Tim Sullivan, Natural Climate Solutions Director | September 13, 2021
As seen in Steamboat Pilot & Today.

As an old proverb states, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the second best time is now.” In another summer with increased warming and river closures, now really is the best time for action.

On Oct. 2, the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council will host its 12th annual ReTree community planting event. Over the past 11 years, ReTree has engaged more than 3,600 volunteers to plant more than 27,000 trees around the Yampa Valley. For the past three years, tree planting has focused on the riparian area of the Yampa in and above town.

As we saw again this year, reduced flows and increased water temperatures in the Yampa led to recreational closures for most of the summer. This impacts local businesses and reduces residents’ recreation opportunities.

With projections of continued warmer summer temperatures, we should anticipate more challenges with summer water temperatures that stress our cold-water fish and other organisms. We have some but limited opportunity to increase summer flows with releases from Stagecoach reservoir, but we have a proven way of helping to address water temperature by increasing shade on the river in summer months.

While we are fortunate that the Yampa maintains so much of its natural characteristics, including increased flows in the early summer and a lot of open space along the river, many reaches of the Yampa are degraded in the riparian lands closest to the river’s edge.

These riparian areas are some of our most important habitats in Colorado, critical for both aquatic and terrestrial wildlife and helping to manage floods and prevent erosion. A healthy riparian area will include a variety of species of different sizes and functions. An important riparian species along the Yampa are the tall narrowleaf cottonwood trees that can shade the entire river on the hottest summer days.

Cottonwoods still regenerate naturally in many stretches of the Yampa, but in some places, it is hard for them to become established and survive until maturity. That’s where we can all help, by planting seedlings and helping them survive in their early years.

Fall is the best time to plant tree seedlings in our area. Trees can become established during cooler days before going dormant for the winter. ReTree is not the only opportunity to help plant trees along rivers in the Yampa Valley this year. The newly established Yampa Valley Climate Crew is helping to recruit volunteers for other tree planting efforts in September and October with our partners at the U.S. Forest Service, Trout Unlimited and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Visit our website at YVSC.org to sign up to volunteer for ReTree and other tree planting projects this fall.