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  • Dylan Anderson

The Yampa Valley Sustainability Council planted more than 5,000 trees in Routt County this year

More than 3,000 trees were planted on the Muddy Slide Fire’s burn scar with another 2,000 of them being planted in riparian areas along the Yampa River and Elkhead Creek.

At first glance, it doesn’t seem to be the best spot to plant a tree.

The soil is sandy and filled with large river rocks — many exceeding the 10-inch diameter needed to gain the moniker of boulder. The area, a clearing along the Yampa River at the Carpenter Ranch near Hayden, floods each spring, with the powerful force of runoff often shifting these large rocks around the river bottom.

“We expect this to flood, we have really good snowmelt here,” said Nate Stewart, a professor in sustainability studies and ecosystem science at Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs. “They love this as cottonwoods. … It is a-okay that the soil is this rocky.”

Stewart was a volunteer team leader at one of this year’s ReTree events put on by the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council, the 14th year of the community tree planting. The cottonwood Stewart planted along the Yampa River that Saturday morning was one of more than 5,000 that YVSC has planted across the Yampa Valley this year.

“Trees in ground is roughly 5,000,” said Ryan Messinger, YVSC Natural Climate Solutions Project Manager. “That’s crazy,” he added almost surprised at the number of trees himself.

Nate Stewart, a professor in sustainability studies and ecosystem science at Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs, demonstrates how to plant a cottonwood tree in rocky soil along the Yampa River at the Carpenter Ranch in October. (Dylan Anderson/The Yampa Valley Bugle)

The 5,000 trees — 5,175 trees to be precise — were planted across nine different events in recent months. About 3,150 lodgepole pine seedlings were planted on the Muddy Slide Fire burn scar in South Routt County and the rest were planted in riparian areas along the Yampa River or Elkhead Creek. Planting occurred with a variety of partners including the city of Steamboat Springs, Trout Unlimited, Yampa Valley High School and several private landowners in different parts of Routt County.

The Muddy Slide Fire burned more than 4,000 acres in 2021, mostly in the Routt National Forest in the Morrison Creek Valley to the south of Stagecoach. Messinger said volunteers planted about 1,000 trees on each of the three days for those plantings. Lodgepole pine are often the first trees planted after a fire because seedlings perform well when the forest floor is clear and there is lots of sunshine through an open canopy.

A recent shift with tree planting efforts has been to target planting on private land, and several of this year's projects were in partnership with landowners.

Volunteers with the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council's Climate Crew planted 1,300 willows on private land along Elkhead Creek, a project that has the support of every landowner along the channel. (Dylan Anderson/The Yampa Valley Bugle)

The first of two ReTree events added about 190 cottonwoods along the Yampa River on private land near Routt County Road 22 south of Steamboat. The second ReTree added 155 cottonwoods to the Carpenter Ranch, which is owned by The Nature Conservancy.

“We’re really seeking out opportunities to plant on private property, which is really important in Northwest Colorado because half of our lands are privately owned,” said Michelle Stewart, executive director of the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council. “The Yampa River Forest Restoration program was on city plots. … We have kind of capitalized on those city lands, so now it’s like, how do we maintain and increase reforestation along the Yampa? Now we need to move on to the private properties, both upstream and moving downstream too.”

At the final planting last weekend, volunteers planted about 1,300 trees on private property along Elkhead Creek, with most of those being willow stakes spliced from native trees already on the property. Willows have an evolutionary trait that allows a cutting to sprout new roots by simply soaking it in water. The stakes are planted in 18-inch deep holes created by simply sticking rebar into the ground and pulling it out.

Willow stakes are simply a cutting of willow from another tree, but because of an evolutionary trait, these trees can easily grow roots from a simple cutting. (Dylan Anderson/The Yampa Valley Bugle) The planting along Elkhead is part of a larger restoration project in partnership with every landowner along the channel.

“All the landowners from Elkhead reservoir … all the way down to the confluence with the Yampa River have signed a letter stating their willingness to participate in riparian restoration,” Messenger said. “This whole stretch of (Elkhead Creek) as it makes its way down over the years is going to be revegetated, the banks will be worked on and it will turn into some really healthy riparian habitat.”

This was the third year of planting along Elkhead, and that will continue next year as well. Messinger said Trout Unlimited is the leader of that project, which hopes to stabilize the river banks, reduce sediment and improve water quality among other benefits.

“It reduces sedimentation of the river, so it improves water quality,” said Ian Wilson, Trout Unlimited’s White and Yampa Rivers Project Manager, referring to the benefits of the work along Elkhead. “It provides shade, which cools the river. Shade is also critical for cover for Trout too, for protection from predators.”

Cottonwood trees planted along the Yampa River at the Carpenter Ranch fill a gap in the canopy created by river restoration work in the area. (Dylan Anderson/The Yampa Valley Bugle)


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