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Round Valley Meadow in Mount San Jacinto State Park is restored

Round Valley Meadow at Mount San Jacinto State Park. Photo by Ron Krueper.

by Doug Rischbieter, Environmental Scientist and Ron Krueper, District Superintendent, Inland Empire District

The Round Valley Meadow is an exceedingly uncommon and fragile wetland habitat, made all the more rare by its isolation high above the Southern California desert. At elevation 9100’, it is less than 5 miles as the crow flies from the urbanization and often-oppressive heat of Palm Springs, which is at only 400’ elevation.

Covering less than 10 acres, Round Valley Meadow is unmatched in its wetness and richness within the nearly 14,000-acre Mount San Jacinto State Park.

An inviting “halfway-point” respite for hikers seeking Mount San Jacinto from the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, Round Valley has been a destination in itself for well over a century, including modern wilderness campers and others seeking water, tranquility, and interaction with nature and wildlife. Round Valley Meadow and its seasonal stream have been subject to periodic disturbances dating back to seasonal episodes of brief but intense cattle grazing, beginning during a great drought in the 1860s, and continuing until about 1930. More recent disturbances appear to have been associated with “volunteer trails,” which occur when foot traffic tramples meadow vegetation during dry periods. Soil compaction and vegetation damage and removal was a consequence of this visitor activity. In the middle of the meadow it resulted in collection and concentration of surface flow where it otherwise would have been dispersed, standing and low-velocity lowing water.

This unnatural concentration of surface flow accelerated erosion of the meadow’s fragile soil, and opened a deep rent in the wetland, soil, and subsoil and at the meadow’s eastern (downstream) end. This scouring erosion, which created a series of “headcuts” up to 10 feet deep, was poised to continue westward and upslope. The largest headcut, a “nick point,” was arrested in the roots of meadow-edge conifers; if these roots had been undermined, the erosion would have accelerated and the damage would have been irreparable.

The restoration of Mount San Jacinto State Park’s hydrologic resources, including the Round Valley Meadow, was identified and adopted as a goal of the Mount San Jacinto State Park General Plan in 2002. California State Parks began planning this “first ever” wilderness restoration project in 2005, and in the ensuing years has responded to public input through development of a project designed to avoid or minimize significant disruptions to the environment and park visitors.

Over a period of 3 weeks beginning after Labor Day, California State Parks and Conservation crews used various hand and motorized tools and equipment to borrow 800 cubic yards of soil from nearby forest and depositional areas to fill the eroded gully.

The California National Guard is playing a key support role in this project, providing a CH-47 (Chinook) helicopter and crew to lift the necessary equipment into and out of the wilderness project site. Their participation provided State Parks the essential helicopter support and gave the Guard a welcome opportunity for a real-life training scenario. Construction started on September 11 and was completed by September 23.

The following measures were part of the project itself:

• Project work was scheduled during the period of routine annual maintenance (shut-down) of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, when park visitation is historically at its lowest, and during the time of year when the meadow and stream are at their driest, to avoid impacts to wetlands and waters.
• Limited use of construction equipment to the period of 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., which minimized noise impacts upon wilderness campers.
• All trail access was kept available, with minor detours, which allowed continued public access to virtually all areas of the park.
• Work areas were surveyed for plants and wildlife to avoid impacts to any and all
sensitive species.
• The construction and disturbance sites were re-vegetated to a degree where the post-project appearance of these areas will eventually be indistinguishable from surrounding wilderness areas.

The stream channel now exists at the same elevation as the meadow surface, raising the water table back to its natural elevation. Disturbed areas are being replanted with native meadow plant stock, and the site recovery will be monitored for the next several years.

The project restored the natural topography and hydrology of Round Valley and the stream that drains it. Now that these natural hydrologic processes are restored, natural vegetation and the ecosystems that depend upon them can also be preserved.