Growing new willows and cottonwoods for the riparian zone in the Yampa Valley |

Growing new willows and cottonwoods for the riparian zone in the Yampa Valley

Bill Chace of Riverkeeper brings the tip of a young narrowleaf cottonwood branch — last year’s new growth — in clipping range for Christine Shook of the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Steamboat Springs in late March. The cottonwood cuttings, and more like it, will be taken to a Colorado State Forest nursery to root, then returned to the valley to be potted and ultimately re-planted in another location along the river after it has gone dormant in the fall.
Courtesy Ken Proper

— In late March, when snow still covered the Elk River bottoms, a group of conservation volunteers set out to corral a couple of the natives and propagate them. Don’t worry, their intentions were good.

The clinic, held on the Taylor Ranch on the lower Elk, was an exercise in building up the stock of native shrubs available for replanting in the narrow riparian zone along rivers in the region.

Bill Chace, who operates Riverkeeper, a stream restoration business, said the exercise was undertaken with the cooperation of the Colorado State Forest Service in an effort to expand on its own nursery where the shrubs that thrive along rivers and streams are grown.

Those shrubs and trees play a vital role in the web of life in the riparian zone, which together with other forms of wetlands, provide habitat during the year to 75 percent of plant and animal species in the state, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

Chace said human efforts to constrain rivers and streams, which have a natural tendency to meander over time, have reduced the ability of watercourses to regenerate the shrubs that shelter many species of songbirds, he said. And the leaves, which fall from the shrubs and decay in the water, provide food for creatures at the base of the riverine food chain.

“In the past, local restoration efforts have relied on the seedling program of the State Forest Service,” Chace said. “Recently, local volunteers approached Joshua Stolz, the CSFS nursery manager, to discuss the potential to harvest (cuttings from) specific indigenous riparian trees and shrubs that could then be rooted by the nursery and returned to the Elk and Yampa river basins for use in riparian restoration efforts.”

Stolz was enthusiastic about the plan, and local Colorado Parks and Wildlife Fisheries Biologist Billy Atkinson threw his support behind the effort. Also involved were Sarah Jones of the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council, with its Re-Tree Steamboat effort, Jackie Brown, Upper Yampa Watershed coordinator, Christine Shook of the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Laine O’Neal, the national meet-up coordinator of “Sisters on the Fly,” an outdoor adventure group for women.

All of the phases of the project are being documented by Steamboat photographer Ken Proper.

The Colorado State Forest Service’s field supervisor, Orion Aon, and Steamboat office manager Carolin Manriquez joined the group on the Elk River as they clipped the tips of two species, the narrow leaf cottonwood and whiplash willow.

The cuttings will be rooted in the nursery in Fort Collins, Chace said, then returned to individual or groups who have ordered them. They in turn will pot them and irrigate them over the summer until they go dormant in mid-September when the willows will be planted in specified sites along the river.

“We already have numerous private and public lands that are available for cutting donations,” Chace said.

Also this fall, seeds will be collected from more species that cannot be raised from cuttings. They include alders, hawthorns and box elder.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1

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