Conservation Dept. begins work on stream restoration

August 21, 2021 – For most of its 50-year history, the Philmont Conservation Department has focused primarily on trail building and forest management. However, in recent years the department has extended its focus into new arenas. Namely, the restoration of Philmont’s streams.

Seth Mangini, Ph.D. candidate at Montana State University and project manager for the Bonito Creek Restoration Project, leads a team of five conservation workers in restoring the ancient wetlands that cover the valley Beaubien sits in.

Mountain valley wetlands, like the ones that Bonito Creek makes up, take thousands of years to create. However, as the beaver population was lost due to trapping, the elk population increased due to the loss of predators, domestic livestock was introduced and the rate of droughts and floods changed, the wetlands began to degrade. Eventually, the wetlands form head cuts. These structures, which look like drop-offs or waterfalls along the stream, constrain how far the stream can spread outwards. Over time, the wetland dries out and only a fast-running, channeled stream is left, instead of a broad, wet valley floor.

This work serves as Mangini’s Ph.D. project. It began by surveying the morphology of how the Bonito Creek wetlands formed. Then Mangini compared this valley to the wetlands of the North Ponil stream in Seally Canyon. The third part of the project is the actual conservation work, which will take place over the next three years through the funding from an EPA grant worth upwards of $200k, and the future monitoring of how that work affects the creek.

John Paul “JP” Fletcher, one of the project’s work crew members, said he enjoys the hard work that stream restoration entails. He said he is proud of the work because Bonito Creek and the valley that it flows in is a very special place.

“It is probably the most important thing that I’ve ever done for money,” Fletcher said.

Crew member Charles “Chuck” Fox was a ranger in 2019 but said he felt he wanted to give back to the Ranch in some tangibly positive way. As a conservation worker, Fox said he is also very proud of the work that they’re doing, especially on this project.

“I felt like I’d reached my summer destiny. I felt like I was where I belonged,” Fox said about the project.

The stream restoration crew places a log in the stream over geotextile, also known as “rock cloth.” Photo by Jarod Contreras.

But that destiny requires work, as Fox and Fletcher well know. The team begins work at 6:30 a.m. every day, usually working until mid-afternoon. Throughout that time, the team preps logs to place in the stream by hand debarking and chainsawing them down to size. They select and place rocks in the stream. They break gravel down from larger rocks for packing space between larger stones. They line their worksites in the stream with geotextile, colloquially called “rock cloth,” an erosion-control fabric. It is hard labor that lasts for most of the day.

The stream restoration crew rests for lunch. Photo by Jarod Contreras.

“It’s hard work, you know? So sometimes it’s kind of miserable,” Calinda Baker, the work crew’s foreman, said.

Baker said she is proud they can see and feel what they accomplished at the end of the workday. She said that despite the moments when it doesn’t feel good, they are all invested in the work.

“When in the right headspace, it’s meditative. It flows,” Baker said.

However, at the end of the day, they return to a restored 1950s cabin, Bonito Cow, that overlooks the valley. A home only for the stream restoration work crew, not a place that sees scouts nor does any program. There, they rest hard after working hard, reading being a common pastime, after they’ve finished prepping, cooking and cleaning up dinner, of course.

The porch, with the stream restoration crew’s outdoor cooking and cleaning area, of Bonito Cow. Photo by Jarod Contreras.

“I felt like I was at home. I felt like I finally made it to the Wild West,” Fox said of the cabin.

The crew works very closely, spending all day working together, living together and often enjoying their days off together. So, tensions rise and fall much like a family.

“I like them. They’re very interesting people. Eclectic is a good word. I’m definitely glad it’s these people and not other people. It’s very familyesque, both in the good ways and the bad ways,” Fletcher said.

The work crew is very aware that through the simple act of moving rocks and logs, they can help to save an entire ecosystem.

“It’s weird to think about how people coming here in 50 years, in 100 years will still see these structures. There’s the potential that these structures will outlast Philmont, that they exist beyond a human life scale. It’s weird to think about how spending a summer working with your hands will leave such a positive impact,” Baker said.

There seems to be a consensus amongst the crew that this work is vitally important and a deep pride that they have the privilege to partake in it this summer.

“I really enjoy physical labor. I like manual labor. I really enjoy working with my hands. I just feel like working in an office or doing an internship this summer I wouldn’t get as much out of it. I just feel like after a year and a half of movies and TV … coming out here and immersing myself in nature I could be myself. I didn’t really feel like myself during the pandemic,” Fox said.

Written by Jarod Contreras – MPS Writer.