By T.A. Rustin
POSTED: 09/29/2016 03:52:50 PM MDT
Students from Estes Park High School teamed up with ecology experts from the Estes Valley Watershed Coalition on Wednesday to help rebuild the ecosystem along lower Fish Creek. That area was devastated by the flood in 2013, washing away vegetation, eroding the banks, destroying the utility infrastructure, and damaging homes.
The Coalition has been working for the last year to restore areas damaged by the flood. They selected this area of Fish Creek as their first project, according to Molly Mills, Coordinator of the Coalition. Nearly a year ago, she met with Chuck Scott, principal of the high school, and asked if the Coalition could work on restoring the river banks adjoining school property.
"I asked him for permission to work on school property," she recalled, "and he said, 'Only if you involve the kids and make this a learning experience,'" said Mills.
Mills agreed at once to the plan, and she took the responsibility for securing grant funding and obtaining legal permission to work on the river banks. That required several months, since there are numerous overlapping jurisdictions involved in the Fish Creek watershed.
With guidance from teacher Alex Harris, the high school's Environmental Club began planning and recruiting their classmates for this event. Mills did some training with the students, teaching them about riverine ecology, and the proper techniques for planting trees. The students in the club then created training materials for the student volunteers.
"This has been a student-run project the whole way," said Mills. "I brought the idea to them, and the funding; they organized the volunteers, mapped it out, and got the logistical support."
Carlie Rosenkrance, a member of the club, agreed that the project has optimistic goals.
"Anything helps," she said. "If we keep working at it, in a few years we'll see a big change."
Beginning early in the morning on Wednesday, students transported plants and supplies in pickup trucks to three areas along Fish Creek. More than 300 students arrived and split into teams to get to work on the riverbank. They began by pulling and bagging noxious weeks that have proliferated since the flood. They also cleared the banks of accumulated flood debris and trash.
The Coalition brought in 3,000 trees, provided by the Colorado State Forest Service. The specific species had been selected by Mills in consultation with ecology experts. They included river birch, alder, chokecherry, and cottonwood. Mills's ecology consultants marked the locations for each tree. Working in teams, the students dug holes, planted the trees, and carried buckets of water from Fish Creek to water them.
Nearly the entire student body has been involved in this project, including the Culinary Arts class, which planned and prepared lunch for the students, teachers and volunteers. Students in the Film Studies are making a documentary to tell the story of the project. The faculty and administrators also supported the project.
"All the teachers are participating," said math teacher Kenzee Dennis as she stuffed weeds into a black plastic trash bag.
Marsha Weaver, who teaches Civics and Geography, praised the work ethic of the students working around her: "Some of them really like it!"
English teacher Dan Copeland worked right alongside his students, pulling weeks and clearing debris. Part supervisor, part mentor, part cheerleader—it was apparent that the students appreciated his commitment to their project.
Sheldon Rosenkrance, Superintendent of Schools for the School District, walked from group to group, talking with teachers and students, admiring their cooperative spirit.
"We want to be part of our community," he said. "It's important that our kids realize that we're not isolated from the rest of the town." He surveyed the students pulling weeds and digging holes. "It's an opportunity for our kids to learn to cooperate, to work with other people, to learn real world skills, and to make our town better," he said.
Randy Mandel, representing the Colorado Water Conservation Board, walked among the groups of students. A water and ecology specialist, Mandel explained to the students how their efforts would improve the watershed. Mandel noticed a student struggling with the root ball of a tree. He bent down and guided her in the proper technique.
"We gotta make sure we've got the soil firmly pressed around it, so there are no holes," he told the student, and moved on to the next group.
Gary Miller, President of the Coalition, said that the flood impacted Fish Creek more severely than any other area in the Estes Valley, and therefore was chosen as the first project.
"The Coalition was formed to bring together organizations interested in sustainable restoration of the flood damaged areas," he said. The Estes Valley has seen three 500 year floods since 1979, and Miler predicted that we should expect more in the future. "We need to be prepared for the next huge event," he said. He pointed out that this project has served to educate the students about the broader problem of environmental disasters.
Mills said that this is the first phase of the revegetation of the Fish Creek watershed. The next phase will be putting up fencing around the young trees to encourage the elk and deer to browse elsewhere.
"Otherwise," she said, "they will eat everything we've planted."
In the next few months, the Coalition will be mulching the area and broadcasting native grass seeds to improve the ground cover.
As the students finished planting the last of the 3000 trees, Mills surveyed the creekbed with Scott.
"This is fantastic," she said. "They've done a tremendous job. It's been incredible to watch these kids come together."
"It's a good day," Scott said, summarizing the experience.