We all know how important the Fraser River is to our beautiful valley. We also know that the Fraser River has suffered these past decades, both from growth and the fact that Denver Water takes 60% of the river’s water before it even reaches us.

Nevertheless, people find the most creative ways to improve the Fraser River and the life it protects and sustains. Let me give you just one recent example that involved leadership, partnerships and just good old fashion hard work.

One of the streams that feed the Fraser River is Ranch Creek. The creek flows from the Continental Divide and meanders across the Devil’s Thumb Ranch before joining the Fraser near Tabernash. Due to poor ranching practices years ago, Ranch Creek lost all its natural protection, particularly from willow plants which provide shade and help to cool the water from our intense sunlight at 8,500 feet. Loss of the willow canopy means other plants that filter and provide nutrients to Ranch Creek cannot thrive. This in turn results in water becoming warm enough to threaten the trout. The creek’s warmer water also harms the Fraser when the two bodies of water meet up. In fact, Ranch Creek is a top violator of water temperature standards set by the Water Quality Division of the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment.

Some early steps were taken by the managers of Devil’s Thumb to improve the situation. Initially they fenced off the creek so cattle would not damage plant life on or near the creek’s banks. They then partnered on a plan to replant willows along the banks to protect them from wildlife and give plants a chance to once again shade and protect Ranch Creek.

The plan to undo much of the damage done to Ranch Creek was formulated by the local Colorado chapter of Trout Unlimited, a national organization dedicated to protecting, reconnecting and restoring places people love to fish. Their goal was to plant 4,000 willows along Ranch Creek. With the permission of Devil’s Thumb, this effort started last year and was completed with a major effort this May.

This year’s activity started on May 4 when a few thousand willows were harvested and stored in Kirk Klanke’s garage for 2 weeks. Evidently, to be President of Trout Unlimited, you’re required to give up your garage space occasionally! Each willow was cut to 3-4 feet in length and cut evenly on the top and beveled on the bottom. This allows the willows to start growing roots and improves their chances to survive and thrive.

Last weekend nearly 60 volunteers participated in planting the new willows. Over 180 volunteers have helped over the last two years. The process is simple but demanding. After picking a spot, volunteers take sledgehammers and metal stakes to pound holes 1-2 feet deep. Each willow is placed in a hole and the dirt around it is packed down. This process was repeated several thousand times! I planted one willow before claiming I needed to keep focusing on capturing all aspects of this wonderful story and could do no more.

While Trout Unlimited provided most of the volunteers, several East Grand Middle Students also helped. They are members of the school’s Fly Fishing club and are led by their teachers Ross Kalsow and John Clark. Both teachers are avid fly fishermen and understand the importance to fly fishing of protecting our great waterways. I spoke with one 6th grader, Kaylee Hoover, who was working hard with her mom in the planting effort. She told me that her teachers, Ross and John, were showing her how to tie flies, make the proper casts in the school parking lot, and helping her understand why conservation efforts like this one were so important. She also told me she can’t wait for their first actual outing. What a great after-school program, and one that Ross and John told me was strongly supported both by their administration and Trout Unlimited. Trout Unlimited is also sponsoring one of the students to attend a weeklong youth conservation and fly-fishing camp this summer.

When I see this many people working this hard to achieve something this good, I think about their motivations. Protecting the environment and altruism is the most likely motivator, but we all have secondary reasons. For me, fishing is a new activity and meeting people like Kirk, Ross and John is a good way for a novice to start. For others you’re never sure.  I like the answer of one older volunteer who responded to my question about what brought him out on a Sunday. He said “I’m old, I’m fat and I’m out-of-shape. I’m hoping to work on two of those three issues!”.

The willow planting effort comes under the umbrella of a broader project called the Fraser Flats River Habitat Improvement Project. A Trout Unlimited video explains how this project brings together the Front Range (i.e., Denver) with those of us on the Western slopes, all to improve the Fraser and other Grand County rivers. Partnerships between interested parties is what will save the Fraser.  

Watch this spectacular video to learn more about this effort: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z1_BYlskWyA

Enjoy watching!

If you have comments or questions, please email me at bebarwick@gmail.com.