphor for the health of our minds: if they’re healthy, we’re healthy; if they’re polluted or running dry, we suffer. That’s why keeping rivers healthy and flowing is so important—they’re not just naturally beautiful; they’re also powerful allies in one’s quest for mental health.
I think people living with mental health concerns have a heightened awareness of the benefits nature provides,” CJ concludes. “We need people, and organizations like Forever Our Rivers, to care deeply for our rivers. In this loud, crazy world, we can’t afford to lose another natural resource that provides the benefits of healing, safety and peace.”
Even if you live in the West and fishing isn’t your passion, it still seems likely you’ve heard of cutthroat trout, swimming throughout the waters of the West. The Colorado River cutthroat trout is one of three subspecies of cutthroat trout and is native only to the Green and Colorado River basins in the Western United States. This small but mighty fish has been an icon of the region for centuries. It is an important source of food for many species of birds, as well as bears and river otters. Fly fishing anglers from all over the states flock to Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming to experience the colorful spotted beauties.
A beautiful, distinctive fish that’s a gem to see.
The Colorado River cutthroat trout has been called one of the most beautiful fish in North America—and we agree. Their identifiable markings include a bright yellow-gold body, often with greenish-brown on its back and darker spotting on the sides. The belly is pale and the fins are reddish or orange. The trout also has a reddish stripe under its lower jaw, distinguishing it from other trout species.
The average size of these trout is around 8-10 inches in length, but they can grow up to 18 inches. A trout that size is rare because they mostly live at high altitudes where the growing season is short and much of their habitat has been degraded.
The more habitat these fish can reclaim, the better.
The trout are found mostly in the Green and Colorado River basins. Historically, they inhabited the Colorado River and its tributaries from the headwaters in Colorado and Wyoming down to the Grand Canyon in Arizona. However, the population has declined significantly over the years due to human activity and introduced non-native species.
Today, the remaining populations of the Colorado River cutthroat trout are found in small, isolated streams and lakes in the higher elevations of headwaters. These fish require cold, clear water with high oxygen levels and gravelly or rocky stream bottoms for spawning.
They are another native species, threatened and declining.
The 1800s did not fare well for the Colorado River cutthroat trout. They were overfished and brought to the point of near extinction. Though their population has declined by over 90%, restocking of cutthroat and removal of nonnative species has helped. The trout are now listed as threatened versus endangered. The primary risks include habitat destruction, overfishing, water diversions and withdrawals, and the introduction of more non-native fish species.
Water diversions disrupt the natural flow of rivers and streams, affecting the trout’s ability to spawn and access their habitat. When non-native fish such as brown and rainbow trout were introduced, it opened up a whole new danger, as they prey upon the cutthroat. Climate change, wildfires and droughts also limit and degrade their habitat.
You can help this iconic fish live on.
Efforts to conserve the trout have been ongoing for decades, including the restoration of diverse yet well-connected streams with boulders and large, downed trees that provide cover from predators. Also critical are fish passage projects, the reintroduction of native trout populations, and the removal of brown and rainbow trout from where they don’t naturally live.
Organizations, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state fish and wildlife agencies, are working together to protect and restore the Colorado River cutthroat trout and its habitat. These organizations also educate the public about the importance of conservation and responsible angling practices. While the cutthroat faces numerous threats, ongoing conservation efforts offer hope for its long-term survival.
Anglers can do their part by practicing responsible fishing practices, such as catch-and-release and avoiding fishing during spawning periods. Others can volunteer or give to organizations, like Forever Our Rivers, which works hard to restore aquatic and riparian habitat within and along rivers, crucial for the trout’s survival. The more habitat the better, and by working together, we can ensure that future generations will have the opportunity to experience the beauty and majesty of this remarkable, reputable fish.
With a $158,000 grant awarded by Forever Our Rivers Foundation, conservation crews have a head start on their annual quest to improve the health of the Colorado River basin.
Crew members will monitor, treat and prevent non-native species like tamarisk—one of the most invasive plants in the Colorado River basin—and nurture native species in Colorado, Utah and Arizona.
