Badger Creek: Big Country with some Big Problems

Article by Jeffrey Keidel

Land use – January 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine

The Badger Creek Watershed is BIG country. The area encompasses 135,000 acres stretching northeast of Salida.

But such statistics belie its vast and isolated beauty. The open range of the upper part of the basin, seems to go on forever. Black and Waugh Mountain serve as guideposts to keep oriented, but it’s still easy to get lost. The lower basin is rugged piñon-juniper terrain. Locals talk of ticks and rattlesnakes “down there.”

The land ownership pattern in the basin is the typical patchwork quilt of the West. Using rough numbers, the private landowners, the Colorado State Land Board, the Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management, each own about a quarter of the basin. The creek itself enters the Arkansas River about 10 miles downstream from Salida.

Badger Creek also is BIG on history. Last summer, a Badger Creek Watershed tour began on the front porch of Rex Miller’s cabin. About 30 people attended that event, which was sponsored by the Sangre de Cristo Resource Conservation & Development Council. The non-profit RC&D coordinated the tour to update folks on recent efforts to improve the health of their watershed.

After handshakes and hellos, we heeded the call to load into pickups and head out.

“This is a very special place,” said Miller at the first stop on the tour. “It always has been: first for the Native Americans, then for the early ranchers, and now for all of us.” His passion for the land emanated from every word of his welcome talk. Miller is a retired teacher from Colorado Springs who has owned property in the area since 1969.

His neighbors on the tour echoed those sentiments. Some were long-time ranchers whose forefathers homesteaded the area. Some were weekenders, escaping the Front Range for 48 hours. Some were snowbirds now nestled in for their summer stay. And a few were newcomers, fresh from a real estate deal that secured them a piece of this paradise.

Despite their diversity, it was obvious that tour participants had one thing in common: a deep love for this place.

The tour stopped at Buffalo Jump, a site where Southern Utes regularly sent bison and antelope cascading over a rock cliff to be butchered below. As John Beardsley, BLM archæologist described the process, it was easy to imagine the sights, sounds, and smells of the event. He revealed some of the 23 tepee rings identified at the site and described the goods traded among the Indians along this route.

Miller and others discussed the early farming, ranching, and lumbering days. It was apparent that only a few folks ever made much of a sustainable living in the basin. Numerous accounts of land trades gone bust and agricultural schemes that never played out were shared among those with the best memories. But some of that history has left the Badger Creek watershed with BIG problems. Those problems were at the root of the tour and the involvement of the Sangre de Cristo Research, Conservation and Development Council.

We stopped at a place called Big Spring. The children on the tour quickly unlaced their shoes and tip-toed into the cool, clear pools that gurgle out from the hillside. The spring supplies Badger Creek with its perennial flow for the next 14 miles downstream through some pretty inaccessible country. Upstream from the spring the creek’s flow is erratic, warm and fishless, but downstream the brown trout fishery is pretty good — when its not blown out by a flood.

Historic overgrazing throughout the watershed has left its riparian areas severely denuded, soil erosion rates high, and the water quality degraded. Though the symptoms of this unhealthy watershed were known for many decades, it took a crisis to jolt land managers to real action.

On a late summer night in 1979, a large thunderstorm lodged itself in the center of the watershed and dumped its payload. The following deluge choked Badger Creek — a stream with a typical summer flow of 5 cubic feet per second — with a torrent of water and sediment amounting to nearly 10,000 cfs!

By comparison, the mainstem of the Arkansas River, at the height of this year’s flood stage, topped out at a mere 6,600 cfs, and the Arkansas mainstem flood of record in Salida is only 9,220 cfs.

The sediment plume from the storm’s erosion was carried for more than 50 miles downstream. On a normal year Badger Basin unloads an estimated 39,600 tons of sediment. How many tons came out that night is not known, but it probably formed a substantial layer at the bottom of Pueblo Reservoir.

At the Big Spring stop, John Carochi, range conservationist for the BLM, spread a map out on the hood of his truck. He described the response from the land managers to the big flood of 1979: engineered sediment retention ponds and other in-stream physical structures only on the public land parcels.

Smaller floods later in the 1980s demonstrated that these practices were mere Band-Aids trying to treat a greater illness.

“It took us a while to realize that we couldn’t just manage little pieces of the watershed. We needed to look at land management in the whole basin,” said Carochi. “We needed to get the private landowners — both the small-lot owners and the large ranchers — on the same page.”

Throughout the 1980s formal agreements were made between the various federal, state, and local governments — and a few advocacy groups including Trout Unlimited — to coordinate work to improve the watershed. Lots of meetings and lots of talking slowly generated some on-the-ground actions.

Carochi described the monitoring program that now measures water flow and sediment loads, precipitation, fish and aquatic bug populations, vegetation and stream transects, etc. Two U.S. Geological Survey stations now collect water data every 15 minutes and beam it to a satellite every 4 hours. The watershed is now well-watched.

The key to solving Badger Creek’s woes was pretty obvious, however: reduce the concentration of cattle in the riparian zones and better manage the upland range areas. Riparian zones are the green, willowy strips along creeks that absorb the energy of floods, capture sediment, provide shading to cool the stream, and provide wildlife habitat.

