Waldo Canyon Willow Propagation

In 2016, RMFI began a new willow propagation project in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service with the goal of facilitating resiliency in critical riparian areas.
Harvesting willow cuttings from the Crowe Gulch Picnic Area off the Pikes Peak Highway.

The Waldo Canyon Fire burned over 18,000 acres west of Colorado Springs in 2012. The fire affected 4 major watersheds in and around Colorado Springs: Fountain Creek, Camp Creek, Douglas Creek, and Monument Creek. Approximately 41% of the area burned (7,586 acres) was classified as low severity burn, 40% (7,286 acres) was classified as moderate severity, and 19% (3,375 acres) was classified as high severity burn. Of the lands burned, approximately 14,422 acres (79%) were located within the National Forest System, 3,678 acres (20%) were on private lands, and 147 acres (<1%) were on Department of Defense lands. Riparian areas provide critical ecosystem services. Riparian vegetation including grasses, forbs, and woody plants growing along the edges of ephemeral and perennial drainages is critical for controlling erosion, improving water quality, and providing habitat. Willows are among the most common woody plants found in riparian areas. They are an important source of food and cover for wildlife and their roots help stabilize streambanks minimizing wind and water erosion.

As a result of the Waldo Canyon Fire, a substantial amount of riparian vegetation was lost, which has significantly impacted erosion rates and watershed health. Even before the fire, the drainage riparian areas were in decline as the willows and aspen were being encroached on by later successional evergreens after years of lack of natural fire process. Willows are commonly used in a number of recovery and resiliency initiatives including post-fire conditions. Traditional methods involve strategic harvesting of dormant willow stems from vigorous healthy willows. Dormant cuttings are then driven into the ground, where they will sprout shoots and roots during the growing season. Once established, willow cuttings form a web of fibrous roots that can provide highly effectively soil stabilization. Survival of willow cuttings depends on a number of different factors. Low survival rates of stakes are often observed in areas where the water table fluctuates resulting in poor soil moisture during the growing period. Monitoring of willow transplants in the Hayman and Waldo Canyon burn scars has revealed an estimated 10% survival rate.

RMFI’s willow propagation project seeks to maximize survival rates and accelerate watershed resiliency by growing dormant willow cuttings in pots in a nursery through the winter months. This approach allows the cuttings time to establish a resilient root structure that should increase survival rates when transplanted on site.

In January 2016, RMFI staff along with U.S. Forest Service personnel harvested approximately 300 willow cuttings from the Crowe Gulch Picnic Area off the Pikes Peak Highway. The cuttings were shipped to the Charles E. Bessey Nursery in Halsey, Nebraska where the cuttings were propagated into approximately 1,000 willow plants. The plants were tended to for nearly 4 months to allow their root structures to adequately develop and mature. Over the Memorial Day weekend, the plants were trucked back to Colorado Springs for planting.

On May 31, 2016, RMFI staff along with members of the Mile High Youth Corps, U.S. Forest Service personnel, and community volunteers transported the willows from the staging area off of Rampart Range Road to the planting area within the Camp Creek drainage of the Waldo Canyon burn scar. Approximately 200 willows were planted within the drainage on this day. Mile High Youth Corps crews completed planting the next day, and spent an additional 2.5 weeks in the burn scar completing complementary erosion control and stabilization work to enhance watershed health and function.

Stay tuned as we will be monitoring the effectiveness of this project well into 2017 and beyond. And, we are excited to announce the Colorado Water Conservation Board will be supporting an expansion of our willow propagation program in the Waldo Canyon Burn Scar in 2017-2018.

Many thanks to the generous funders of this program, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the Pikes Peak Community Foundation, and the Waldo Waldo, Inc.