Kara Dohrenwend explains that work crews on a riparian restoration project in the Mill Creek watershed are planting cottonwood saplings in deep holes that reach soil moistened by groundwater, with the hope that they can establish the trees without irrigation. [Photo by Lara Gale / Moab Sun News]

Is Mill Creek Canyon being loved to death?

The canyon’s popularity as a recreation destination increases annually, and authorities and land management professionals from the community and local, state and federal institutions are working together to implement management plans for the canyon.

Efforts are geared toward public safety and preserving the long-term health of the largest of the Moab area’s two watersheds.

The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources recently closed an investigation into suspicious activity in the canyon that may have been the cause of the recent destruction of 11 beaver dams along the creek. The suspected incident of vandalism is believed to have occurred in mid-July, when a federal employee who is new to the area reported that she spotted a man who was standing in the middle of the stream, removing wood from the dams by hand.

“Law enforcement (conducted) a site visit, but the investigation was inconclusive,” Utah Department of Wildlife Resources spokesperson Morgan Jacobsen said. “We didn’t have policy authority allowing further investigation.”

An uptick in criminal mischief, including arson, has become a problem, Grand County Sheriff Steve White said, and though there have not been many vehicle accidents, congestion has created problems for property owners on Powerhouse Lane and made access to the parking area dangerous and difficult.

“We need to step up our game because of increased visitors,” White said.

With its authority over the gravel road between the end of Powerhouse Lane and the trailhead parking lot, the Grand County Sheriff’s Office (GCSO) has placed signs about parking restrictions, making parking along the stream-side of the road illegal and prohibiting trailers and long Recreational Vehicles.

A group of stakeholders including the GCSO, the Moab City Police Department, the Bureau of Land Management Moab Field Office, advocacy group Moab Solutions and others have met several times this year to discuss ongoing efforts to manage visitor impact in the canyon and to coordinate efforts moving forward, White said.

“It’s a basic group being put together right now to even establish what needs to be done,” White said.

The priority will be managing the parking situation, he said.

Vehicle management in the area is the primary concern of residents at the base of the access road, said Nate Zabloski, a member of the Mill Creek Village Property Owners Association. Vehicles often speed down the gravel road as they make the turn onto the paved road, he said.

Although RVs are prohibited on the gravel road, visitors often park them along Powerhouse Lane, blocking driveways and generally creating a disturbance with loud generators, Zabloski said.

The association recently finalized a letter to present to local authorities offering suggestions on improving the flow of traffic in the area, which has become unbearable for residents in recent years, Zabloski said. Their suggestions include re-engineering the parking lot to include a turn-around, straightening the road where the gravel access meets the pavement, and better enforcement of parking and vehicle size restrictions.

“I feel like I should have written a letter a long time ago, but everyone is really busy,” Zabloski said.

Addressing long-term watershed health

This year, Utah’s Watershed Restoration Initiative, a program of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, approved a nearly $190,000 project in the Mill Creek watershed for riparian restoration.

Concentrated management efforts have coalesced at intervals since the inception of the collaborative Mill Creek Partnership in the late 1990s.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the City of Moab, Grand County, the Red Rock 4-Wheelers Club and property owners in the area at that time created a partnership to assess environmental degradation caused by growing recreational use of the area. Following publication of the resulting Environmental Assessment in 1997, the area was added to the State of Utah List of Impaired Waters and the BLM closed the canyon to motorized vehicles, overnight camping, firearms discharge and wood collection.

That was the beginning of restoration efforts that have significantly improved the entire length of the creek, said Rim to Rim Restoration Director Kara Dohrenwend, who has been working to eliminate invasive species and restore native habitat to the area for nearly 20 years.

On a recent walk through a portion of the riparian corridor that meanders through downtown Moab, Dohrenwend pointed out non-native species and newly planted and self-seeded native species, explaining how restoration work over the decades has been experimental and produced important best management practices.

As an example, she demonstrated the “deep planting” method she and Utah Conservation Corps workers have adopted in that area, where upstream control of waterflow means the riparian zone doesn’t flood like it once did, to give new saplings an early infusion of water. Dohrenwend and her crew approximate the effect by digging holes as much as 6 feet deep to allow the saplings to tap into groundwater, and will flood irrigate them several times before leaving them to nature’s care.

“The cottonwoods will never establish here naturally again,” she explained. “But we’re trying to get them to establish here again with minimal inputs, as opposed to constant inputs.”

The management plan for the entire corridor is “landscape-level” and centers around strengthening the health and long-term resilience of the fragile riparian ecosystem, BLM spokesperson Lisa Bryant said.

“We’ve been in there working in that particular watershed for decades, literally,” Bryant said. “We’ve finally gotten to the point now where we’ve got the partners, the funding, the volunteers, the support from the community, support from all our other agencies – and all of that is just coming together in this really solid project, and we’re looking forward in the next three to five years to just really tackling the invasive species in there and doing a lot of revegetation restoration work.

“We believe with the information we’ve got and the techniques now, that we can really make a difference in the riparian conditions and the water quality.”

A community effort

Nearly $50,000 of the WRI project budget will come from in-kind donations from local partners, including local nonprofits Rim to Rim Restoration and Moab Solutions, Grand County, the Utah Conservation Corps, The American Conservation Experience, and local property owners, according to the WRI project report.

“In the Moab Field Office, we have (responsibility for) 1.8 million acres, and if we didn’t have those partners and volunteers, we wouldn’t be able to get everything done that we need to get done,” BLM Moab Field Manager Christina Price said. “They’re extremely crucial and valued members that we look at as our partners.”

Mill Creek Partnership lead organizer Sara Melnicoff said since she began daily visits to the canyon in 2003, she estimates that she and other volunteers in the canyon portion of the corridor have removed tens of thousands of tumbleweeds, and hundreds of pounds of dog poop.

“We’re lucky now we’ve got a lot of interest focused on the canyon,” Melnicoff said. “My plan now that it’s the quiet time is to work my butt off all fall and winter clarifying trails.”

The partnership is exemplary in the state, WRI Project Manager Nicole Nielson said.

“I would say it stands out,” she said. “I think that’s the neatest part of the project – and it’s also a very good project technically. But the neatest part of the project is the number of partners involved.”

Agencies, residents responding to address concerns