In this episode, we sit down with Collin Ewing, manager of the McInnis Canyons, and Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Areas for the Bureau of Land Management. These public lands are stunning, featuring dramatic desert landscapes with towering red rock canyons and two beautiful sections of the river, the Ruby Horsethief section of the Colorado, and the lower Gunnison River near Grand Junction, Colorado.
As COVID-19 encourages people to get outside, the Bureau is working to manage the increased pressure on the landscape. We talk to Collin about how to recreate responsibly to preserve the wilderness experience for visitors and protect habitat as the crowds swell.
In 2016, the Bureau launched a permit system on Ruby-Horsethief. It helped preserve the area’s wilderness feel, protect the landscape from overuse, and raise funds to keep restrooms clean, build infrastructure like boat ramps, and restore habitat. The Bureau is currently working on a similar system for the Lower Gunnison River. Collin would love to hear your comments and suggestions.
Collin is also heading down the Grand Canyon this summer and walks us through his plan to mitigate Covid risks. These conversations will help you recreate responsibly on any public lands trip you’re planning this summer.
Fieldwork season is here and our 2021 4Rivers Grantees aren’t wasting any time putting their awards to work on the ground. Joe stopped by the Dolores River in early June to talk to RiversEdge West and the Southwest Conservation Corps about what they hope to accomplish this year. Together, the two organizations co-coordinate the Dolores River Restoration Partnership, which has invested over ten million dollars in restoration work on 1,882 riverside acres since 2009. The 4Rivers grant will help them monitor restoration sites and keep them in good health by treating resprouting weeds like tamarisk and knapweed, restoring native plants like cottonwoods and willows, and training young natural resource managers. It’s hard to find funding to keep past project sites healthy. Forever Our Rivers is dedicated to filling those gaps.
Executive Director Transitions
After propelling Forever Our Rivers through two years of growth, Joe Neuhof, our Executive Director, is charting a new course. The Board and staff are incredibly grateful for Joe’s leadership. During his tenure, he established the 4Rivers Fund and awarded it’s first round of grants, facilitated a Community Grants cycle distributing funds to 10 river partners in the Southwest, and expanded our business and nonprofit network to nearly 50 partners who care about protecting the legacy of our rivers. You will find Joe advocating for public lands as the director of the Friends of Cedar Mesa, a cause that has long been a passion of his. Thank you for all of your hard work, Joe, and best wishes!
We’re pleased to announce that Stacy Beaugh will step in as interim Executive Director to help Forever Our Rivers manage this transition. As a founding Forever Our Rivers board member and current staff associate, Stacy has shepherded Forever Our Rivers since its inception in 2016. Stacy has dedicated her career to preserving and restoring rivers and the natural world. She is the co-owner of the consulting firm Strategic By Nature, where she specializes in strategic planning, process facilitation, leadership training, and fundraising. She looks forward to working with all of you to grow the Forever Our Rivers impact and network. Contact Stacy with questions or opportunities.
If you haven’t listened to the first two episodes of the Our Rivers Podcast download them for your next road trip or spring cleaning spree! We talk to our partners at Casting for Recovery and Brown Folks Fishing about the Angling for All Pledge and the Bureau of Land Management’s Collin Ewing about recreating responsibly in McInnis Canyon and Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Areas this summer.
We’re planning upcoming episodes now and would love to hear your feedback. Let us know what you want to hear in upcoming episodes. Is there a Southwestern river you want to learn more about? A river issue you’ve always wanted to learn more about? A river runner you’ve always wanted to have a conversation with? Email us to let us know.
Building wetland habitat in the Grand Valley keeps local birders connected to the Central Flyway.
Cinnamon teals, ospreys, birdwatchers, and hunters are all set to benefit from an inventive habitat improvement project in Grand Junction, CO. The Grand Valley Audubon Society is teaming up with Ducks Unlimited to convert a gravel pit pond to a shallow-water emergent wetland. These wetlands, where grasses and forbs “emerge” above the water surface, are important habitat for migrating shorebirds and waterfowl.
Migrating is hard work. Birds need stopover habitat to rest and food to refuel. Wetlands provide both but are in short supply in the Grand Valley — a massive Colorado River lowland that encompasses Palisade, Grand Junction, and Fruita, Colorado.
That’s a big deal, since the Grand Valley is on the western edge of the Central Flyway. This flyway is a major migration corridor that ushers birds from from South America to Canada in the spring and back again come winter. It’s important to preserve and improve habitat along the route to protect what’s left of North America’s bird populations.
