Vail Daily column: Protecting land to protect rivers | VailDaily.com

Vail Daily column: Protecting land to protect rivers

The Eagle and Colorado rivers are the heart of our community — they run through each community, connecting us together. We depend on the Eagle River, the Colorado River and their tributaries for clean drinking water and for the tourism that drives our economy. The Eagle River, Colorado River and their tributaries contribute to the scenic beauty and the habitat for wildlife that lives here or migrates through on its way to other places.

Eagle County is a wonderful place to live. We have abundant natural beauty and bountiful resources and we are lucky to have a community that cares deeply about preserving this natural heritage.

Gore Creek has been listed by Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment as an impaired stream. The factors impacting Gore Creek are limited land and urban runoff. According to Holly Loff, with the Eagle River Watershed Council, "We think it's only a matter of time before the entire watershed is dealing with these same issues." The Eagle River Watershed Council and town of Vail have teamed up on an intense Restore the Gore project to return Gore Creek to its gold medal status.

Intact natural systems provide many services to humans, including clean water and air as well as food. If we protect these natural systems and allow them to function, then they will provide us with the necessities for life. Natural systems are resilient, meaning they can bounce back from disturbances. In fact, in the mid-1980s, high levels of heavy metals from the Eagle Mine south of Minturn prompted the Environmental Protection Agency to declare the zone a superfund site — an area requiring emergency cleanup of hazardous substances. This resulted in a very successful cleanup effort, restoring the river to a healthy fishery.

Both the Restore the Gore and the superfund cleanup efforts were costly and time consuming. We have an opportunity to learn from past events and protect our Eagle River. Now is the time to focus on preserving and protecting our rivers. One of the best ways to protect rivers is to preserve the land around them.

Essential buffer zones

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Preserving riverside land is one way to protect riparian buffer zones. Riparian buffer zones are areas of native plants, such as willows and cottonwood, along rivers that work to protect the river bank and filter out pollutants before the reach the river. These buffer zones also provide important wildlife habitat and are the main line of defense for rivers. Ideally, riparian buffer zones are between 20 and 100 feet wide.

Although 80 percent of Eagle County is public land, the land along the valley floors is critical for humans and the ecosystems on which we depend and is vulnerable to development. There is much competition for the flat, accessible land along the valley floor. The valley floor was the first place to be settled by people as they began to migrate here. As urban uses in the valley floor continue to intensify, impacts on our watershed are compounded. Fertilizers, pesticides, oil and gas from vehicles and pet waste contribute to the degradation of our rivers. Protecting riparian buffer zones allows the pollutants to be filtered out naturally before they reach the river. We can balance our community needs with the needs of our natural systems by strategically protecting important places, such as riverside lands.

Balancing needs

As the population of Eagle County continues to grow, we need to be mindful of the balance between development and conservation. It's important to protect the resources we value while welcoming newcomers. Those lifestyle values include clean air and water, recreation opportunities, scenic views and open space, local food options and abundant wildlife. Eagle Valley Land Trust is working with our partners throughout Eagle County to protect the important places, especially the sensitive habitat along our rivers and streams.

Eagle Valley Land Trust works with local partners to secure conservation easements on high value lands throughout Eagle County. A conservation easement is a legal agreement to protect land forever in order to preserve open space, wildlife habitat, scenic vistas, agriculture and historical values. Eagle Valley Land Trust holds conservation easements on several important riverside parcels, including Miller Ranch Open Space, Duck Pond Open Space and Eagle River Preserve. With your help, the Land Trust will be able to preserve more land adjacent to rivers, stream and creeks to create and maintain healthy waterways for the future.

Jessica Foulis is the stewardship manager at Eagle Valley Land Trust. She works closely with landowners who have conservation easements to protect the important conservation value on their properties.