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Putting the Trout Back in Trout Creek

Article by Jeff Keidel

Landscape Restoration – March 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

I’VE DRIVEN OVER TROUT CREEK PASS between Johnson Village and Antero Junction (U.S. Highway 24/285) at least a hundred times. Always keeping focus on its notorious curves, I’ve managed to steal glimpses of its dramatic Castle Rocks and the creek below. It’s a beautiful sight.

I’ve pulled off the highway and on to CR 307 to admire the area: the castles beckon to be climbed and the green cascade of beaver ponds lure me to fish. I’ve watched swallows pick bugs off the water and groaned at the presence of new real-estate “for sale” signs. Once, en route to the urban Front Range, I pulled over to observe a rare Western tradition: cowboys herding a few strays up the creekbed to summer pastures. With Mt. Princeton looming in the background, Trout Creek is a picture postcard entrance into the Upper Arkansas Valley.

But it wasn’t always that way.

Until I went on a Chaffee County Cattleman’s Association tour of the area, however, I didn’t know about the long history of abuse this creek has endured. Nor had I realized how much effort rangers and ranchers had put into restoring Trout Creek to its current condition.

But most of all, I had never realized a man could be so passionate about a watershed as Joe Cogan is.

JOE COGAN’S GRANDFATHER, Jeremiah, brought his family to Colorado from Ireland in 1883. His __family settled in the valley, and sons John and William grew up raising cattle and doing whatever it took to get by. Joe and his family still live in the home his grandfather built.

When Joe’s grandfather settled in Colorado there was no Forest Service or other public land regulatory agencies. The Trout Creek watershed was 65 square miles of open range and unregulated grazing, logging and resource extraction to be used by anyone. More than 500 cattle, 600 wild horses, and 3,000 sheep grazed the area year-round.

On a landscape where average annual precipitation is less than 16 inches, overgrazing was inevitable. In 1902 a severe drought shriveled the little forage that remained, and livestock by the hundreds died of starvation.

The Denver, South Park & Pacific Railroad ran a line over Trout Creek Pass to the lucrative mining markets of Central Colorado in 1880. The line ran down the streambed and crossed the creek 14 times. “Tie hacks” cut trees from the slopes and skidded them straight downhill for the track’s construction. The ensuing scratches grew to soil-eroding gullies with each summer’s cloudburst.

In that same era, four sawmills worked over the forests until nearly all commercial forest land within the watershed was cut or burned over. By the time Joe was born, the watershed was a complete wreck.

“There was not one willow, not one fish,” said Joe on the tour. “When I was a kid this creek was nothing but a sand spit. Everywhere you looked you saw gullies, rills and eroding banks.”

A Forest Service soil scientist confirmed young Joe’s observations: “Gully erosion is spectacular in the watershed, both because of its severity and its extensiveness. Many square miles of wet meadowlands have been converted to dry, sage-covered areas.” Trout Creek was considered an intermittent stream prior to 1953.

“The railroad, of course, kept washing out,” Joe recalls in a story passed down from his dad. “So they brought in an engineer to fix it. He said to plow the creek straight and run the tracks parallel to the creek.”

According to Forest Service records, the railroads also burned off the streamside shrubs. Modern-day hydrologists cringe at the thought of a creek without energy-absorbing meanders, drops, and riparian vegetation. The Colorado Midland Railroad came later and was built on higher ground, but still had its share of problems. By 1926 both railroads were gone.

The thin, metal-rimmed wheels of wagons were also tough on the soil. With their narrow wheel base, heavily laden sawmill wagons avoided the slopes and moved up and down the creekbeds. “Once they cut down through the protective root zone… then Katie-bar-the-door…the soil would go,” Joe said.

“I remember my father describing a storm in 1908… or 1909. He described it as a black, pinwheeling cloud that seemed to pull in nearby clouds,” said Joe. The ensuing storm unleashed a torrent of sediment that covered the alluvial fan at the base of the watershed with 8-10 feet of sand. “The entire first floor of the Swander house was filled, and the orchard trees looked like orchard bushes. A section of the railroad tracks were recoiled 40 feet into the air.”

