Kevin Parks has many wonderful memories of growing up along the North Fork of the Gunnison. He enjoys recalling a time when game and migratory birds could be found all along the river corridor, and, in particular, on one piece of river-front property that has remained in his family for generations.
"The wetlands was a magical place when I was a kid and it wasn't all overgrown with cattails and mosquito-breeding spots," said the fourth-generation Delta County resident and third-generation State Farm Insurance agent on a recent visit to the parcel which he and wife Jackie own. An adjacent 20 acres to the east and above the river also remains in the Parks family.
The land, said Parks, was said to once be a location for Native American powwows.
"We inherited it from my great-grandparents, then my grandma, then my dad. Now I'm taking care of it," said Parks.
In taking care of the largely undeveloped land, Parks said his desire is to leave the property in better shape than when he received it.
From the late 1950s until the early 1970s, the property — located at Midway on the south side of Highway 133 — operated as a gravel pit. Years of excavation resulted in changes in water patterns across the property, that changed the wetlands from how Parks remembered them. After the gravel pits closed, much of the land was dried up. Where water pools, the land is now thick with reeds and cattails.
With the natural drainage patterns drastically altered, the wetlands became mosquito-breeding grounds and waterfowl and other wildlife numbers diminished, said Parks.
Parks has been given an opportunity to turn back time and return the land, or much of it, to a more natural wetlands state through a program offered under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife. Called Partners for Fish & Wildlife, the program connects the USFWS with willing and qualifying landowners to improve wildlife habitat on their land.
Parks first heard of Partners through friend and fellow hunter, Kevin Doerk, who leases one of the Parks ponds for his duck hunting business. Doerk learned about the program through his association with Ducks Unlimited and had a similar project completed on his own property on Lamborn Mesa.
While there are many types of restoration projects offered, Partners focuses much of its energy on wetlands and riparian (river and stream bank) restoration, said Rick Schnaderbeck, a wildlife biologist with the USFWS and the assistant state coordinator for Partners.
Excavation work, set to begin in early January, will eliminate a ditch and old levee spoil on the Parks land, enhance existing ponds created by gravel mining, smooth out some of the land and create two islands. The creation of islands, said Parks, pointing to an area that will be raised through excavation, will improve habitat for game birds like the pheasant, which prefer a combination of grassland and wetland, and for the deer and elk that winter along the North Fork bottomlands.
In the last 100 or more years, Colorado has lost 50 percent of its wetlands, said Schnaderbeck. Of the remaining wetlands, 75 percent is located on private lands.
The North Fork "has a lot of potential for wetlands," said Schnaderbeck, and the Parks parcel is perfect for the program. "It's really cool that Kevin's willing to do this . . . He has a sincere love for wildlife and natural resources, so it's a real positive project."
While there is a great deal of potential for restoration projects in Delta County, not all lands qualify under the program, said Schnaderbeck. The most effective wetlands are six inches deep or less, "not much unlike irrigation lands," receive a steady stream of fresh water, and are no longer used for grazing. The goal is to create shelter and breeding grounds for invertebrates such as dragonflies, mayflies and shrimp, as well as frogs and salamanders and other food sources, in order to attract a variety of birds throughout the year.
"Build a habitat and it's amazing what happens," said Schnaderbeck.
Schnaderbeck said he has turned down projects in the area due to grade steepness that won't allow water to pool at the right depths. "I get a lot of requests for fish and duck ponds, and we don't do those," added Schnaderbeck. Ponds are too deep to provide habitat, "and result in nothing but a bathtub ring."
The Parks project will turn approximately three acres of existing wetland into 12 acres, said Parks. The land also includes cottonwood stands, which, according to Schnaderbeck, are being lost throughout the state at an alarming rate. "We're only losing one cottonwood in the operation," said Parks.
Once the project is complete, the cottonwoods can begin to renew themselves.
Cottonwoods offer a tremendous amount of habitat, and Schnaderbeck takes their preservation seriously. "The face of Colorado is slowly changing as habitat is lost," said Schnaderbeck, who estimates that, if something isn't done now, most of the "cottonwood galleries" and the habitat they provide will be gone in about 50 years. For the existing galleries to be saved, the land needs a good 10 years of rest and freedom from grazing in order for root suckers to take hold.
One such gallery on the Parks property is host to a Great Blue Heron rookery. Since the long-legged migratory bird feeds mostly in marsh lands and riparian areas, the project could attract more herons over time.
Wetlands can also provide breeding grounds for mosquitoes, and that is a big issue for Parks, who is currently president of the North Fork Mosquito Abatement District. Parks completed a mosquito mitigation project on the land in 2005; in 2006, he was infected with the mosquito-born West Nile disease.
"We expect to be able to keep the mosquito problem under control based upon some things we learned" from area landowners, said Parks, who will continue to patrol the property for mosquito larvae and take steps to control them.
Schnaderbeck said the approval process starts with a meeting with the landowner and a site visit to determine if the land meets basic criteria. It helps to get a feel for the overall viability and cost-to-benefit ratio of the project. Cost efficiency is important, said Schnaderbeck
If the project is deemed viable, a survey is completed and a topographic map of the land created in order to find the flattest spot for wetlands and to determine where excavation is needed. The less excavation needed, the more viable the project.
Landowners must buy in to the project and commit to the overall cost. With the Parks project, the FWS will spend about $22,000, with the Parks family contributing more than $20,000 over the next 10 years as part of their "cost share." Cost share can be paid in many ways, including upkeep of the property, weed control, or providing irrigation water, said Schnaderbeck.
According to the USFWS "Colorado Partners" home page, the program's focus on the Gunnison River drainage area has resulted in agreements with more than 22 landowners, and restoration of 561 acres of wet meadows, 838 acres of upland habitat, and 4.5 miles of riparian (river-front) habitat. Partners works with other organizations, including the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, Great Outdoors Colorado, the Colorado Division of Wildlife, Ducks Unlimited, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and local conservation groups to obtain funding. But the best resource in making these projects a success is a willing landowner, said Schnaderbeck, who is considering other similar projects between Hotchkiss and Paonia.
Funds are tight these days and Partners is very focused on projects it knows will be successful, said Schnaderbeck. "We really pinch our dollars and we're really proud of it."
Parks hopes his project and others like it will result in greater hunting opportunities in the valley. "I know most of the Paonia and Hotchkiss kids who hunted throughout the 50s and 60s and 70s would walk all the way from Hotchkiss to Paonia along the river and nobody would mind a thing," he said, although he stresses that he is not creating a hunting preserve.
"It's selfish," he said, but he wants himself and all of his hunting buddies to have more opportunities to hunt along the North Fork corridor, "like I did back in the 60s."blog comments powered by Disqus