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Over the last 100 years, Moraine Park's willow communities have slowly declined

2020-01-17

Due to various human and environmental factors. The most recent impact occurred when fire raced across this river valley the night of December 1st 2012, and burned many seed-producing willows. I'm Karina Puikkonen with the Continental Divide Research Learning Center. Fenced elk exclosures have protected willows for years, but the Fern Lake Fire sparked an even deeper commitment to restore this important plant community. New research is determining how human nature can now help mother nature bring willows back to this part of Rocky Mountain National Park. Moraine Park is an iconic river valley in Rocky Mountain National Park. The Big Thompson River flows from a mountain backdrop, and green grass and colorful flowers blanket the ground. The peaceful landscape we see today looked very different after 70 mile per hour winds drove the Fern Lake Fire across Moraine Park in just 30 minutes. While life has returned to the valley in abundance, the charred remains of willow stumps remind us everything can't recover that quickly. This particular outcome interested Dr. Kristen Kaczysnki of Colorado State University who specializes in disturbance ecology. She leads a new study that will inform Moraine Park's willow restoration efforts in the future. It's looking at fires and willows which is the perfect project for me. I really enjoy studying fires in particular because it's really interesting to see what comes back after a fire, especially in a place that doesn't typically burn. Kaczysnki and her field assistant Amy Goodrich, evaluated different areas around Moraine Park. Low willow seed production became obvious when Kaczysnki compared the valley seed trap counts to those from willow rich valley of Horseshoe Park. There were about 250 seeds on one of the boards, and throughout Moraine Park we have found a total of four seeds the entire season. Without many existing willows left to study, restoration started from the ground up. Kaczysnki and Goodrich used the protected boundaries of a fenced elk exclosure to monitor thousands of seeds and willow stems hand planted along a burned stream bed. The new sprouts now rely on their own strength to grow. So in the mean time a willows own resiliency could be the greatest surprise in this project. In a grove where many seed producing willows were burned, Kaczysnki remembers how the site looked after the fire. We walked around and everything was black and charred. But then when we came out here in May, we saw that there were some resprouts happening on the willows. You can see the resprouts are happening here. A fenced exclosure now protect these new willows shrubs from elk browsing in hopes to reestablish their presence in this riparian ecosystem. Hopefully, in the future this area will become the seed source for willows throughout the valley. (music playing) The Fern Lake Fire provided new ground in which both willows and researchers can grow. This partnership between mother nature and human nature is critical to restoring the willow communities of Moraine Park, and gives us better understanding of our role as caretakers of Rocky Mountain National Park. (music playing)