A good overview article in The Mountain Mail printed December 30, 2015 and accompanying op ed published January 4, 2016.
The Salida Trail Ecological Restoration 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 to a cooperative habitat-restoration project involving the City of Salida, Salida-area Parks, Open-space and Trails, Greater Arkansas River Nature Association, 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. The project has won an award from Audubon Rockies and been recognized by The Nature Conservancy as a model for habitat restoration.
Unlike 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 out-competing 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 for over 175 Salida School District students each year
- Giving volunteers involved in the trail training in 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 sweet clover, 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 water 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 and Recognition
Last year, the Salida Trail Ecological Restoration Project was given the Habitat Hero Award by Audubon Rockies, which lauded the “visionary” nature of the project as model for restoring songbird and pollinator habitat along 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 Monarch Spur Trail Restoration 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. The Project is also attracting interest of from researchers and other communities: In the past two 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 20015, 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.
The Salida Trail Ecological Restoration Project 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.