Aspen Ecosystem Restoration

Quaking aspen ecosystems are one of the most important habitat types for wildlife in the western U.S. Recently, aspen stands in Colorado and other Rocky Mountain states began losing their overstory trees from what is termed Sudden Aspen Decline (SAD). Our objectives are to investigate how removal of aspen overstory trees affects aspen sprout density in SAD-affected stands, and to determine the efficacy of herbivory deterrents in protecting those sprouts. We have cut aspen trees in different plots on the Low Ranch and High Ranch to test for sprout response and herbivory pressure (deer-elk use) in each local landscape. We hope to identify the most economical and ecologically effective restoration techniques for aspen stands on these mixed-use landscapes.

HLI Aspen Ecologist Trent Seager is implementing the project under the guidance and design by Dr. Eisenberg.

Kimball Creek Watershed Ecosystem Restoration

One of the first habitat reclamation efforts on The High Lonesome Ranch involved restoring seven miles of the primary stream in the North Dry Fork Valley. A second, even more important project is now underway to restore a 16.5-mile creek and HLR’s portion of the watershed in Kimball Creek Valley. When completed, this restored valley will be home to a far richer diversity of wildlife and plant species, provide a high-quality water source for people and agriculture, and stand as one of the most important restoration projects in the nation and serve as a model for others to follow.

Project Goals

While HLR’s Kimball Creek Valley Restoration Project is unprecedented in importance, scope and method of restoration, the largest impact may be the potential for the project to change the way we view water, public policy and our interaction with the land itself.

The project is unlike other restoration projects in many ways:

  • ~16.5 miles of restored stream length
  • The largest native heritage cutthroat trout habitat project in the nation
  • Focus on trophic cascades and the impact of lifting the water table and stream meander back to the valley floor on the entire valley ecosystem as opposed to typical ‘bank-to-bank’ projects
  • Reduction of sediment transported from the valley into the Colorado River drainage system
  • Restoration of groundwater resources resulting in additional quantity and quality of water for the entire ecosystem of the valley and beyond
  • A national template for water usage, water rights law and public policy that will effect ecosystems well beyond the project boundaries
  • An unparalleled research laboratory for multiple disciplines and universities

The Kimball Creek Valley Restoration Project has attracted the attention and research funding of the National Science Foundation and several national universities for the applicable research potential and will be a living laboratory with regional, national and global impacts. The project will serve as a benchmark for generations to come.

Project Partners:

  • Trout Unlimited
  • Colorado Department of Parks & Wildlife
  • United States Fish & Wildlife
  • Bureau of Land Management
  • Oregon State University
  • Murray State University
  • Colorado State University
  • Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences


Valley History

The history of industrial human interaction with the valley began in the mid to late 1800s when the high groundwater and ‘chest high’ native grasses contained within large cliff-sided canyons were found to be perfect for the growing cattle industry. The nearby town of DeBeque, located at the entrance to the Roan Creek watershed was established as a cattle stockyard for the railroads in the 1870s and valleys like Kimball Creek were used to fatten up 10,000+ cattle a season prior to shipping east.

The overuse of these resources depleted the native grasses and exposed large valleys with relatively flat land and high groundwater tables to the next wave of human interaction: The western land rush. In the late 1870s and early 1880s, farmers and settlers came into the area and began to establish farming and cattle operations. The channelization of waterways, over irrigation, elimination of beaver dams to control water flow began to expose, and more importantly, erode the native soils and dewater the valley groundwater table. Economic pressures facing the ranchers and farmers forced the overuse of the water resources, which magnified the erosion to the conditions we see today.

Historical research shows that approximately 1.8 million cubic yards of material have been eroded from the Kimball Creek Valley since the early 1940s. The scar on the landscape is only the symptom of the problem as the resulting drop in groundwater tables have reduced the agricultural capacity of the valley to ~25% of what was possible prior to the erosion. In addition, the sediments transported out of the valley have flowed down the Colorado River drainage basin and caused significant problems.

Project Details

The restoration of the Kimball Creek Valley is scheduled to take place in four phases over the course of seven to nine years and include:

  • 1.3 Miles of New Channel Construction
  • 8.3 Miles of Channel Fill and Valley Reconstruction
  • 6.9 Miles of Check Dams and Bank Reshaping
  • 1.1 Million Cubic Yards of Cut/Fill Material
  • 19.5 Acres of New Wetland Construction
  • 780,000 Shrubs, Plants and Trees

The nature and scope of the project will also require the construction of one of the largest native plant nurseries in the Western United States to supply the vegetation needs of the project. This nursery will continue to be a heritage seed collection center and provide native plantings for the restoration project and for any restoration efforts the ranch may take on in the future.

Research Opportunities

The Kimball Creek Valley Restoration Project is unique on many levels but one of the most important may be the opportunity for researchers, universities, government and non-government organizations to be involved in the restoration design, establish baseline conditions prior to the restoration and document the effect of the restoration effects.

The research opportunities include significant advances in fields of:

  • Geomorphology
  • Hydrology
  • Hydrogeology
  • Sediment transport
  • Stream Mechanics
  • Groundwater
  • Irrigation and water use
  • Runoff mitigation
  • Erosional vegetation effects
  • Biodiversity recovery
  • Vegetation, Insect & Fish dispersal rates
  • Trophic Cascades in Complex Food Webs

The Kimball Creek Valley Restoration Project will be a world-class research station that will have lasting effects well beyond this generation.