Heiser Spring Restoration

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Note: Speaker is Paul Whitefield, Natural Resource Manager for the Flagstaff Area National Monuments (includes Sunset Crater Volcano NM, Wupatki NM and Walnut Canyon NM). [Sound of birds chirping, the feeling of being outside] I'd first like to make the point that riparian areas and seeps or springs are crucial to conserving biodiversity in the arid southwest. And that's why we focused all of this restoration effort on the Heiser Spring area. Almost anyone in my position would be striving [chuckles] towards doing this. I'm Paul Whitefield and I've been working for the National Park Service for over 10 years. There are only three springs in Wupatki National Monument, and Heiser is one of the three. And it's fed by a local perched aquifer, with a very local recharge area we think on a basalt mesa immediately upslope. [Sound of birds chirping, of walking across desert gravel, brushing against bushes] You see the gypsum salts where water's coming up and evaporating through the soil. Maybe between 12,000 and 8,000 years ago it would have been more like what we call a cienega. This was never the kind of roaring spring, it was probably mostly a hillside mud seep. [Sound of walking away through the desert] One of the crucial challenges of this project was, nobody described what the spring looked like when Anglo ranchers first arrived in the area in 1870s. So we had to sort of infer by looking at the other nearby seeps and springs what we would be restoring it to. [Sound of restoration work in the back ground] The active work on the funded part of the project began in 2007 and it lasted until 2010 when we finished the revegetation stage. [Sound of digging, soil being turned over] A really unique aspect of the project area, for restoration planning, is that it has one layer of human culture upon another. It was probably utilized by hunter/gathers 6,000 years ago, and then the Sinaqua farmers around 7 or 8 hundred years ago, and then Navajo sheep herders in the 1860s, 1870s, followed by Anglo ranchers from the 1880s through the 1920s, then the Civilian Conservation Corp moved in in the 1930s, and the Park Service acquired it and started turning it into an operations area in the 1950s. So the project had to be carefully implemented. We did a cultural resource inventory and there are archeological sites nearby that we had to be very careful not to run our equipment over... [Sound of stakes being driven into the ground with a hammer] ...or, even do ground disturbing activities, you know, with hand crews. We had an archeologist monitoring our work and making sure that we did not impact those sites. [Sound of hammering on wood or metal] A lot of the infrastructure had been steadily removed throughout the 1970s and 1980s, but, the crucial steps of actually removing the spring boxes from the spring site itself was crucial to allow it to revegetate to a natural condition, and for wild life to start coming in and utilizing the spring site again. [Sound of desert birds chirping and warbling] There's one invasive species known as camel thorn, which had already invaded the site. And we were really concerned because it's very aggressive and will take over from all the native vegetation. So one of the objectives was to also treat this invasive plant, camel thorn, as part of the project, and that was also accomplished in 2008 and 2009. [Static] Cottonwoods do occur at nearby Peshlakai Spring, and they are also on our target list for eventually replanting at Heiser Spring, too. So, we did not remove the old cottonwood tree, because they are crucial wildlife habitat. [Sound of desert birds] The long term trend in the localized perched aquifer that feeds the springs seems to have been steadily declining in flow, so the water table is at the lowest point that it's ever been measured at. It's about 3 feet below ground level, so we expect the flow at the spring to be quite gradual and driven by long term climate trend. [Sound of desert birds] The greatest challenge for us is the fact that we try to revegetate an area, and we can't water like you can farm. So there is no irrigation involved. All of the methods we've done, except for right at the wettest part of the spring are all like dry land farming. We collect seed, and we put seed down, and we hope that we get a good wet year while the seeds still viable, and that it germinates and establishes. [Sound of trickling water] These are very similar methods that the native peoples would have to use to grow corn, squash and beans in the area. [Sound of desert birds] From looking around at nearby wet places we determined that fragrant sumac and desert olive would be suitable for planting at the wettest part of the spring site itself. The Flagstaff Arboretum was a great partner in the project. They collected cuttings off of some nearby patches of those two species, and, uh, they were able to successfully root them out and they grew them for a year, and then delivered them to us. We planted them with deep watering tubes, so that we could irrigate, and then we put wire cages around them to keep deer and pronghorn antelope from browsing on them too heavily until they got taller. I've been going out and making ground water measurements every month since we finished the demolition and replanting work. It's been very dry, I haven't seen a lot of our seed germinate. But, I'm hopeful that we'll hit a wet cycle and that that will start. But I have noticed that all the shrubs that we planted, even without watering, for over nine months, they've all doubled in size and they're all taking off on their own. And, just the aesthetics of the site, it looks so much better without all the fencing and buildings and all the demolition rubble. [Sound of desert birds] We're really hoping to create a wet place for animals to come in and get water. We're most hopeful that the pronghorn antelope will be able to utilize water at the area, eventually. They're a significant grassland species, and they seem to have been impacted greatly by habitat fragmentation and loss of natural surface waters throughout the Wupatki area. [Birds singing and cooing] Desert mule dear are prevalent in the area, but even other animals as common as foxes and jack rabbits, and cottontail rabbits. We were also hoping to provide some structural diversity, some purchases and some nesting shrubbery for a number of song birds species, such as morning dove, and black tailed gnatcatcher, canyon towhee, rock wrens, western king bird. We know that the larger trees are really important for providing perches for raptors. [Sound of car driving by] Under the General Management Planning framework, visitors won't have access to the spring site, but they will be able to enjoy the natural scenic view shed as they drive by now, instead of seeing and old Park Service trailer town and operations area. And then, maybe decisions about public use will be revisited during future management planning. [Sound of desert birds] With the Park Service being able to shift it's water supply over to a water well, and then to follow through by actually coming in and pulling out the rest of the abandoned infrastructure and replanting the area, shows the Park Service is shifting more and more to taking care of these disturbed areas, and, especially riparian areas, kind of get them back to a more natural state. [Sound of desert birds] Heiser Springs is a really good example of this changing approach in the resource management in the park system.


Paul Whitefield, natural resource specialist, describes the history and restoration of Heiser Spring at Wupatki National Monument. Recorded in August 2010 and August 2011.