Conservation Easements and Riparian Management


by Ann Oliver, Yampa River Project Director, The Nature Conservancy

Dean and Jim Rossi got the ball rolling. They were the first ranching family in Routt County to take the big step of selling a conservation easement over their property. This meant hours of introspection and weighing the consequences for their family and their family’s future, a lengthy process working closely with the Yampa Valley Land Trust to complete the easement, some income from the sale of their development rights, and the permanent protection from subdivision and development of some of the most productive hay meadows and pasture along the Yampa River.

 Photo 1.
Photo 1.
Volunteers place willow wattle in a mattress.

For the Yampa River, the Rossi’s big step meant permanent protection from the rip-rapped and/or bermed banks which so often accompany residential development along rivers. The river is left to meander as it will and the ranching family is able to continue living and producing on the land, with a better chance of passing the land on to their children. Of course, Dean and Jim have also suffered the modest fame and endless engagements that come with being the first!

Upon completion of their conservation easement, the Rossis worked with the Yampa Valley Land Trust, the Routt County Cooperative Extension Office, and The Nature Conservancy to write a management plan for the property, to integrate protection of the conservation values on the property into the Rossi brothers’ productive agricultural operation.

 Photo 2.
Photo 2.
Using willow wattle to protect eroding streambank.

The Rossi Ranch, located high in the Yampa’s watershed near to town of Yampa, includes over one mile of the Yampa River along with associated riparian communities such as the thinleaf alder/Geyer’s willow (Alnus incana/Salix geyeriana) shrubland and the narrowleaf cottonwood/Booth’s willow — Pacific willow (Populus angustifolia/Salix boothiiSalix lasiandra ssp. caudata) forest. These plant communities are tracked by the Colorado Natural Heritage Program due to their ecological significance and, therefore, their protection was an important aspect of the conservation easement on the Rossi Ranch.

The river channel is stable and meandering in this reach with banks stabilized by the native riparian community, including sedges, willows, alders and cottonwoods. The ranch is adjacent to other agricultural lands and public lands, and the landscape still supports a richness of wildlife incuding northern leopard frogs, yellow warblers, common yellowthroats, great blue herons, sandhill cranes, beaver and mink.

 Photo 3.
Photo 3.
Note lack of woody vegetation on grassy cotbank.

However, there was one rapidly eroding grassy cutbank that lacked any woody vegetation. In just a couple more seasons, the erosion was on track to take out one of the Rossis’ cross fences. So The Nature Conservancy, the Rossi family and a flock of volunteers teamed up to see what they could do about the problem.

After some broad research into, “soft” bioengineering approaches to stabilizing stream banks, including a highly informative trip to Salida to attend the Colorado Riparian Association’s 1999 Annual Conference, TNC developed a plan and secured the necessary Army Corps of Engineers permit. Then waves of worthy volunteers ranging from elementary school students to retirees began the work of harvesting native willows in March, to store in the neighbor’s potato cellar and in snow banks until July.

 Photo 4.
Photo 4.
Volunteers unload willow wattles.

On a glorious July day the project came together with Dean using his loader to lay back the bank at a 3:1 angle, one crew of volunteers laying mixed willows in a mattress on the bank and staking them in, while a second crew of vounteers strung together recycled Christmas trees into a revetment chain which was then secured along the toe of the bank using duck bills and stakes.

Dean topped off the project by sifting soil into the willow mattress from his front loader, and laying the reserved turf back on top, behind the Christmas tree revetment. With great enthusiasm, the volunteers finished up the days work with bucket-fulls of river water flying to water the newly installed willow mattress.

That fall, my intern lead me back through the meadows with my hands over my eyes. I was fearful of seeing a disaster! When she told me that it was safe to look, I was pleasantly relieved to see everything still in place and willows sprouting up from the buried mattress. Early signs of success!

Although small and limited in scope and benefit for the Yampa River as a whole, this little project was big in the lessons it taught and the connections it forged. Conservation biologist, rancher and volunteers from all walks of life worked together to accomplish something positive for the river and for the ranch. In the process we all learned about the important links between riparian and stream channel health, about native willows, about ranching, and about each other and our perspectives on the land and the river. And we all have the peace of mind to know that the river can and will go on changing and adjusting because the Rossis’ have made a commitment that will keep their land open for the generations to come.

For more information about this project, contact Ann via e-mail at or on the phone at             970 879-1546      .