New wetlands taking root along Maroon Creek | AspenTimes.com

New wetlands taking root along Maroon Creek

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Nearly a century after a swath of wetlands along Maroon Creek was destroyed, Aspen is about to finish putting it back.

Volunteers will converge on seven acres along the creek bottom, next to the city golf course, on Saturday with shovels and trowels in hand. By the time the day is done, some 10,000 plantings will be taking root in the bare ground where, ironically, earth-moving equipment has been reshaping the land to erase evidence of man’s handiwork there.

“It’s one of the most spectacular restoration projects we’ve ever done,” said Stephen Ellsperman, the city’s natural resources manager, surveying the scene on Tuesday.

A series of ponds and a meandering, boulder-strewn streambed awaited the flow of unused irrigation water from the golf course. The stream will also handle runoff from the golf course parking lot and Truscott Place, helping filter out pollutants before the water reaches the creek.

What has looked like a construction site to passersby on the Maroon Creek pedestrian bridge high overhead should look like an undisturbed valley in a summer or two. For evidence, Ellsperman points to the back acre of the eight-acre parcel, where a pilot project in wetlands restoration took place two years ago.

That land is now dotted with native grasses, blue flax, willows and other natural flora. Sedges and rushes line shallow ponds where the kind of aquatic life that makes a wildlife biologist giddy are darting about.

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Wooly mullein, another native plant, has sprung up on its own.

A redwing blackbird trills from the marsh grasses, and there is evidence of a beaver in a distant pond.

But on Saturday, it will be people swarming over the site. The Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers will again provide labor for the day of planting. The collaborative project has also involved the Roaring Fork Conservancy, a watershed conservation and education group, and the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies.

The city has allocated $208,000 to the project, and the Aspen Skiing Co.’s Environmental Foundation will provide some $2,000 for interpretive signs at the site, once the restoration work is complete. A trail will lead visitors to a small overlook on the property.

The impetus for the restoration was Pitkin County’s installation of the Maroon Creek pedestrian bridge in 1996. Damage to the creekbed forced wetlands mitigation for about 24,500 square feet of riparian area.

“We looked at that whole entire site and started doing some research,” Ellsperman said. “We were able to determine what happened down here.”

Since the city-owned property lies beneath the Highway 82 bridge trestle that once carried a railroad across the gorge, plenty of historical photos of the trestle and valley bottom exist.

The land was apparently drained, leveled and put into agricultural use more than 80 years ago. It has been a potato farm, hay field and grazing land, according to Ellsperman. More recently came an invasion of noxious weeds.

“Almost a whole acre in the back was just thistle alone,” he said.

It made for poor habitat, wildlife sampling indicated.

With the help of Pitkin County wildlife biologist Jonathan Lowsky, a survey of wildlife on the property was conducted before the trial restoration. “There just wasn’t anything living there,” Lowsky said.

One hundred live traps for small mammals, set for three nights, caught a total of six deer mice – a tally Lowsky termed “ridiculous.”

By comparison, an identical trapping effort on the nearby Moore Open Space produced more than 100 animals of seven different species, he said.

The difference is a degraded habitat vs. one of high quality, according to Lowsky. There wasn’t much to attract animals to the former agricultural land along the creek.

“The only plants that lived there were non-native pasture grasses, thistle and other noxious weeds,” he said.

To determine how to replant the site, Ellsperman looked at other, undisturbed areas of the creek valley nearby.

“We were able to identify what was really native to the area,” he said.

Then, Ellsperman and his colleagues went a step further, taking cuttings from trees, collecting seeds and contracting with a nursery to grow the stock of plants that are being used to revegetate the area.

“We’re absolutely certain we’re not bringing anything non-native back in,” he said. “It’s genetically identical to the site.”

Once Saturday’s planting is complete, the rest of the naked landscape will be reseeded.

Then, the real expert will step in.

“Eventually, Mother Nature takes over and puts things where they belong,” Ellsperman said.

Anyone interested in helping out with the restoration on Saturday should contact Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers at 927-8241 or e-mail the organization at rfov@sopris.net.

[Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com.]