Hand crews are removing nonnative Russian olive and Siberian elm this week from 44 acres along the Animas River north of Durango that are scheduled to go into a conservation easement.
The work is being done by Southwest Conservation Corps in Oxbow Park and Preserve, which was created when the city of Durango purchased the Cameron-Sterk property between the Animas River and the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad tracks.
In the new preserve, giant cottonwoods tower over impenetrable stands of willows and some hawthorn. Rabbit brush and sage abound, and wild rose is evident in the understory. They’re the desirable native species.
But the intruders, Russian olive and Siberian elm, have to go because they outcompete the natives for nutrients, city arborist Ron Stoner said.
Russian olives less than 6 inches in diameter are being cut down and the branches stacked away from trails where they eventually will decay. The herbicide Garlon applied to the stumps is drawn to the root systems to kill the trees.
Olives greater than 6 inches in diameter are being girdled with a 1½ to 2-inch swath cut around the tree near the ground to shut off water and nutrients – and Garlon applied. They will be left standing, however, for wildlife habitat.
Even so, the park and preserve will have to be monitored to guard against the return of the tenacious nonnatives, Stoner said.
“We have to keep our eye on them,” Stoner said. “We’ll see some come back in maybe four years because they shoot out from the roots.”
Six acres of the Cameron-Sterk purchase will be a staging area for river sports, the remainder set aside for deer, elk, bears and various avian species to rest, nest and forage.
The property is one of 174 holdings of La Plata Open Space Conservancy. The program, which La Plata County itself began in 1979, today protects 25,570 acres in Colorado’s Archuleta, La Plata, Montezuma, San Juan, Hinsdale and Ouray counties and in San Juan County, N.M.
“Our goal is permanent protection for open land that has significant potential for agriculture, wildlife habitat, open space and recreation or has significant historical or archaeological value,” Executive Director Scott Perez said.
Perez said his organization oversees and is in the process of taking over 21 easements totaling 1,833 acres held by the Animas Conservancy.
A conservation easement prevents forever the development of property. Owners who put their land into an easement get federal and Colorado state income tax credit and a county property tax credit. They can continue to live on and work the land, pass it on to heirs or even sell it. But the conditions spelled out in the easement go with the property, whoever owns it.
The 6-acre staging area includes The Beach, for years a site for trysts, unofficial picnic area and river put-in for rafters and tubers. In the shaded interior, a makeshift stairway created by affixing slats to the trunk of a huge cottonwood hint at a tree house or hunter’s stand.
Such visitors were trespassers. The city remedied the situation by purchasing one-third acre on Animas View Drive for $225,000 to provide access and parking. The city is still in the process of drafting a management plan for the property.
Perez was hired to lead La Plata Conservancy in 2011 and started work Jan. 1, 2012. He is finishing a dissertation about working with indigenous communities on environmental issues to earn a doctoral degree at Cornell University.
The field work was done with the Mohawk nation in upstate New York and Canada from which Perez descended on his mother’s side. His father was Cuban.
The largest La Plata Conservancy holding is 1,400 acres north of Bayfield. The smallest are acre-sized parcels to protect a wetlands near Bayfield and the city of Durango’s greenbelt.
La Plata Conservancy is a member of the Colorado Coalition of Land Trusts, which covers 37 private land trusts and 13 governmental trusts. It also was accredited by the national Land Trust Alliance in 2010 when Katherine Roser directed the program. It’s up for review in 2015.
The price of the Cameron-Sterk property was $1.2 million, which included a $400,000 grant from GoCo (Great Oudoors Colorado).