But bovine biology got in the way. Cows won’t go far from a drink, and few other water supplies were available in the basin. So, while riparian zones were being devoured by cattle, some upland areas weren’t being used at all.

The potential was there for a classic no-win battle between ranchers and environmentalists. “Cows vs. Trout” would have made a great headline. Or perhaps “A Battle of the Proteins” would have been more fitting. Either way, it had all the makings for an attorney’s financial playground.

But in 1987 the Sangre de Cristo RC&D stepped in to accept the daunting task of taking this fragmented landscape, managed by fragmented bureaucracies, and coordinate a win-win plan to deal with this classic western issue.

The RC&D’s overall strategy was to use carrots, rather than sticks to achieve a healthy watershed.

Ironically, it was the nation’s biggest environmental stick that supplied the carrots: the EPA. Normally, the EPA, is the closest thing to a four-letter word among many ranchers and western private property owners. But through the Nonpoint Source Program of the Clean Water Act (yes, the same one Congress has been trying to dilute), a grant was awarded to provide financial incentives to establish “Best Management Practices” on Badger Creek’s rangelands. The first contract with a private landowner was signed in 1990, and now over half of the total acreage in the basin is under a grazing plan to improve the watershed.

The tour moved on to the Riparian Improvement Demonstration site. Forest Service hydrologist Lee Chavez explained that healthy streams cut deep narrow meandering channels. Vegetation helps anchor streambanks and absorb flood power, she said. Chavez displayed “before and after” cross-section diagrams of this part of Badger Creek now fenced off from cattle. Sure enough, the creek was getting deeper. Someone else celebrated the first discovery of a young willow shoot among the lush creekside grasses. Outside the enclosure the creek was braided, shallow and barren.

“We don’t really want to exclude cattle from the creek,” commented Carochi. He explained that riparian areas have valuable forage and are quite resilient. “In fact we are using animal impacts to improve the vegetation. We are using cattle as a tool.”

The best acceptable practice is to graze the riparian areas hard just after spring run-off and then get the cows off, he said. The plants will regrow and seed in time for the next spring’s run-off. Most grasses and other plants evolved under the influence of migrating herds of grazing animals. Leaving cattle — even a few head — in lowlands for long periods of time, however, does not mimic this evolutionary process, and is ultimately damaging.

One of the major ranchers in the area, Frank McMurray, has bitten the carrot, and apparently it tastes pretty good. Using the cost-share provisions of the Nonpoint Source Program, he has installed 8 miles of solar-charging electric fence, 2 additional stockwater tanks, and five pastures as a part of a total grazing plan that involves his private land, state land, and federal lands.

“I used to utilize only 15-20 percent of the land area, which I was overgrazing,” said McMurray. “But now I can distribute the cattle better so that I am utilizing 80-90% of the land. And I am very excited because for the first time in 60 years I will completely rest a pasture in a riparian zone. I even hope to get some willows started down there.”

McMurray was especially impressed with how the solar electric fence has held up to the 300-500 head elk herd in the basin. At first he was skeptical. “The old saying is: Deer jump a fence, antelope go under it, and elk go through it,” he said. Traditional fencing projects included lots of repair work. His two-strand electric fence avoids those problems — the elk step over it. He has only had to replace one insulator. “It’s just phenomenal. I can’t believe it,” he said.

“Environmentalists and ranchers are moving closer together all the time,” McMurray concluded. “We have a lot in common. This program has allowed me to maintain production while at the same time it improves the environment of the watershed.” He hopes that more private landowners will participate in the future. McMurray is also a Chaffee County commissioner.

Some of the changes are less tangible. The RC&D helped to coordinate “Holistic Resource Management” classes for local landowners. Despite the trendy name, HRM is a process to assist folks with establishing long-term sustainable goals and a decision-making process to achieve those goals. Subjects include such non-traditional ag-class titles as: “Planning Your Land and Biological Resources,” “Monitoring Your Biological Resources,” and “Generating Wealth.”

The last stop on the tour was the best. On a high ridge overlooking the whole watershed, we stood at a Ute ceremonial site estimated to be 250 years old. Rocks had been arranged in a large circle on top of the bluff, with several smaller rock circles terraced down the hillside. After consultation with contemporary Utes, archæologist John Beardsley thinks that the site could have been used for “vision quests” in which individuals fasted for several days and sought help from spiritual sources to look to the future.

In some ways our watershed tour was a contemporary visioning process.

Rex Miller took center stage in the main rock circle. “All of us have a pretty special responsibility to this place,” he said. The Badger Creek Watershed Project has made significant progress towards environmental improvement. But Miller wants locals citizens, rather than government agencies, to take the leadership role now. “Where would you like to take it from here?” he concluded.

Over his shoulder on a distant hillside several new homes had been scratched out on the land. Despite the historic overgrazing and recent successes of the project, I couldn’t help but think that the new environmental threat was more likely to be condos than cows.

For more information on the Badger Creek Watershed Project contact the Sangre de Cristo Resource Conservation & Development Council at 971 Hwy 50 West, Pueblo CO 81008, 719-543-8385.

Jeffrey Keidel of Buena Vista confesses to a certain conflict of interest here, since he works for Sangre de Christo RC&D, but on the other hand, it means he knows the subject intimately.