Crew working to restore natural habitat along Monument Corridor Trail

By Dan West at the Daily Sentinel in Grand Junction–New growth is sprouting along the Monument Corridor Trail as a Western Colorado Conservation Corps youth crew began work to remove invasive plants and put in native shrubs.

During construction of the paved trail, which connects the Lunch Loop Trailhead to the Riverfront Trail, some areas near the trail were damaged, leaving bare spots that could be retaken by weeds, Colorado West Land Trust Project Manager Libby Collins said.

“They put in the paved trail and the trail head and there was a lot of disturbance to the vegetation in the area along No Thoroughfare Wash,” Collins said. “A lot of that disturbance where they had to rip stuff out and left big dirt patches took out invasive weeds, as well as native plants.”

The land trust, which has easements over the land that the trail traverses, decided to apply for a grant through Great Outdoors Colorado and the Colorado Youth Corps Association for four weeks of restoration work along the trail. They received the grant, along with seed money from Western Colorado Community Foundation and REI, allowing them to hire a crew of young people to perform the work.

“We put together a plan to go back in after the paved trail was done to put in native vegetation, but really make it a beautiful area for native plants and native grasses that would create more habitat for birds and wildlife in the area,” Collins said.

Part of the plan involved contracting restoration ecologist David Varner to help direct the crew in its work removing weeds and planting native plants. Varner said keeping the weeds and invasive plants like tamarisk from re-establishing in the disturbed ground is a key objective. “That means coming out here with hoes and hoeing them down before they can grow to be mature,” Varner said. “It involves planting native shrubs, which are out here. These are just the shrubs that grow naturally in the area and are native species.”

A group of volunteers has been meeting weekly to plant native plants and water them, but Varner said the site needed a professional crew to take on some of the more intensive restoration work. For that they turned to the Conservation Corps, but, as with many plans this year, coronavirus added a new obstacle.

The original plan for the youth crew was to have them work for a week in the spring, a week in the summer and two weeks in the fall. However, the spring week was postponed due to the virus, changing the plan to last week and three weeks of work in the fall. Even with the postponement many restoration projects across the state continue to be delayed. This project was able to go forward utilizing all local youth with county approval.

“Basically we received a variance from the county where we’re able to work in a limited capacity in Mesa County,” Western Colorado Conservation Corps Associate Director Matt Jennings said. “So we have two crews running. Otherwise we’d have seven crews running. We’d be all the way up to Gunnison, Crested Butte, Vail. We’re fortunate just to be able to keep these local kids working through this.”

For the youth working on the crew being able to restore habitat in their local area has been a perk of the job. Aaron Hall, who has been working with the youth corps for six months, said he’s enjoyed working on the popular trail.

“It’s really cool,” Hall said. “I really enjoy being a part of the community and being able to give back to it in a way that allows me to provide for myself. I’ve actually done a couple projects out here so it’s nice to be able to return and just help push along this progress.”

The days are hard work, Hall said. Last week, with temperatures in the 90s, was not the most comfortable working conditions. However, he said he enjoyed the experience and the opportunity to learn about trail building and restoration work while earning a paycheck.

“I got into it because I wanted to learn how to build hiking trails and camp,” Hall said. “I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into, but it’s been a real pleasant surprise.”

In the coming years, when the shrubs and trees have matured, this work, both from the professional crews and volunteers, will provide shade and natural beauty for trail users, as well as important habitat for birds and animals, Varner said. One unexpected result of the trail construction, he said was the discovery of a previously covered natural spring, which is now running water through the lower wash.

“So that presents an opportunity to grow things like willows that are fabulous habitat for our native species here,” Varner said. “This can create kind of a corridor that goes down to the Colorado River and enhances the entire Colorado River riparian ecosystem.”

Collins, who has been working on this trail through property acquisitions, construction and now restoration, said seeing the reaction from people riding and walking on the trail as crews install the new plants shows how important outdoor recreational spaces are especially during the current crisis.

“I’ve gone out there and volunteered and people walk by and they are like ‘Oh, this is so great that you are planting plants and this trail is so great,’” Collins said. “I think during this time of COVID that trail and that open space has just really been a great thing for the community.”

Read the original story on the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel’s website.