ESTABLISHMENT OF THE Leadville National Forest in 1905, of which Trout Creek was a part, brought the first semblance of regulation. Records of 1923, show 13 grazing permittees in the area between Aspen Ridge and Sevenmile Creek with 1,532 head of cattle use from April 15 through December 15. Unauthorized use continued, however.

The first efforts at restoration came with the Civilian Conservation Corps. The Depression Era make-work program under President Roosevelt (FDR) sent young men to many troubled areas like Trout Creek to apply their brawn to broken landscapes. In 1932, 486 handmade rock and log checkdams were constructed in the Trout Creek watershed. Between 1934 and 1939, over 50,000 check dams were built and 5,800 acres were planted with ponderosa pines.

Phil Klock worked at CCC Camp #803 headquartered at the present-day Wilmott Ranch. Phil now lives in Denver and is a retired state employee.

“The army fed us, clothed us, housed us, schooled us, and disciplined us,” said Phil. “The Forest Service directed the work.” Along with 200 other young men ages 15-17 from Colorado, Texas and Oklahoma, Phil built checkdams, planted trees, built cattle-controlling fences, poisoned prairie dogs, and contoured several hillsides with teams of horses. Phil earned $30 a month, but was required to send $25 home to his parents.

“I remember we had a dog that was great at finding porcupines. They were girdling our trees,” said Phil. “I bet we killed over 500 of them one winter.”

Most of the CCC dams eventually washed or rotted out, though many are visible today. The small gully plugs did their job by choking up with sediment and providing a soil bed for early successional plants. Phil is especially proud of his fences that still stand now.

The following years saw changes in grazing numbers that varied with each year’s forage availability and each ranger’s interpretation of an appropriate stocking rate. In 1940 the last 14 wild horses disappeared and by 1943 Glen McMurry roped the last wild cow.

But in 1948 things changed. A new ranger, Gordon Van Buren, saw the watershed differently than previous rangers and made dramatic changes. His field notes read:

“Browse line on aspen groves is severe and all aspen reproduction is dead or dying.”

“Along the bottoms and around watering places the story was much the same as previous reports. Heavy to extreme utilization, hummocked plants, sheet and gully erosion severe. Cattle concentration evident.”

“The Freeze permit covers 80 acres of Forest land that is fenced in with Freeze’s private land. It is absolutely the worst overgrazed piece in the whole basin. Permit should be canceled.”

In 1948, the Forest Service gave Tom McQuaid (of Salt Works Ranch fame) notice that some of his permits would be canceled. The Cogans fared better. Their permit was only reduced from 238 head to 173.

FINALLY, IN 1951 Van Buren closed the entire allotment “until full recovery of the forage resources.” For most areas limited grazing resumed two years later, but some units remained closed for 18 years. Van Buren determined any main channel work was impossible until the headwaters were stabilized. So he had over 3,000 acres reseeded with crested wheatgrass, slenderwheat and brome. Several “spreader ditches” were constructed too.

In 1955, a new ranger, Jake Jauch, a Dutchman with a glass eye and a vision for a “modern multi-approach program” took charge. Armed with a whopping $20,000 budget and a friendlier attitude toward ranchers, his men constructed 69 check dams, 52 live water dams, 26 miles of contour trenches, 12 acres of bulldozer gully stabilization, 6.5 miles of road, and 2 stream gauges. They planted 60,580 willow shoots and controlled rodents on 4,000 acres. Fences sectioned the land into more manageable pieces. A range analysis, soil survey, and timber survey were conducted.

“I remember Jake came to me one day and said he only had a little bit of bulldozer time before his money ran out. We picked this gully,” said Joe stopping along the tour route. Using his hands in the roadside sand to demonstrate gully first-aid, Joe pushed a mound of dirt on one side, and then made another mound a bit further downstream on the other side. “We made meanders. We had no idea if they were the right dimensions. But look at it now,” he said pointing to lush riparian vegetation and stable banks. “It worked!”

