Trees + volunteers = lower river temperatures
On July 6, I dropped my son off at Backdoor Sports to meet up with his soccer camp to go tubing on the Yampa River. It was scorching hot and I was a little envious that he was going to be on the water while I went back to work. As we waited for the kids to get their big, bright yellow tubes, life jackets and water shoes, I chatted with Backdoor Sports owner Pete Van De Carr about the low river level and asked him how long he thought the Yampa would stay open this year.
“Another week,” was Van De Carr’s grim response, as both an avid river runner and a small business owner looking at a premature end to the tubing season.
It’s a good thing my son got to check tubing off his summer bucket list that day. On July 9, just a few days later, I was surprised to see signs announcing the closure of the river.
It had been a hot and dry summer already, and the water level of the Yampa had fallen to 90 cubic feet per second (cfs) (The long-term average for July 9 is 300 cfs). When the river is really low, the water heats up and that can stress fish and other aquatic wildlife that are adapted to live in the Yampa’s cold-water ecosystem. With new real-time temperature data at the 5th Street Bridge, the City of Steamboat Springs can now monitor when river temperatures are exceeding the State’s acute standard for aquatic life to determine when closure is necessary. According to Kelly Romero-Heaney, the City’s Water Resources Manager, the river has closed five of the last 10 years, and this year’s closure was 54 days earlier than in 2017.
Romero-Heaney played a key role in developing the recently-released Yampa River Streamflow Management Plan for the nine-mile stretch of the Yampa in Steamboat Springs. The plan identified two ways to tackle rising river temperatures: add more water and plant more trees. Since adding water can be costly and dependent on supply, planting trees is a key part of the long-term solution, especially as drought and higher summer temperatures become the new normal as a result of climate change.
“When you lose your riparian vegetation, your river forest, and the canopy cover with cottonwood trees, the sun can beat down on the water and really warm it up. If we want to prepare the Yampa River for climate change, we need to restore the cottonwood forest that was once here to help protect the river and the wildlife it sustains.”Romero-Heaney
Restoring the cottonwoods and the riparian habitat along the Yampa is part of the City’s Streamflow Management Plan, and Yampa Valley Sustainability Council (YVSC) is excited to contribute our nine years of tree planting and volunteer coordination experience to this local climate action strategy. Since 2010, through the ReTree Steamboat program, YVSC has engaged more than 3,000 volunteers ages 2 -72 to plant, steward, monitor and map 25,950 trees at more than 10 sites throughout Routt and Moffat County.
On June 26, 2010, the inaugural ReTree event, more than 300 volunteers planted 14,000 lodgepole and blue spruce at five locations throughout Routt County in just one day. The incredible success of the first ReTree event inspired YVSC to foster its continuation. In its early years, the ReTree program was focused on responding to the mountain pine beetle epidemic, which hit our region full force. More than one million acres of forest in Northern Colorado and Southern Wyoming were impacted. The beetles killed nearly all of the mature lodgepole pine trees, affecting watersheds, timber production, wildlife habitat, recreation, scenic vistas and tourism.
Over the past several years, as upland forests have recovered, in part thanks to ReTree, the program’s focus has shifted to restoring riparian forests. Since 2011, YVSC has partnered with Colorado State Forest Service (CSFS) to target priority reforestation areas, such as riparian habitat. CSFS has also helped YVSC improve the survival rates of seedlings by teaching volunteers proper tree planting techniques and engaging youth to steward the newly-planted trees. For the past four years, YVSC has partnered with Colorado Parks and Wildlife on a multiphase project to restore the riparian habitat of Chuck Lewis State Wildlife Area. This hidden gem, just south of Steamboat Springs, is prime habitat for native fish and other wildlife.
Recently, YVSC embarked on another project that is conserving riparian habitat. Instead of adding trees, the organization is working to protect existing cottonwoods along the Yampa river. Through the new beaver mitigation project, priority beaver browsing areas were identified along the riverbanks in the City of Steamboat Springs, and volunteers fenced the seedlings to deter these big-toothed lumberjacks. By preventing the damage beavers can cause, YVSC is giving smaller trees a chance to grow into towering, shade-giving river guardians.
This ongoing involvement in the lifecycle of trees is especially unique for a tree-planting project, and YVSC has received accolades from the national Arbor Day Foundation for the organization’s work to engage volunteers. Each year, ReTree engages more than 200 volunteers of all ages in the potting, planting and long-term care of trees.
“ReTree has helped connect people with the forest that we live in, and the value of that connection is even greater than the benefit of all those trees that have been planted. Planting a tree is such a selfless act, a gift to our collective future, and it is cool to see that being shared by so many people, young and old. Natural resource stewardship becomes less of an abstract ideal when you get some dirt under your fingernails,” commented Forester John Twitchell of CSFS.
Every summer, local youth from programs like Service Learning Corps and Totally Kids water, fence, monitor and map ReTree seedlings. It’s hot, dusty and physically challenging work, but it has made a real difference in the survival rates of the trees and is giving students a stake in the future health of our environment. YVSC often hears from students that they look forward to coming back to visit “their” trees in the future to see how much they’ve grown.
“I keep doing ReTree every year because it’s a chance to have fun with my friends and make a difference in the community. I’m excited to come back when I’m older to see all the trees I’ve planted and how I’ve improved the environment in Steamboat.”Delaney Johnson, a three-year ReTree participant.
It is this aspect of ReTree that gives me hope as we start to come to grips with climate impacts locally. Climate change can be such a daunting idea. It is hard to know where to begin in the fight to stop it or slow its progress. But ReTree has fostered a whole contingent of loyal and passionate tree planters who participate year after year. They are taking concrete action to improve our forests and doing something tangible to mitigate the effects of climate change that appear to be here to stay: shorter winters, earlier spring run-off, and hotter, drier summers. These young conservationists are ready to roll up their sleeves and dig in to plant a tree—preserving the spectacular environment that makes the Yampa Valley home.