Audubon volunteers plant willows, stabilize stream banks

Members and friends of the Weminuche Audubon Society successfully planted dozens, if not hundreds, of narrowleaf willows along Mill Creek, April 18. In the wake of nearby road construction, the effort should stabilize disturbed stream banks and improve wildlife habitat.

Though adverse weather toward the end of that week threatened cancellation of the project, it turned just in time to allow nearly 20 participants to gather alongside the creek, five miles up Mill Creek Road from U.S. 84.

The group met at 9 a.m. and, after receiving procedural instructions from hydrologist Becca Smith and ecologist Sara Brinton — both of the Pagosa Ranger District of the U.S. Forest Service — cut and transplanted numerous live willows in five specific locations adversely affected by recent road realignment. Work continued until approximately 3 p.m.

Forest Service officials identified the areas in need of attention after the agency, Archuleta County and nearby residents collectively devised a 2008 plan to widen and resurface a three-mile stretch of road, portions of which are immediately adjacent to the creek. At the five sites in question, gabion boxes, or rock and wire retaining walls, were constructed to secure the roadbed, resulting in minor streamside deforestation.

By cutting existing willows, then planting them in early spring, Forest Service employees and Audubon volunteers expect them to quickly take root and grow. Given a reasonable success rate (estimated at 50 percent), they will serve to stabilize streamside soils and prevent erosion near or beneath the foot of each wall.

Of course, as the foliage fills in, it will shade exposed pools, thus cooling and improving trout and aquatic insect habitat. Terrestrial insects, myriad birds and small mammals will benefit through increased cover, while larger mammals, including elk, will enjoy an augmented food supply.

The willow planting affair was the Weminuche Audubon Society’s last of six Volunteer Days projects made possible by a generous $7,000 grant offered by TogetherGreen, last June. Announced in March 2008, TogetherGreen is an environmental alliance between the National Audubon Society and Toyota Motor Corporation. A $20 million Toyota grant — the largest Audubon has received in its 104-year history — will support TogetherGreen for five years, which, in turn, funds conservation projects, trains environmental leaders and offers volunteer opportunities to significantly benefit the environment.

All told, 242 volunteers assisted in the six TogetherGreen Events, resulting in the protection of 147 ponderosa snags as wildlife habitat; the enhancement of five riparian areas; the construction and distribution of 20 bluebird nest boxes and the building and deployment of more than two dozen winter roosting boxes. Of the grant offered, the chapter accepted $5,600, while total expenditures equaled $5,642.