Historically, the Colorado River provided plenty of habitat to support migrating birds like the American avocet and long-billed dowitcher. But droughts, diversions, and flow management shifts slowly reduced these habitats. The Audubon project offsets these losses while providing bird watching opportunities in the heart of Grand Junction. The property is open to the public, adjacent to a popular state park, and features a well-used walking and biking path.
Recreating emergent wetlands in the Grand Valley will create a healthier, more biodiverse landscape. When mixed among riparian forests, these wetlands create a patchwork of habitat types that fulfill wildlife’s food and shelter needs.
The location of this wetland project is especially beneficial. In 2000, the National Audubon Society declared the project site an “Important Bird Area” in the Grand Valley. According to the Society, it earned this distinction because:
“…nearly 300 bird species have used the lowland riparian vegetation in the Grand Valley over the last 15 years, including nearly 70 breeding species and over 70 wintering species.”
The Colorado Natural Heritage Program’s 2002 survey also identified the site as a conservation priority. Of the 21 priority habitat areas surveyed, it ranked third. These rankings are based on factors like biodiversity and wetland types.
Leveraging Expertise: Ducks Unlimited and RiversEdge West
The Society reached out to Ducks Unlimited to help plan and engineer the project. The resulting plan involves filling a portion of the property’s gravel pit ponds to make them shallower. The next step will be to install infrastructure that controls water levels to coincide with bird migrations.
The Society will fill the shallow pools when the birds fly north in the spring, then let them dry. The grasses and forbs that grow and set seed in the summer months will be an important food source in the fall.
RiversEdge West, a Grand Valley-based nonprofit working to improve riverside habitat in the Western U.S. is also providing support.
Forever Our Rivers Foundation partially funded this collaborative project. It meets the foundation’s goals of creating and protecting critical habitat types and connecting the Grand Valley community to one of its rivers, the mighty Colorado.
Building and maintaining this system will take more work, dedication, and funding. The Grand Valley Audubon Society is wisely leveraging their resources to make it happen.
“Our wetland improvement project is an ambitious undertaking for our small Audubon chapter, but one that strains our resources,” says Meredith Walker, previous Executive Coordinator for the Society and current volunteer. “We leveraged the funding and support we received from the Forever Our Rivers Foundation towards competitive applications for major grants that will help make this project a success.”
The project is also supported by Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Wetlands for Wildlife Program.
Private landowners and The Colorado West Land Trust built a coalition to protect a mile of the Uncompahgre River and 214 acres of adjacent habitat.
The Colorado West Land Trust collaborated with private landowners, Great Outdoors Colorado, and Forever Our Rivers Foundation to conserve 214 acres on a working farm. Over a mile of the Uncompahgre River runs through the property, located south of Olathe in Montrose County, Colorado. Wetlands, large cottonwood galleries and a diverse assemblage of vegetation create a mosaic of wildlife habitat types across the landscape, providing food and refuge for resident species and those that move through the area.
Bald eagles, Canadian geese, and Gambel’s quail frequent the property, and this stretch of the Uncompahgre River supports Brook trout. Since wild animals don’t respect property boundaries, they move freely between public and private lands, particularly during migration events. Islands of habitat across our mixed-used landscapes helps them find safe harbor along their journey. This one is now protected in perpetuity.
Private Landowners for Public Benefit
Preserving healthy ecosystems on private lands provides public benefit beyond supporting robust wildlife populations, as outlined by the Land Trust Alliance and the US Fish and Wildlife Service in their report Investing In Nature, The Economic Benefits of Protecting Our Lands and Waters.
For example, healthy riverside bottomlands filter rainwater as it travels downhill, allowing sediment and pollutants to settle out before each drop of rain joins the downstream current. The river then delivers that clean water to the rest of the watershed. This same process slows the flow of water during extreme weather events, mitigating flooding impacts. And all that gorgeous foliage pulls carbon out of the air and captures it in the soil and in the plants themselves.
It’s remarkable that intact natural landscapes do so much work for us free of charge. Thanks to the community spirit of the farm’s owners, this one will keep doing so for a long time yet.
Partnering for Land Protection
By partnering with a number of organizations to preserve this farmland, the Colorado West Land Trust helped ensure the project’s longterm success. Collaborative projects create a network of resources to draw from and foster a culture of collaboration where each organization roots for the others to succeed. Forever Our Rivers Foundation is certainly rooting for this project and for the groups involved.
