Plant a willow – help a river

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help harvest and plant willows

by Kirk Klancke
Colorado River Headwaters Chapter of Trout Unlimited

Rivers need willows just as much as willows need rivers. Their relationship is one of reciprocity that is found commonly in the balance of nature. It’s obvious that willows are thirsty plants and gain much from their close proximity to rivers. It’s amazing how much they do for the river in exchange for its life giving liquid.

Willows are part of the wetlands plants growing on both sides of rivers and streams. These wetlands plants are called the riparian zone. Only 3% of the land mass in Colorado is riparian but 90% of Colorado’s wildlife rely on these important plants. One of the willows most important functions is to grow tall to provide a protective canopy for the other wetlands plants in the riparian zone. A healthy river can’t exist without a healthy riparian zone. These wetlands plants are the filter that keep soils from migrating into the river and filling the rocky bottom with silt. Willows also provide shade for our headwaters rivers which at times see temperatures too high to sustain cold water fish like trout. Willows also send down deep roots that hold a stream bank together and allow the flow of water to create undercut banks that provide excellent fish habitat. They give all this service to a river that in turn makes sure that they are never thirsty.

Outdated ranching practices in Grand County allowed cattle to roam freely in the river and riparian zone. This resulted in the flash grazing of the wetlands plants which have disappeared in some stream reaches here in our county. With the disappearance of the willows came the trampling of stream banks that were no longer held together by the willows deep roots. The result of this was the loss of trout habitat and a diminished fishery.

Today’s ranchers fence their cattle away from the rivers and streams and allow them occasional access points so that they can drink. Unfortunately, years of allowing cattle to roam freely in streams has led to poor riparian health in many stream reaches here in the county. To help jumpstart the recovery of the wetlands plants, the Colorado River Headwaters Chapter of Trout Unlimited plants willows every spring. We spend one day harvesting willow stakes and two days planting.

Harvesting willows is as easy as using a pruning shears to cut a 3’ branch from a living willow. These stakes are soaked in water for 2 weeks until they send out root shoots. To plant a willow we drive a metal stake into the ground to create a hole that the willow will be placed in. A year later we have found that 60% to 80% of our planted willows have survived and are growing into new plants.

On Saturday ,May 8, the Headwaters Chapter will be harvesting willow stakes for this year’s planting. On Saturday, May 22 and Sunday, May 23, we will be planting willows. To continue the Earth Day celebration, we encourage our community to become part of our effort to help Mother Nature return to a healthier state. To find more information on our willow planting efforts and to sign up to help with them go to www.coheadwaters.org.