Not all of Jake’s checkdams and terraces survived, however. Rangers suspected some failures were caused by ground squirrels and other rodents that burrowed through the earthen dikes and thus provided a drain for captured water. The draining burrows would erode and cause breaks in the dikes.

In 1958 hundreds of the rodents were killed by either carbon bisulfide gas (at $0.82/acre) or Compound 1080 (at $0.15/pound). In 1965 “watershed assistant” Charles Harnish poisoned eight square miles with 1080. The report stated that, “The (poisoned) oats were placed in rodent holes so other animals could not reach them. No dead birds were found.”

A May 1966 study concluded that rodents did not cause dam failures and that contour ditches could adequately “contain a 50-year, 1.6 inch storm in one hour.” Joe disagrees with those study results.

In the 70s and 80s, the watershed showed steady improvement. The Cogans put up miles of cattle-managing fences, a “rest-rotation” system was implemented, and springs were developed to help spread cattle over the range. Hillside vegetation was utilized more, and wetlands were used less.

This ranger report is perhaps indicative of the changes: “Permittee Cogan and I rode the west Kauffman pasture. Utilization averaged 40 percent on this unit. Distribution was good; most bottoms were used, with light use on drier slopes.”

THE TROUT HAVE RETURNED to Trout Creek. In 1957 a Colorado Game and Fish crew surveyed the lower reaches of the creek. Their report noted few pools, no stream depth, no beavers, silt and algae on the bottom, and no reproduction. They caught a total of 3 brown trout. Their report reads, “Not enough fish to compute average (size).”

A similar crew in 1989 reported excellent habitat, good reproduction, low livestock use, lots of beaver, and 135 fish in a 300-foot stream reach. Some brown trout were over 12 inches. The reports concludes enthusiastically: “Great Creek!”

The Cogans are the only grazing permittee left in the Trout Creek watershed. Today they run 330 cows and 100 heifers in a deferred rotation system that uses 15 pastures each year for a short duration between May and October.

Contemporary grazing experts try to establish these systems to mimic the foraging and migration patterns of wild ungulates. On the African savannah, herds come through an area and eat everything to the ground. Then, they move on to greener pastures and the grasses recover.

Joe explains it this way: “Which is better?” he poses the question. “To graze one animal on an acre for 360 days, or 360 animals on an acre for one day?” One animal will feed on the choicest grasses continually until they die out. Less palatable species will then increase and take over. In an intensive grazing system, grazing competition will cause all grasses to be grazed to the ground in a day, but then the grazers are moved off for the remainder of the season. Energy reserves in the grass roots regenerate a healthy plant, says Joe.

On the Cattleman’s tour, Joe flagged down nearly every tourist he encountered and proudly displayed the before-and-after photos of this watershed. He beams with pride like a father pulling out his wallet photos and bragging about his children; his enthusiasm is contagious.

His own son, Bryce, is on the tour. “I’ve heard these stories a hundred times,” he confides with a smile. “But I still love them.” Bryce actually does most of the ranch work now. No doubt the story of the Trout Creek watershed will be passed down one more generation.

When asked about his wishes for the future, Joe says, “I’d want to kill every fish in the stream…” At this point, you know there’s more coming. “… and reintroduce Greenback Cutthroats… the native trout.” Cogan admits that might not be practical, but it’s a nice idea.

Someday the Cogan ranch and its grazing allotments will pass down to the next generation. In a rapidly changing economy, local ranching will struggle to stay viable, and the pressure to sell and subdivide will undoubtedly increase.

Some environmental groups who see cattle on public lands as both bad for the forest and a government subsidy, will stereotype ranchers to meet their needs. But no matter who ends up as the stewards of this watershed, they would do best to adopt the same passion as Joe has.

Someday in the future, I hope that my son — a new native to the valley — will drive over Trout Creek Pass and stop to enjoy the sight of willowed beaver ponds, swallows, cows, and… a Greenback. Then he can start his own love affair with this watershed.

Jeff Keidel teaches physics, chemistry, and biology at Buena Vista High School, and doesn’t get to take nearly as many field trips as he’d like.