Mary Hughes, Development Director for the Colorado West Land Trust, is routing for the foundation. “I just think it’s wonderful that people have the vision to create a funding mechanism for rivers and the habitats along them,” Hughes says.
“The generous support of Forever Our Rivers Foundation helped preserve this beautiful farm along the Uncompahgre River,” she continues. “We are really proud and pleased to be chosen for our work. And to be one of the first groups to receive funding, that was really special.”
About Colorado West Land Trust — The Colorado West Land Trust works to protect and conserve agriculture land, its rural heritage, wildlife habitat, recreational areas and scenic lands in western Colorado. The organization’s goal is to enrich lives by enabling outdoor recreation opportunities and to make space for people to connect to the land for generations. More information about the conservation of this property will be available in the Colorado West Land Trust’s annual report.
The Roaring Fork Conservancy’s science and policy work help decision-makers tackle river health issues, their education programs help every local kid take on the great outdoors.
One of the Roaring Fork Conservancy’s founding pillars is education. While the Conservancy hosts programs for adults and environmental professionals, it reserves its biggest impact for local kids. “Every student in the Roaring Fork Valley will have a meaningful experience with us before they leave eighth grade,” says Christina Medved, the Conservancy’s Director of Community Outreach. “Most of them will have multiple points of contact, even during one school year.”
The Conservancy has had audacious educational goals from the start. Their school programs reached 100,000 students during their first 20 years (1996-2016) and over 6,000 students and community members in 2018 alone.
If you’re wondering what the kids are learning the answer is anything and everything to do with rivers. Classes cover topics as diverse as snow science, watershed mapping, wildlife, water law, river ecology, and water chemistry and quality. Students learn about river science, then tie it to daily touchpoints like how river flows affect food production – making local peaches possible in July and August and growing grapes in September. Other topics, like social studies, economics, art, and math are all woven into overarching storylines about how the world runs around water.
The Conservancy has a knack for helping students connect to the material. They even made one particularly charismatic Roaring Fork Valley songbird a storybook worthy mascot. The American dipper is North America’s only aquatic songbird. Yes, it is a songbird that swims for it’s super, kind of like a flying, singing trout.
After 20 years of raising local kids to be environmental stewards, the Conservancy is seeing results. “We don’t need to have every student that goes through the program to become a scientist,” says Medved. “We need informed citizens.” But they’re certainly turning out some scientists along the way.
Dozens of children who participated in the Roaring Fork Conservancy’s programs as kids are now building environmental careers. Two of them came back to Basalt as seasonal employees along the way.
Mike Schuster worked with the Conservancy’s water quality for four summers while earning a Master’s Degree in Environmental Management at Western Colorado University. The work he did with the Conservancy helped him land a job with the City of Glenwood Springs right out of school.
Matthew Anderson attended a Conservancy course in the third grade and returned as a college student to serve as the Water Quality Program Associate for three summers. He’s now in his senior year at the University of Washington in Seattle, where he’s studying Environmental Science and Resource Management.
The Science of Outdoor Education
Natural spaces are important to children, period. Research shows that time outside helps kids learn, improving attention, self-regulation, cognitive abilities, and executive functioning. It is especially beneficial if some of this time is structured, with an adult or educator along. Young people pay attention to the adults in their lives, and if grownups care about protecting the environment, kids are likely to follow suit. Conservation professionals can often trace their career focus to a childhood spent exploring the outdoors with a trusted adult.
Medved says there is evidence that children decide what they want to do professionally by the fourth grade. If they’re not comfortable in the outdoors at that age – intimidated by spiders, ticks, bears, and sunburns like so many of us are – they may miss out on a number of exciting career paths. The Roaring Fork Conservancy is making sure they don’t miss the chance.
A River Science Education
Just steps away from the Roaring Fork, the 3,800-square-foot River Center makes it easier than ever for the Conservancy to get kids and the community outside. The nonprofit moved into the new facility in June 2018. By December, they’d hosted 700 kids there, teaching them everything from river ecology, water quality, and macroinvertebrate life cycles and adaptations, to art.
“It’s been neat because we never had programs on site before,” says Medved. Paths wrap around Old Pond Park, providing fishing, strolling and teaching opportunities. Most of the teaching goes on outside. If students can’t make it to the center, the staff brings lessons to them.
