The Button Rock Dam is seen on Ralph Price Reservoir on Nov. 6, 2019. Longmont is developing a management plan for Button Rock Preserve to address natural resources, infrastructure, recreation, water quality and improvements.

Despite visitation at Button Rock Preserve increasing tenfold over the last 30 years, from roughly 6,000 in 1990 to over 60,000 this year, the 3,000-acre sanctuary has largely avoided the kind of environmental degradation experienced in wild areas across the Front Range, according to a new report from Longmont.

Researchers from the Colorado Natural Heritage Program and River Restoration, a group of watershed scientists hired by Longmont to study the St. Vrain Creek watershed, noted that parts of the preserve have even begun to rebound from the agricultural and mining operations that took place in the early 1900s, as well as from the 2013 flood.

While the state of the preserve is due in large part to Longmont’s management of the area for the past 50 years, this spring the city initiated a process to update the Button Rock Preserve Management Plan to ensure the area remains unchanged for generations to come.

On Wednesday, staff from the Longmont Public Works and Natural Resources departments presented the results of the ecological and biological surveys conducted this summer, which will act as the baseline data for the new management plan.

While the main goal of the management plan is to protect the area’s water quality for use by the city, maintaining a healthy ecosystem is vital to achieving that goal.

“Button Rock lies within one of the most disturbed areas in the Rocky Mountains,” said Pam Smith, a botanist with the Colorado Natural Heritage Program. “This little isolated area is protecting a lot of things that would have probably been lost and one of the best things we can do to protect water quality is to protect intact or healing ecosystems.”

In terms of stream health, Andy Steininger, an engineer with River Restoration, said that while the main stem of the St. Vrain Creek is still recovering from the 2013 floods, its many tributaries have remained “stable and resilient,” minimizing erosion, fostering robust vegetation and healthy riparian habitats.

The only areas Steininger suggested could use enhanced restoration are upland of the Ralph Price Reservoir,from where some of the granite and soil were taken to construct Button Rock Dam.

Outside of the stream beds, Smith said she found several rare plants in the area, including grass ferns, Sprengel’s sedge, jeweled blazingstar, fiddleleaf twinpod, and several species of native grasses, all of which the Colorado Natural Heritage Program listed as impaired throughout the state, even across the globe.

Jeremy Allinson, the natural resources programs manager at DHM Design, an environmental consultant hired to work on the Button Rock management plan, also noted the forest health in the preserve is robust.

However, he noted that while active forest management has been successful in thinning dangerously overgrown areas, treating roughly 1,000 acres over the past 15 years, there are still several areas, particularly located on steep slopes in the south and north side of the park, that are still a concern.

That being said, of all the plots surveyed, only one tree was infected with pine beetle, and there were only a few sections of forest with noxious weed infestations, which could easily be treated.

“It’s really nice to see that nature is healing itself in many areas of the preserve,” Smith said. “One of the reasons we do plant studies is because plant life tells a lot about the habitat and the condition to the habitat.”

With such a vibrant plant ecosystem, Andrea Schuhmann, a zoologist and ecologist with the Colorado Natural Heritage Program, found an incredible array of animal life.

Not only did she find evidence for a sizable population of large mammals like mountain lions, bears, deer, red fox and elk, but she also recorded 107 species of birds, at least 55 of which used the preserve as a mating ground, and eight species of bats, five of which are considered impaired. She even found five species of snakes.

“This area is a very critical habitat for a variety of species,” Schuhmann said. “It’s really nice to see the health, as far as numbers, in Boulder County, where a lot of them were extricated in the early 1900s.”

While the preserve is in good shape, Ken Huson, Longmont’s water resources manager, said the key to the management plan will be to determine how best to manage increased visitation and use.

“Button Rock Preserve is a special place, the question is how do we keep it special while facing enormous increases in visitation use,” he said. “In large part that will be determining a balance between limiting numbers and better managing an increasing number.”

This could take the form of daily permits to limit the number of people allowed in the preserve each day. It also could result in an expansion of trails and trail connectors to disperse visitors across a larger portion of the park and thereby limit the impacts in certain high-use areas. For example, Huson said, visitors could use the Johnny Park trailhead on U.S. Forest Service land to enter the western side of the preserve.

Of course, Huson said, in all likelihood, the management plan will use some combination of both.

The final plan is expected to be completed by the end of 2020. There will be one more public meeting to discuss recommendations, though a date has yet to be set.

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