Rio Oxbow Ranch Recognized for Excellence in Riparian Management

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by Michael Blenden & Rio de la Vista
San Luis Valley Wetlands Focus Area Committee

 Anne and Dale Pizel
Photo by Denis Hall
Anne and Dale Pizel, ranch managers for the Rio Oxbow Ranch, and Rio de la Vista, Coordinator for the San Luis Valley Wetlands Focus Area Committee.

The Colorado Riparian Association presented its annual Excellence in Riparian Management Award to the Rio Oxbow Ranch, along with its owners, Alan and Patricia Lisenby, and its managers, Dale and Anne Pizel, at the annual conference in Alamosa. The Pizels accepted the award at the banquet on October 9. Dale shared several photos showing improvements to the Rio Grande River over the past 8 years and detailed the grazing management plan used on the ranch. Dale also shared a letter from the Lisenbys that read in part: “We understand our obligation as stewards of this historic ranch to maintain its scenic beauty for the benefit of the community, and support its fragile environment for the benefit of wildlife.”

Below is the text of the nomination letter submitted to the CRA Awards Committee on behalf of the Rio Oxbow Ranch:

The owners and managers of the Rio Oxbow Ranch are exemplary stewards of the beautiful riparian zone of the 1,600-acre ranch and its six mile reach of the Rio Grande, the longest privately owned stretch of the upper river. Located in the very headwaters of the Rio Grande, the ranch borders the Rio Grande National Forest and the Weminuche Wilderness Area is nearby. There are few places that match the natural beauty of the Rio Oxbow, with its spectacular meandering river, the broad grassy valley at 9,000 feet elevation, and its setting amongst the forested slopes of the soaring mountains of the San Juan range. The area provides extraordinary riparian, wetland, and fishery habitat, and thanks to its owners and managers, it is being restored and protected.

The Lisenby’s have owned the Rio Oxbow since 1996, and spend a great deal of time in Colorado (their primary home is in Atlanta, Georgia), and are deeply involved in all aspects of the ranch management. They have dedicated themselves to its care and restoration through their management practices and riparian restoration efforts. The Pizels, who live on their own neighboring ranch and manage the Rio Oxbow and its grazing operation, have also been very active in pursuing numerous restorative and maintenance practices on the Rio Oxbow. Their combined efforts have led to what NRCS District Conservationist, Steve Russell, describes as an “extremely healthy riparian area.”

In cooperation with the NRCS, several projects specifically aimed at river bank stabilization and wildlife habitat enhancement on the ranch’s river reach have been accomplished, with partial cost share funding from both EQIP and WHIP contracts. This has included installation of numerous river structures including rock barbs and extensive willow and cottonwood plantings. The ranch has installed carefully placed fencing to allow for better livestock control, and manages grazing in the riparian zone and across the entire ranch in a wildlife-friendly way.

Having the best infrastructure and a well-thought out management plan is a good start, but it is the ongoing management of the land that develops and sustains the health and vitality of the life upon it, and that is what has brought the Rio Oxbow to its current level of riparian quality. Ranch manager Dale Pizel (a life long resident of the area with a degree in agriculture from Montana State and serves as Mineral County’s representative on the Board of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, where a great number of water related as well as environmental, agricultural, and community issues are discussed and worked on), has invested his time and energies in training programs for himself. He attended and has implemented many of the techniques taught at Holistic Management classes provided for San Luis Valley residents by the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust. This has provided the basis for careful planning of grazing management, including well managed grazing of the riparian zones — and the results speak for themselves.

Rather than being detrimental to the vegetation and bank conditions on the Rio Oxbow Ranch, cattle grazing is now being employed as a conscious tool for restoring the land and river banks and reinvigorating desirable plants. The fencing allows for careful control of the time and timing of grazing, which now functions as a rejuvenating treatment for the health of the riparian area! They have been able to use very high concentrations of cattle for very short time periods, and this has proven to be extremely effective in reducing the vertical riverbanks to a sloping angle and in stimulating new plant growth. Riparian grasses, willows and cottonwoods are responding spectacularly to well planned grazing and animal impact. The healthy, thriving condition of the Rio Oxbow riparian zone is significant in that it demonstrates that well managed grazing can be compatible with and contribute substantially to improving riparian habitat and aiding in bank stabilization. Their work has also stabilized the floodplain and increased return flows to the river.

The San Luis Valley Wetlands Focus Area Committee works extensively with agricultural landowners who own and manage the vast majority of riparian and wetland acres locally. It is particularly important for us to highlight the ways that agricultural operations and healthy lands and rivers can be achieved simultaneously. This award to the Rio Oxbow Ranch, the Lisenbys who took the initiative to proceed with riparian restoration efforts, and the Pizels who assisted and implemented the management practices, recognizes the exceptional results achieved and the owners’ and managers’ investment of time, energy and resources towards those ends.

For their leadership and for taking the steps necessary to create and maintain an exceptional reach of the Rio Grande at its source, we are grateful to the Lisenbys and Pizels. All of us who travel the Scenic Byway along the Upper Rio Grande, all who value the wildlife and fisheries that thrive on the ranch and surrounding wilderness and national forest, and all who care about the sustainability of agriculture in harmony with nature benefit from the restoration work and fine example set by the Rio Oxbow Ranch.

We appreciate the consideration of the Committee for the 2003 Excellence in Riparian Management Award and encourage you to honor the Rio Oxbow and its owners and managers for their exceptional contributions to the community and health of the Rio Grande!