River parks take on new look as non-native plant mitigation project hits high gear

Overgrown areas have been thinned, invasive species removed

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • The two-phase, fire hazard mitigation and invasive plant species removal project began in March 2020.
  • A total of 46 acres in Animas and Berg parks have been treated.
  • Hundres of native trees are being planted to replace the invasive species that were removed.

FARMINGTON — If you haven't taken a stroll or walked your dog through Animas and Berg parks along the Animas River in Farmington over the last year, you're in for a surprise when you do — you might not recognize the place.

A two-phase, fire hazard mitigation and invasive plant species removal project that began in March 2020 has had a dramatic effect, leading to the elimination of thousands of trees and greatly opening many of the park's views. Many areas that were overgrown with brush largely have been cleared, allowing native species to enjoy a better chance of survival and greatly reducing the chances of a catastrophic wildfire.

The project isn't just about reducing the amount of vegetation in the parks, however. With so many invasive species removed, workers will plant hundreds of native species to replace them and seed those areas with native grasses.

Doug Abe, parks superintendent for the city of Farmington, said most of the public feedback he has gotten about the project has been positive, although some infrequent visitors have been shocked by how marked the change has been. But Abe said he believes the benefits of the project are numerous.

Battalion Chief Tom Miller of the Farmington Fire Department points out some of the work that has been done to remove invasive tree species and thin overgrown areas in Berg Park during a walk-through on March 2, 2021.

"It's opened up all sorts of possibilities now for usable space," he said, noting that the trails system around the Riverside Nature Center in Animas Park likely will be redesigned.

Kathy Farley, the assistant parks superintendent, said trail use in the two parks has increased by 35% this year, although she didn't know whether to attribute that to the thinning project, the COVID-19 pandemic or both.

Tom Miller, a battalion chief for the Farmington Fire Department, said he has heard many visitors marvel at the number of deer they are able to see now in the river parks.

A sign in Animas Park near the Xeriscape garden alerts visitors about a project by Farmington officials to remove invasive tree species and reduce the fuel load in overgrown areas.

"They were always there, of course, but you just couldn't see them before because of all the brush," he said.

Miller noted that plenty of protective habitat remains for the deer, but he has noticed they seem to gravitate toward the mulch piles that now exist in many of the treated areas.

"I think they like to pick through the seeds," he said.

Getting rid of the invaders

The first phase of the project covered a 10-acre site in Animas Park near the nature center, according to a fact sheet put together by the city. The second phase began in November 2020 and tackled a 36-acre site west of the nature center, north of the river near Cottonwood Landing and near All Veterans Memorial Plaza.

Cut-up logs are piled in Berg Park in Farmington on March 2, 2021, as part of an effort to remove invasive species and thin overgrown brush to reduce the chances of a catastrophic fire.

Targeted for removal were the invasive Russian olive and salt cedar trees that had taken over those areas of the park. Those trees were inhibiting the growth of native species such as cottonwood and New Mexico olive trees by outcompeting them for sunlight, water and soil nutrients. They also had grown so thick in many places that fire department officials fretted they would be unable to contain a wildland fire if one broke out in the parks.

"Before, it was really thick in certain areas for us to get trucks down there or have defensible space," said Duane Bair, wildland chief and investigator for the Farmington Fire Department. "Now, we can actually get down to the fire when we need to. The fire intensity (before the areas were treated) would have been hard for us to catch and do anything with."

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Battalion Chief Tom Miller of the Farmington Fire Department prepares to cross a bridge over a drainage in Berg Park on March 2, 2021, while leading a walk-through of the area, which is having overgrown brush thinned and invasive tree species removed.

Of particular concern, he said, was the overgrown area around the Riverside Nature Center. The brush was so thick, he said, that fire officials were concerned they would not be able to save the popular attraction if a blaze broke out. Nor were they confident about the public's safety if a wildfire got started during a large public event, such as the annual Riverfest celebration traditionally held over Memorial Day weekend.

Now, those fears have been allayed, for the most part. The fuels density has been sharply reduced, and the thinning project should lead to more water remaining in the river. The city's fact sheet indicates a single Russian olive tree can consume 80 to 120 gallons of water per day.

When that consumption rate is multiplied by the more than 400 trees per acre that characterized some areas of the parks, the water savings is huge. In fact, city officials claim the water savings for the 36 acres that have been treated as part of the project total more than 1.4 million gallons a day. They say one day's savings would provide enough water for a herd of 100 deer for 49 years.

A pile of mulch from downed trees is pictured in Animas Park in Farmington on March 2, 2021.

"It's staying in the river instead of being sucked up by all those invasive species," Bair said.

The planting of replacement native trees already has begun. According to the fact sheet, 200 cottonwoods and 350 willow trees were planted in February, and the city hopes to plan an additional 100 to 300 trees next year in mitigated areas.

Other work remains to be done on the project, as well. The trees that have been cut down quickly had herbicides applied to their stumps to keep them from sprouting new shoots, and a second application of that herbicide will follow this year. The seeding of additional native grasses and flowers will follow through 2022, when the project is slated to come to an end.

A project to thin overgrown areas of Animas Park and remove invasive tree species has opened up the view of the duck pond adjacent to the Riverside Nature Center.

The city officials overseeing the project say they are looking forward to spring, when many of the slash piles of downed vegetation have been removed, and the parks turn green and lush. Abe is excited to see the rejuvenated New Mexico olive trees, many of which had their branches pruned back to 3 feet as part of the treatment program.

"They're going to resprout, and that'll look really nice, too," he said, smiling as he described their "stumpy" look now. "I just see lots of great things."

The city undertook the project as a partnership with the San Juan Soil Conservation District. It was a funded by a grant from the New Mexico Water Trust Board.

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Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.