When harmful invasives are removed and replaced with native plants, the resulting increased biodiversity allows ecosystems to thrive and become more resilient to a changing climate.
“Combating invasive species is essential, and not only for protecting our unsurpassed hiking, fishing and boating experiences,” said Ann Johnston, executive director of Forever Our Rivers. “Rivers and streams are far more important than the water running through them.”
Conservation Legacy of Durango, Colorado, will lead the crews in partnership with watershed groups in the Dolores, Escalante, Verde and Gila Rivers of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona. Their Southwest Conservation Crews will work directly with local nonprofits in the individual watersheds.
“The funding not only progresses the vital restoration efforts of the watershed partnerships, it educates youth by engaging them directly with the work and helps build the next generation of land stewards,” said Nate Peters, Conservation Legacy’s watershed programs manager.
Healthy rivers provide clean water, store carbon, and serve as a buttress against the impacts of climate change. Introduced in the 1950s, Russian olive and tamarisk quickly choked waterways with dense growth that outcompeted native vegetation such as cottonwoods and willows, leading to severe channel narrowing. Preliminary research shows a significant decrease in channel width following the Russian Olive and tamarisk invasions, and a beneficial increase in width after treatment. In other words, treatment not only allows for the recovery of native vegetation but also restores more natural river geomorphology and meander. It also lowers fire danger and improves river access.
Conservation Legacy and the Southwest Conservation Crews will continue this important work throughout the summer and fall of 2023.
Whether showing off their dance moves in wet meadows or filling the sky with their massive wingspans, sandhill cranes are magnificent birds that can be found throughout most of North America and even parts of Siberia. These birds are known for their distinctive calls, which can often be heard from great distances—some say up to 2.5 miles away! How do you know if you’ve seen one? Well, the sandhill cranes sport a recognizable red crown which is a major contrast from the rest of their tall, grayish body.
Water is key to the sandhill crane habitats.
Chances are if you recreate along our waterways you’ve seen a crane. If not, maybe you’ve at least heard their loud, rolling, trumpeting sound. They prefer river basins, wetlands, marshes and other areas with shallow water where they can easily find food. They are also known to inhabit agricultural fields, meadows and grasslands. During the breeding season, they typically choose areas with tall vegetation that gives good cover and protection to their nests. These habitats provide the cranes with water and a place to rest but also the right diet. While plants make up the majority of their food, they will occasionally eat small mammals or amphibians. Sandhill cranes have long beaks that allow them to probe wetlands for seeds, berries and insects.
Sandhill cranes are family-centered birds that love to socialize!
Sandhill cranes are social birds typically living in pairs or small family groups. The males are known for their elaborate courtship displays, which involve dancing, bowling, calling and even tossing small objects into the air. Who says chivalry is dead? They also typically mate for life and share nesting roles together.
During migration, their flocks are composed of hundreds of cranes that include family groups and unmated birds. Constant communication is key for these birds to successfully complete their long flights. Sometimes you may find various flocks congregating together during migration and at winter stopovers, bringing the number up to the thousands.
Sandhill cranes may fly up to 400 miles in one day.
The migration pattern of the sandhill cranes is honestly what we find the most interesting. Many populations spend the summer in the northern United States and Canada before flying south for the winter. In the western US, the largest concentration of sandhill cranes can be found in the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado, where around 20,000 cranes gather each fall to rest and feed before continuing their journey south. Other important stopover areas include the Platte River in Nebraska and the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. Sandhill cranes are very strong flyers and may fly up to 400 miles in one day during the migration season. It’s hard to fathom given it can take us anywhere from five and half to nine hours to drive that length with a car.
Let’s keep them moving and dancing.
Despite their widespread distribution, sandhill cranes are not immune to the effects of human recreation, development and climate change. The landscapes along the cranes’ migration paths are rapidly changing. When they experience habitat disturbance or loss, their resting and breeding grounds become compromised. If this continues, the population of sandhill cranes will quickly plummet. Fortunately, there are many organizations—like Forever Our Rivers—working hard to protect and restore important riparian habitats suitable for these birds.
