The Crestone Eagle • August, 2020

Baca National Wildlife Refuge expands its boundaries: a win for riparian habitat restoration

by Zaylah Pearson-Good

The Baca National Wildlife Refuge (Refuge) has just expanded its area by another 150 acres, leading to the increased protection of critical wildlife habitat near the town of Crestone. After nearly five years of negotiating a purchase with the previous owner, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) officially acquired the important new land parcel in early June. The significance of the purchase does not simply lie in added acreage protected, but instead is found in the ecological value of the threatened terrain. Nearly 0.6 river miles of North Crestone Creek winds through the property, feeding sensitive riparian habitat both on and beyond the parcel boundary, as well as supporting riparian-dependent species, such as yellow warblers and the Lewis’ Woodpecker.

As water use continues to exceed recharge in the valley, the volume and longevity of local creek flow has decreased, and water-loving vegetation, such as our local willow and cottonwood trees, has suffered. This is why protecting these sensitive riparian habitats has become a high management priority for the Refuge. Baca Wildlife Refuge Manager Ron Garcia expresses that the most exciting promise of the new land acquisition is the potential it presents for restoring riparian habitats on both the new land and on portions of the Refuge downstream.

Located just upstream of the Baca Refuge, the parcel grants easier access and flexibility for managing the flow and path of waters from North Crestone Creek as it wanders onto the Refuge. While the USFWS acquired water rights to the parcel’s section of North Crestone Creek during the initial purchase of the Baca Refuge, they can now access, manage and utilize the precious water supply with greater success. Under USFWS management, riparian zones will be restored and enhanced by irrigating wet meadows immediately adjacent to the creek. This process allows water to slowly seep into and hydrate the sensitive riparian habitats on the sensitive and thirsty landscape.

Garcia laments, “Things are changing.” If we had the quantity of water that we once did in the valley, there would be no need to irrigate these areas. Water used to stay on the surface for longer periods of time and could cover larger stretches of land. However, drought has forced managers to take extra action in protecting both wetlands and riparian habitats, and therefore, they must strategically manage water so to replicate a once-healthy water table.

To maintain healthy and sustainable habitats on the new land parcel, an extensive understanding of the land’s history (pre- and post-settlement), hydrology, topography, and biology is required. Garcia admits that he has yet to fully uncover the ecological value and management needs of the newly purchased land. Therefore, his priority is to develop an assessment team to survey the landscape. First, they will need to identify/define the land’s habitat types, habitat structure, and condition with a biological survey. Then, an invasive species assessment will be conducted, which will help to determine how to promote the health of native species. Finally, a detailed topographical survey will show how water moves, or can move, across the landscape; this will help mangers determine how to effectively move water to benefit riparian plant species. Combined, these assessments will provide a basis for the creation of an informed habitat restoration plan that will ideally lead to a healthier, more productive system.

Although towering cottonwoods line the channel, grassy meadows are a-sprout, and much life abounds on the new parcel. An initial “clean up” of the land will be USFWS’s first task. Garcia notes that many invasive species and dead debris will need to be cleared from the land. He is mindful during these clearing phases, however, to always leave enough material for habitat, or as he jokingly calls “rabbitat.” This includes nesting holes within standing, dead trees for swallows, woodpeckers and kestrels, and also some dried grasses and fallen logs for small rodents, rabbits, and other nesting birds.

Garcia offers some important insight to the community: At first, “management can be ugly.” When you disturb and clear out an area it may initially look barren, lifeless, and disturbing. If you are patient, a properly managed area will present as healthier and more productive, a management strategy that emulates the natural process of fire. To help the community understand the potential benefits of thoughtful mitigation and debris clearing, Garcia mentions interest in providing educational opportunities on the new land for how to effectively restore a landscape through mitigation.

Conveniently nestled between the Baca Refuge Visitor Center, the town of Crestone, the Crestone Charter School, the Baca Grande subdivision, and Colorado College, this new land allows for unique connections. While the USFWS’s sole mandate is wildlife, they are always looking for ways to include the public in conservation, history, and wilderness appreciation. With help from Eastern San Luis Valley Trails, a non-motorized trail network may soon connect the Refuge to the town, two schools, and the subdivision. The new land could be key to linking the trail to the Baca Grande subdivision and to the town of Crestone. Because parts of the trail would briefly border sensitive riparian habitats, assessments must be completed to ensure that there would be no significant negative impacts to vulnerable species, natural processes and the overall environment of the area.  Steps would be taken to ensure that a proposed trail would be designed and managed to be compatible with the wildlife and habitat purposes of the property.

Additionally, the new land parcel holds a unique history. For example, it was home to a golf course in the early 1900s! Garcia sees amazing educational opportunities with a potential new trail. By teaming up with organizations such as the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area, much of the area’s rich history may be easily interpreted and presented to the public during a hike. A proposed trail would be managed as an extension of the “Baca Nature and Heritage Trail” currently being constructed near the Refuge visitor center.

Ron remarks that the new land acquisition holds “exciting potential for wildlife and recreation.” The USFWS is grateful that they were able to acquire and protect the new land, which was considered highly threatened due to its development potential. They are also grateful to its prior owner, the Jamie Ireland Estate, for their willingness and desire to have the land become part of the Baca Wildlife Refuge. As a community, we can rest assured that we won’t be seeing any 7-Elevens or Dollar Generals popping up along the last stretch of County Rd. T as you enter Crestone. Instead, we can rejoice in knowing that critical and sensitive habitats will be looked after with care, and that one day soon, the community will be welcomed to enjoy this gorgeous stretch of land.