Headwaters of the Colorado

Restoration of the entry to one of the United States most important rivers

This large, landscape-scale pilot project is designed to restore two non-functioning
watersheds totaling 100,000 acres in the Medicine Bow and Routt National Forests of Wyoming and Colorado.

Through this novel program, SfL is supporting a rancher-led, cross-boundary, private-public partnershipthat will design a multi-disciplinary program to reforest and restore the effective functioning of two stressed, non-functioning forest landscapes. The goal is to increase water storage and supply; support agro-forestry production and biodiversity; improve wildlife habitat and fisheries; sequester carbon; produce renewable energy feedstocks; and enable economically viable rural communities to thrive.

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Urgent Need for Action

The need for this initiative has never been more critical. Far downstream from the headwaters, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the Colorado River’s two large reservoirs, are currently at 28 percent of capacity. New federal cuts in water usage are coming as the states have failed to reach agreement on a deadline imposed in June to apportion 15 percent cuts across the region. The $15 billion agriculture industry in the region uses about 75 percent of the river’s water supply across the seven states and would be hit hard by the reductions.
As the climate continues to change and becomes increasingly variable, ranchers more than ever need drought management and climate smart strategies for conserving this unique landscape, home of the Sage Grouse, the Mountain Bluebird, the Broad-tailed Hummingbird, the Evening Grosbeak and a wide variety of plant and animal communities. The seasonality of elevations from sagebrush steppes, high plateaus, and 6,000 ft valleys to high elevation pastures under 13,000 ft mountain peaks influence rancher decisions about livestock species and breeds, forage mixes and management, public land permits, stocking rates, locations of ranch stock ponds and reservoirs, timing of breeding and herd mobility. Managing this complex forest-grassland region of private and public grazing lands under variable local weather and a changing climate is no easy task and an urgent priority.

Medicine Bow National Forest (Wyoming) and Routt National Forest (Colorado)

The contiguous Medicine Bow and Routt National Forests were established by President Theodore Roosevelt to manage range lands and for watershed protection for stockmen and farmers in the early 1900s (NPS 2008). Extending from north central Colorado to central Wyoming (figure 3), these national forests encompass snowy mountain ranges (Gore Range, Flat Tops, Parks Range, Elkhead, Medicine Bow Mountains, Sierra Madre, and Laramie Range), forests, grasslands and sagebrush steppes, valleys and deep canyons, glacial lakes and crystal clear streams. The Continental Divide runs through these forests that are headwaters to tributaries of the North Platte River and the Colorado River. Cattle and sheep continue to graze this landscape in 2022 and ranchers utilize a combination of private and public lands at different elevations throughout the season to earn their living in this region.

Figure 3  Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests on the Colorado-Wyoming cross-boundary, headwaters of the Colorado and Platte rivers tributaries  (USDA Forest Service 2022)

These forests are home to deer, elk, bears and other wildlife as well as residential and migratory birds and cold-water fish. They produce timber, forage for livestock and are a vital source of water for irrigation, domestic use, and industry. These National Forests, primarily Lodgepole Pine, Aspen, Subalpine Fir and Engelmann Spruce, have extensive trail systems for hiking and bird-watching; easy access points for scenic vistas, water-falls and autumn leaf-color viewing; fishing, hunting, and camping and provide many other year-round recreation, scientific, ecological and historical opportunities for thousands of people interested in the variety of ecosystems the region offers. Congressionally-delegated Wilderness areas on the Medicine Bow include Encampment River Wilderness, Huston Park Wilderness, and the Platte River Wilderness.

The origin of “Medicine Bow” is legendary. The generally accepted version is that the Native American tribes which inhabited southeastern Wyoming found mountain mahogany in one of the mountain valleys from which bows of exceptional quality were made.” The early settlers associated the terms “making-medicine” and “making bow”, and the name Medicine Bow” resulted. Later the name gained worldwide renown through Owen Wister’s novel, “The Virginian”.

The Routt National Forest is named in memory of Colonel John N. Routt, the last territorial governor and first state governor of Colorado. The Routt National Forest is located between two internationally recognized destination sites — Rocky Mountain National Park and Dinosaur National Monument. It is also home to the world famous Steamboat Springs Ski area. The Continental Divide follows the Park Range from the Wyoming border to Rabbit Ears Pass, a popular summer and winter recreation area. The Forest is surrounded by historic and modern ranches and evidence of past cultures, including the Ute and Shoshone Indians. The Routt National Forest manages four Congressionally designated Wilderness areas: Never Summer, Sarvis Creek, Flat Tops and Mount Zirkel, which offer superb hiking opportunities. The Forest also provides for livestock grazing, timber production, and other forest products including Christmas trees, firewood, ferns and mushrooms.

Our Plan

Informed by over 40 years of large-scale land management and multiple successful watershed management projects, the partners will design a multi-disciplinary program to: reforest and restore the effective functioning of two stressed, non-functioning forest landscapes.  This will increase water storage and supply; support agro-forestry production and biodiversity; improve wildlife habitat and fisheries; sequester carbon; produce renewable energy feedstocks; and enable economically viable rural communities to thrive. This program will design a collaborative and cooperative restoration initiative that can be replicated at scale and replicated in watersheds across the west.

Scope of Work/Methods:
To produce these restoration plans, SfL will:

  • Form a design team that will guide and direct the development of a performance based environmental management/restoration plan for the targeted areas of watershed;
  • Identify key processes driving ecosystem change;
  • Identify collaborating partners and the roles each will play in supporting this cross-boundary stewardship project;
  • Design a management structure that meets the requirements of the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA)of 1972;
  • Identify key personnel, organizational and power sharing agreements, decision making processes, financial and technical resources needed to ensure the successful attainment of the project;
  • Develop quantifiable project goals and metrics to be used to assess progress;
  • Design a public participation process to include continuous information feedback loops and peer-to-peer information exchange that will ensure compliance with FACA;
  • Design a technical plan of work to guide restoration work;
  • Design a process to ensure and enhance the effective functioning of participating entities (public and private) including types of cooperative interactions planned and agreements that will be utilized;
  • Design a transfer of knowledge process to share the model used in this program and results with others seeking to undertake similar restoration initiatives;
  • Identify possible programs and partners that could fund the implementation of planned work;
  • Design a plan for replicating this model in other watersheds;
  • Develop a grant proposal to accomplish program outcomes over 10 years.
Deliverables and Outcomes:

The outcomes of the design phase of this program will include:

  • Baseline inventory of current conditions/challenges via data and drone video footage
  • Strategy to secure forest health, wildlife, water management, ecosystem resilience and economic goals
  • Delineation of watershed restoration methods including managed grazing, prescribed burning, tree planting, dead tree removal, irrigation, habitat restoration and other best practices
  • Clear and concise set of project metrics, economic impact, and performance measures, milestones and deliverables, including:
    • Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) or performance metrics and how those will be measured
    • An analysis and/or description of program/project economic impacts
    • Timelines and milestones for deliverables
  • Clear description of a cost-efficient budget, sub-budgeted to projects in both watersheds
  • Partnerships in place to support phase II (implementation)
  • Necessary permits identified/secured to perform restoration work
  • Financing plan in place to implement program

Partners

Thanks to a major gift from the Walton Family Foundation for making this project possible.

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