St. Vrain State Park: Restoring the Beauty of a Riparian Corridor

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By Bob Finch, Park Manager

Bald Eagle Pond
Bald Eagle Pond at St. Vrain State Park.

St. Vrain is Colorado’s newest State Park. Not so long ago, there was a little park called Barbour Ponds, a mere 130 acres in size, located east of Longmont in Weld County. This little fishing park was being loved to death. Barbour Ponds was a series of old gravel pit ponds, adjacent to St. Vrain Creek. In 2000, a study funded by Great Outdoor Colorado (GOCO) identified the need to preserve this corridor along the St. Vrain. In order to protect the St. Vrain, Colorado State Parks expanded its holdings by approximately 78 percent adjacent to Barbour Ponds and along the St Vrain to include a total of more than 600 acres. This new state park was renamed St. Vrain State Park. The new name “St. Vrain” is symbolic of the changing focus of the Park from mainly recreation to an increasing emphasis on restoration and stewardship of native wildlife habitats and natural ecosystem functions and services. Yes, the park would continue to provide recreation, including fishing and camping, but the focus of the Park would now also include the management and preservation of St. Vrain Creek and its riparian corridor.

Over the next five years, nearly $8 million will be set aside for developing this new state park. New transportation, bathroom, campground and picnic facilities as well as water, sewer, electric utilities are currently in varying stages of implementation. Yet, a more amazing transformation is underway. The development plans for the park also emphasize restoration of the riparian corridor. The past has been hard on this reach of St. Vrain Creek. Gravel mining and agriculture have stripped the native vegetation. Weeds have moved in, and roads crisscross the landscape. With a master plan adopted in 2004, there is now a new vision for the park. Imagine a mile wide canopy of plains cottonwoods and other riparian species. Envision a healthy and restored St. Vrain Creek corridor.

Planning, design, and implementation are all important considerations for this restoration vision to become a reality. The planning team for this project includes park professionals, engineers, landscape architects, and ecologists. Each discipline brings an important perspective to bear on the host of different challenges related to this project. The LAs help with issues of form and design. The engineers advise on construction and function. The ecologists provide a planting plan including a plant palette, seed mixes, and planting zones. The park professionals and land mangers implement the plans and are responsible for on-going maintenance. With this planning structure in place, new restoration projects are underway and a major transformation is taking place.

In the fall of 2004, Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado (VOC) planted over 800 trees and shrubs on the shoreline of Bald Eagle Pond. In the spring of 2005, work began on a mile long habitat buffer along the I-25 and the Highway 119 frontage. This project used a ditch and playa concept to supply water for riparian plants, creating a long swath of wildlife habitat. The flooded playas are designed to encourage the natural recruitment of willows and cottonwoods. Construction, grading and seeding of the habitat buffer was completed in the fall of 2005 and planting began. Wildland Restoration Volunteers (WRV) completed the planting of Playa #1 in October 2005 and the Weld County Youth Corps planted three additional smaller playas that same fall. In the spring of 2006, VOC returned to undertake a mega project at St. Vrain. On April 22, 2005, over 600 volunteers planted more than 5000 trees and shrubs, finishing the mile-long habitat buffer project.

Volunteers
VOC Volunteers Planting Trees and Shrubs at St. Vrain State Park in 2005.

The spring of 2005 continued to be a very busy time. On April 1st, the first of 40 new campsites, with water, flush toilets, and electricity, were opened to the public. With the opening of these new sites, the southern portion of the park, including the road around Pelican Pond, was permanently closed to vehicular use. This important closure created a vehicle-free zone within the riparian corridor adjacent to St. Vrain Creek.

Park staff, together with help from an Americorps crew just kept on planting. In the new campground, 100 large cottonwoods were added. The restoration of Mallard Pond was undertaken consisting of shoreline grading, rock fishing piers, and new access trail. The Americorps crew finished the job with some beautiful native plantings along the shoreline. In May, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts joined in the effort to plant the native plant garden at the new camper services building.

As the hot summer of 2006 rolled around, the immensity of our restoration and planting efforts revealed a vulnerability. Just keeping all the new plants watered and alive became a huge and critical undertaking. By May and June of this year, the risk of serious plant mortality was imminent and by July, due to lack of rain, park officials were managing a full-blown crisis. Thankfully, a July 10th a monsoon storm dropped nearly 1½ inches of rain and it now appears we averted a 2006 catastrophic plant die off.

Fall 2006 will bring a new planting season and we are already gearing up. Pelican Pond is the new restoration target. Shoreline grading and seeding are already completed. On October 14th, WRV will return to the Park to complete the restoration of the east shore of Pelican Pond including work on a new fishing access trail. With the help of two Boy Scout Eagle projects, the planting portion of Pelican Pond restoration should be completed by the end of this year.

What does the future hold for St. Vrain State Park? More planting, ongoing maintenance challenges, and lots of weed control issues. Is the park going to be a more interesting and exciting place due to our restoration efforts? I certainly believe this is the case. The park is being transformed ecologically and aesthetically. Now all it takes is hard work, time, and a little wet weather.

Editor’s Note: Bob Finch has been the manager of St. Vrain State Park since 2002. He may be contacted at             (303) 485-0186       or by email at bob.finch@state.co.us.