A lot goes into the Conservancy’s classroom-based or River Center educational programs including staffing, preparation time, driving time, materials. The Conservancy relies on grants and donations to help keep costs low and accessible to classrooms. Last year, Forever Our Rivers joined the cause.
“You guys become partners with us, helping students get out to explore their own watersheds,” says Medved. “Having this type of funding helps us give everyone the opportunity to have meaningful experiences with their local waterways.” Every grant they get helps kids and adults learn about river health. All together it adds up, to every single kid in the Roaring Fork Valley.
About the Roaring Fork Conservancy — The nonprofit’s mission is to protect the Roaring Fork and connect the community to its namesake river. It does so by pairing these education programs with science and policy work, including river and habitat restoration, stream management, regional watershed planning, and water resource initiatives.
To build the next generation of river stewards, RiversEdge West takes students to the Colorado River or brings a river education to the classroom.
Intro and Overview
RiversEdge West wants to promote and protect healthy riverside habitat by getting kids excited about it. Since the legendary Colorado and Gunnison Rivers run right through the nonprofit’s Mesa County home base, that means heading to the water. Taking classrooms down to stand on the sandy banks of their home rivers is a powerful recipe to create future river stewards.
“These young people will ultimately take over,” says the nonprofit’s Executive Director, Rusty Lloyd. RiversEdge West wants them to understand how rivers work and why they are important. Loyd also wants them to understand that they can help protect these wild places today and throughout their lives.
RiversEdge West has worked to restore habitat along western rivers for about fifteen years. “We’re really trying to hone in on the legacy and the stewardship of the projects we’ve been involved in,” says Lloyd. By working with professional decision-makers and practitioners, RiversEdge West helps river health today. By educating kids they’re setting rivers up for long-term success.
Educational Building Blocks
RiversEdge West worked with expert scientists and land managers to develop education programs for students of all ages, from elementary school to the university level. As a result, it’s able to tailor the materials and presentations to meet school district standards for each grade level.
Lessons can take place by the Colorado River or in the classroom. Lloyd describes the program as “connecting the community of youth to the river and integrating classroom projects with outdoor river curriculum.” Students learn about science topics, like how important healthy river flow rates are, the need for biodiversity, predator/prey relationships, and habitat health. They also learn a more foundational lesson – that individual actions make an impact.
Learning about Biological Control and Tamarisk Leaf Beetles
Students also have the opportunity to learn about biological control, also known as biocontrol. Biocontrol reduces pests species (whether plants, insects or animals) by reuniting them with a natural predator. For example, the tamarisk leaf beetle coevolved with tamarisk in Europe and Asia, where the non-native and invasive plant originates. The beetle eats the invasive plants’ leaves, stressing them and giving native plants a chance to compete.
In the spring and summer, students can practice monitoring tamarisk leaf beetle populations during riverside classroom sessions. If that sounds complicated, it’s not. It involves sweeping trees with bug nets to catch beetles and then counting them. What kid doesn’t like bug nets?
According to Cara Kukuraitis, RiversEdge West’s Outreach Coordinator, these days on the river really resonate with students. “I’ve had teachers come up to me saying that the most disengaged students were the most engaged that day,” says Kukuraitis. “It’s really cool because this one activity lets them connect to the river and the environment in a really powerful way.”
“After their first sweep or two, when they discover all the little insects and organisms living in the trees, they start to realize that this is something that they love doing,” says Kukuraitis. “You can see the progress throughout the day, from the kids being uncomfortable out there to be really comfortable and happy, which is really cool.”
But it’s not just the bugs that pull kids in. It’s understanding what weedy, invasives species can do to a river system. “When I look at kids’ faces when I show them before and after photos of a restoration project and it clicks, in that moment they realize how important this work is,” says Kukuraitis. “You see them beginning to understand the ecosystem wide-way that it alters the river.”
It Takes A Village
RiversEdge West’s education programs have many supporters, including the Xcel Energy Foundation, Alpine Bank and Forever Our Rivers Foundation. Pooling resources helps to ensure a lasting impact and Forever Our Rivers is proud of its contribution.
“Funding from Forever Our Rivers Foundation allowed RiversEdge West to expand our river education program and engage an additional 350 students to learn about the importance of our Western rivers,” says Lloyd. “This helped us accomplish a critical piece of our mission, to inspire and educate the next generation of river stewards.”