Waltzing with willows: wetland rehabilitation at its weirdest

Jon McMichael
August 22, 2018

RMFI was recently featured on KOAA News Channel 5 in a digital original. See link to full story with video here. 


(PIKES PEAK) – Here’s a question. How does one reverse years and years of damage done to a wetland that houses unique forms of life?

“The Severy Creek Basin… has been classified by the Colorado Natural Heritage Program as being within an area of outstanding biodiversity significance with many rare or imperiled plants, animals, and/or plant communities represented.”

– Rocky Mountain Field Institute (RMFI): Severy Creek Basin Analysis

The answer is pretty complicated. We’ll start with some backstory.

Pikes Peak is a popular mountain, in fact, according to pikespeak.com it is the second-most visited mountain on the planet!

And an impressive number of those visitors, hundreds of thousands according to Pikes Peak authorities, drive to the summit via the Pikes Peak Highway.

However, did you know there’s a deal of controversy surrounding the highway, specifically the highway prior to 2000?

Before the turn of the millennia, the road was unpaved, an issue many pointed towards as the cause of massive damage to the surrounding environment.

“Beginning as early as 1952, nearly a dozen reports and studies from several organizations and agencies confirmed the environmental degradation caused by the road upon the surrounding landscape and the Pikes Peak Watershed.

All of the reports agreed that the environmental impacts from the Pikes Peak Highway were a direct consequence of the highway being maintained as an unpaved road and that the lack of proper water control structures were a principal factor behind the degradation.”

– RMFI

According to the Rocky Mountain Field Institute, the “Stormwater runoff from the highway [onto] unprotected slopes,” ended up creating over 100 gullies, providing avenues to deposit sediment or “road material[s]” into the surrounding natural areas.

“… Several critical wetlands were inundated with multiple feet of sediment, threatening their natural health and function.”

– RMFI

In the late 1990s, after studies and allegations, the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against the City of Colorado Springs and the U.S. Forest Service alleging violations of the Clean Water Act in the management of the Pikes Peak Highway.

The court ruled in favor of the Sierra Club, demanding that the City and the Forest Service deal with the issues of erosion and sediment deposition in natural areas on Pikes Peak, bringing the area up to code compliance within 10 years.

The solution decided upon was the creation of a paved highway to the summit of the mountain and the installation of several “erosion control structures.”

Those structures, including drainage ditches, rock weirs, and silt fences, are monitored and reported on annually by the Forest Service.

Additionally, the settlement reached by the US District Court provided $600,000 (creating the Pikes Peak fund) to the Sierra Club to be used in restoration work outside and along with Pikes Peak highway corridor.

In 2003, the Sierra Club began a partnership with RMFI, contracting the organization to assess and begin restorative work in the affected areas.

For 15 years, RMFI has worked closely with the Forest Service and the City of Colorado Springs to “oversee erosion control and restoration work in these basins.”

This has meant years of missions into affected areas, revitalizing the land.

Recently, News5’s Jon McMichael was invited to tag along behind RMFI as the organization continued their restorative mission in one of the highly impacted basins, Severy Creek.

In keeping with this year’s focus for RMFI:

“Complete restoration of bare landscapes and wetland revegetation.”

This specific mission entailed a number of volunteers hiking shrubs (willows in this case), down into Severy Creek, for planting.

Not the first mission of its kind, but certainly an interesting one.

Volunteers, utilizing a strap contraption, carried the willows in front of them down into the valley (imagine a baseball game peanut salesman), hiked back up, and then did it again.

Then in the following days, another group hiked back down (several times) and planted those willows.

“Willows are a great species to get in there and just build it up to what it once was,” commented Jay Minton, program manager at RMFI.

Over the course of the project, over 1,200 willows were planted in the creek area.

Now  the willow hiking/planting trip is one of the last projects RMFI will be able to work on using the Pikes Peak Fund (mentioned above). 2018, is the final year; it’s been over 15 years and the money is running out.

However, for the rest of the year the group will continue to:

Create stabilization structures to further mitigate erosion in Severy Creek and impacted areas
Create micro-habitats to promote further revegetation
When the funds run out though, RMFI has no intention of ceasing their work to restore damaged portion of Pikes Peak.

According to RMFI’s executive director, Jennifer Peterson the organization plans to continue restoration work, partnered with Pikes Peak, for the foreseeable future.

Looking back at the over 15 years of work that’s been done, near the start of September, RMFI will be hosting the Pikes Peak Celebration.

“Join RMFI, the Sierra Club, US Forest Service, and City of Colorado Springs for a fun and educational tour of conservation work sites along the Pikes Peak Highway to commemorate 15 years of restoration initiatives. This event is open to the public but space is limited so please RSVP. Transportation and lunch are provided.”

Published Date: 
Wednesday, August 22, 2018