Sandhill cranes are fascinating birds with habitat, behaviors and migration patterns that make them a valuable part of our natural heritage. Did you know that a ten-million-year-old sandhill crane fossil was found in Nebraska? So far, this makes them the oldest known surviving bird species. Conservation efforts are essential to ensure that future generations can continue to enjoy the beauty and grace of these historical, elegant birds. Check out this recent video of the sandhill crane migration in the San Luis Valley in Colorado. If you haven’t gotten a chance to see these amazing birds, we hope you get the lucky opportunity to do so soon.
Those of you like Amy, obsessed with watching ABC’s new sitcom Not Dead Yet, may have noticed an episode where Nell’s roommate briefly touched on the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher. Didn’t catch it? Maybe only Amy noticed because it just so happened to be top of mind with Forever Our Rivers.
Why are the Southwestern Willow Flycatchers catching people’s attention—even of the Hollywood writers/producers? They’ve been endangered since 1995, have a huge impact on controlling insect populations, and well, are super cute songbirds.
A small but mighty songbird that relies on riparian habitats.
The Southwestern Willow Flycatcher is a migratory bird that thrives in lush areas along rivers in the southwestern United States and part of Mexico. Their native habitat among willows, box elders and cottonwoods provide important ecosystem services: these trees and shrubs filter sediment from water, improve soil and provide wildlife habitat. Unfortunately, these flycatchers have adapted to nest in thickets of non-native, invasive species such as saltcedar (also known as tamarisk) and Russian Olive. While we praise the birds for their adaptability, saltcedar and Russian olive are wreaking havoc on water quality and quantity in the southwest.
So, you may be wondering, how do we get rid of those invasive species without getting rid of the flycatchers? Don’t worry, we’ll cover that soon.
Flycatchers also eat insects such as mosquitoes, flies, beetles and moths. This helps regulate insect populations, which can have a significant impact on the environment. Occasionally they may eat berries such as blackberries and raspberries, but insects make up over 95% of their diet.
It’s estimated that only 2,500 to 3,000 flycatchers remain.
The Southwestern Willow Flycatcher population had been declining for decades. Climate change and human development such as water diversion, groundwater pumping and building along waterways have not done these birds any favors. Large portions of the flycatcher’s habitat have disappeared throughout much of its historic range. This led to the flycatcher being listed as a federally endangered species in 1995, where it still remains today.
What do we do about this?
Well, the flycatcher is in luck.
Conservation efforts are underway focused on habitat restoration and protection of the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher. One of Forever Our Rivers’ partners, the Gila Watershed Partnership (GWP), is working hard on this huge balancing act.
“Even though trees such as desert willow are the native habitat of these birds, they have adapted to the saltcedar so well that much of the tamarisk thicket along the river has become untouchable due to Endangered Species Act restrictions. These thickets are dense enough to inhibit stream flow”, said Dr. Sarah Sayles, executive director of the Gila Watershed Partnership. Yet efforts to control non-native species such as saltcedar can be detrimental to flycatchers if the plants are removed without suitable native riparian habitat nearby to replace them with.In order to not to lose any habitats for the flycatchers, GWP follows the defoliation of salt cedar—usually done by the tamarisk beetle—by promoting and restoring native plants in their appropriate place along the Gila River.
I bet this question is on the tip of your tongue: Is the population still declining despite all the hard work? According to the American Bird Conservancy, the bird’s population is very slowly increasing. GWP hasn’t yet seen a difference in population but is hopeful. “We have seen the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher out on our work sites in some of the newly planted natives. We’ll continue to restore more and more native habitat for the endangered species of the Gila River. We’re in this for the long-haul”, Dr. Sarah explains.
This is just one example of the restoration work our river partners are doing along tributaries to the Colorado River. Thank you to our amazing nonprofit partners who are out there every day making a difference for the rivers and those that depend on them like the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher!