Sunday, May 9, is our ninth annual Valley Floor Day celebrating the successful extended-community effort to raise $50 million to protect the Valley Floor as open space in perpetuity. It was a monumental effort. There was opposition. There was doubt. Ultimately, strength in numbers prevailed through 1,700 donors.
Nine years is a tiny blip in the natural progression of ecosystems, yet we’ve seen many changes, good and bad, on the Valley Floor. Prairie dogs seemed to overtake large sections of uplands, and non-native weeds are spreading from waterways and wind dispersal. Then the predators arrived. Badgers, coyotes and raptors returned after years of absence. The prairie dog population diminished and disbursed. Meanwhile, the prairie dogs are hard-working gardeners, tending the vegetation around their burrows. Did the prairie dogs keep the spread of non-native weeds under control? The spread of these invasive plants, including Canada thistle, yellow toadflax and oxeye daisy, continues. The town is working on an integrative approach to reduce the populations of these species, prevent their spread and encourage native vegetation. The program will avoid chemical treatments, instead using insects, fungus, hand and mechanical mowing and pulling, and an experimental biodynamic spray. Experts have learned that a single approach does not work. A diverse strategy will see more success.
Restoration and reclamation projects require ongoing monitoring to ensure long-term environmental benefits. Scientists and local students are gathering information that will instruct a more informed view of this dynamic ecosystem. Weather and climate data is submitted to MesoWest, a University of Utah NOAA affiliate program. Ground and surface water and vegetation and wildlife data are being collected and will be analyzed over the long term to look for trends. Recreational uses are being monitored to ensure human access is not damaging the environment. A photographic record of the Valley Floor is being established. Over time, we will see change, a damaged ecosystem repairing itself at the wonderfully slow pace of nature. As we observe and listen to the land, we’ll learn and make more informed management decisions.
Many of us feel that if left alone the land would eventually become a more functioning ecosystem. It might take 100 years. We don’t have the boundless patience of nature, so we will lend a hand. Since last fall, the old spring-fed sewer lagoons north of Entrada have been transformed into a more natural pond habitat. This summer the river channel will be restored to a historic meander, starting just west of Entrada, rejoining the current channel just before Boomerang Bridge. Environmental engineers and hydrologists studied the historic channels and found one that had the most river-bed material, making it the most viable as a new channel and allowing the least disruption during the three-month construction process. We are using the existing environment, scientific knowledge of hydrology and riparian systems, and historic photos to ensure that the environment guides us and that we don’t force our designs upon it.
In the short term, it won’t be pretty. It will look as though we’re destroying something, but the river will spread new life with time. This section of the San Miguel will once again flow through a natural flood plain — storing water during high flows, then slowly and naturally releasing those flows downstream. Riparian vegetation will improve; aquatic diversity will increase; the new channel will be about 40 percent longer, extending its ecological services to more habitat and wildlife.
Biodiversity — the number of species of plants, animals and microorganisms — is critical to a healthy ecosystem. The Valley Floor was managed for decades to accommodate human uses. Starting in 2007, when the town acquired the property, it has been managed to minimize human disturbance. Citizen observation tells us that the number of species has increased. Experience tells us biodiversity will increase with the river restoration.
In order for the town to protect the Valley Floor as open space forever, our diversely opinionated community came together and achieved what many believed to be impossible. We were successful because we listened to each other and were able to look past our immediate wants toward the future needs of both people and land. Biodiversity is strength in numbers. It leads to a healthy ecosystem. Likewise, when we come together, listen to each other, observe our differences and seek solutions, we can create a healthy community too.
As always, we urge you to get out and enjoy the Valley Floor this week. Watch, listen, be still and embrace the wisdom the land imparts.