Middle Park Land Trust preserves restored reach of Fraser River near Tabernash | SkyHiNews.com

Middle Park Land Trust preserves restored reach of Fraser River near Tabernash

Reid Armstrong
Sky-Hi News
Grand County, CO Colorado

Byron Hetzler/Sky-Hi Daily News

TABERNASH-The Middle Park Land Trust has just completed a conservation easement for the final piece of a 90-acre block that will protect more than a quarter-mile corridor of the Fraser River.

The easement, which was recorded June 23, will protect for perpetuity some 17 riparian acres on property owned by Eric and Kathy Pietz. Another 70 acres on the neighboring Devil’s Thumb Ranch, which was placed into a conservation easement between 2007 and 2008, completes the corridor.

“This is something we’d been working on for several years,” said Cindy Southway of Conservation Assistance who helped guide the project. The conservation easement wasn’t part of the original plan for the quarter-mile river corridor, which has been completely restored in the last two years through a wetlands mitigation project funded by Rendezvous.

“The Pietzes are very conservation minded,” Southway said. “Once we started talking about it, they were very open to idea of placing their 17 acres along the river into an easement.”

The Pietzes’ property met the state’s conservation easement requirements in two ways, said Middle Park Land Trust Executive Director Carse Pustmueller: “The property’s main benefit is that it provides scenic open space of the Fraser River landscape for people traveling along U.S. Highway 40,” she said. “The second benefit is that the property provides quality wetlands and fish habitat.”

The property didn’t always have a rich wetlands habitat. Two years ago, that 600 foot stretch of river was 75 feet wide, shallow, steep and was considered to be very poor fish habitat. In fact, said project manager Geoff Elliott of Grand Environmental Services, satellite photos indicate that section of river might have been straightened at some point to help transport logs through the Fraser Flats down to the lumber mill in Tabernash.

“Floating logs downstream like that is the equivalent of taking a bottle brush to the river,” Elliott said.

Elliott said that he spent three years studying the Fraser River in different places, determining what features helped create a healthy river. He took along a fishing guide who showed him the best fishing holes in the area, and Elliott studied their geometry and then recreated them in the restoration project.

The project, which was funded entirely by Rendezvous as part of its development permit with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, involved creating multiple bends in the river and adding features to improve fish habitat and water quality, such as pocket and shallow rapids and spots where the river will actually spill out of its banks and feed the wetlands.

“When water gets out of river, it drops sediment, leaves and sticks. Most of the water gets back to the river cleaner and generally cooler,” Elliott said.

The project more than doubled the length of the river, creating an ‘M’ out of what had once been an ‘I,’ and narrowed the channel down to 35-45 feet, allowing the water to flow deeper and cooler.

Elliott said that two years after the completion of construction along that section of river, willow and other riparian plants along the river banks are thriving and the wetlands are growing. Within just one year, the river had been recolonized by the bugs that are the backbone of hearty fishery habitat – stone flies, water beetles and worms among other. And now, there are even signs of brown trout spawning in the new habitat.

“I recently saw where they had kicked the sand aside and, when I looked closer, I saw a female spawning,” Elliott said.

Elliott added that the Corps of Engineers and Rendezvous Director of Development Terry Stanford took a big risk in supporting this project. There haven’t been many projects like it in the area, he said, and now it can serve as an example as to what can be done to restore health to endangered waterways, particularly with the potential for more mitigation projects in the future through negotiations with Denver Water and the Northern Water Conservancy District.

“It was good to see the different agencies and landowner going down the same road with the same goals,” said property owner Eric Pietz. “There is nothing more fulfilling than watching the migratory waterfowl and trout enjoying their new enhanced homes.”

The property owners for all the easements along the Fraser will still have the right to use their property and to allow guided fishing along the river, Southway said. The easements do, however, restrict structures from being built anywhere along that more than 300-foot wide corridor. “Not even utility structures or barns,” Southway said.

Pustmueller said the Land Trust is working on three more easements along the Fraser River and is continuing to pursue opportunities to protect land from development along the entire upper Colorado River and its tributaries in Grand County. Conservation lands receive generous tax benefits from the state and federal governments she added, and in some cases the trust purchases development rights when the property owners aren’t willing to donate them like the Pietzes.

In order to qualify, land must have scenic value, recreational opportunities, wildlife habitat or historic significance. For more information, contact Middle Park Land Trust at 970-887-1177.

– Reid Armstrong can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19610 or rarmstrong@skyhidailynews.com.