The preserve has been closed since August 2021. [Alison Harford/Moab Sun News]

The Scott and Norma Matheson Wetlands Preserve, off Kane Creek Boulevard, has been closed since record-setting flooding in August destroyed infrastructure and swept tons of debris into the preserve. 

The preserve, which is managed by The Nature Conservancy, is known as a wildlife hub—it’s home to more than 200 species of birds, amphibians, and mammals—and popular hiking and bird-watching area. 

Linda Whitham, The Nature Conservancy’s Central Canyonlands manager, said in the best-case scenario, the preserve could fully open to the public in fall 2024. 

“The damage is so extensive, and stream bank stabilization is really expensive to do,” Whitham said. 

Whitham said she’s been working with an engineering firm since November to figure out the preserve’s options for getting up and running again—they’ll have to clear out both natural debris and infrastructure debris, create plans for rebuilding and stabilization, and go through the permitting process (The Nature Conservancy will have to apply for a stream alteration permit), before reopening is possible. 

The preserve’s bridge is the main issue: though the bridge itself wasn’t fully damaged, it doesn’t fit the original footprint anymore. Mill Creek, where it runs through the wetlands, is now wider and deeper than it used to be. The new bridge has to be taller and longer with better stream bank stabilization to prepare for floods of similar intensity to the August 2022 flood. Right now, the Colorado River’s high waterline is also overflowing into the wetland. 

“We don’t have a crystal ball,” Whitham said. “But one of the reasons this is going to be so costly and it’s going to take so much time is because we thought that if we’re going to rebuild, let’s do this right, and let’s make it safe.” 

The boardwalk and trails were also damaged in some areas due to debris. Whitham said she’s been applying for grant money from the state and waiting for a settlement claim from The Nature Conservancy’s insurance company. 

Correcting the flood damage has also led Whitham to assess what else has to be cleaned up in the preserve, namely trees: there are a few precarious trees threatening to tip over in strong winds. 

There are still projects left over from fire damage, too. In April 2021, a fire consumed a bird-watching structure and damaged a wooden boardwalk. The structure lost in 2021 has yet to be replaced: Whitham said she’s been trying to figure out a good place for it and good materials to use, so it wouldn’t be threatened by fire again. 

“We’ve had a lot of action here,” she said. 

While the powers of nature can do a lot of damage, floods can be a boon for the wetland ecosystem, Whitham said—she hasn’t seen any negative impacts on the bird or fish nursery populations following floods last year. 

“After floods, when the water recedes out into the river, it deposits really great soil and seeds,” Whitham said. “Wetlands are resilient.”