Impacts of recreation management practices in a subalpine wetland system dominated by the willow plant, Salix planifolia

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Wetland habitat in the subalpine Rocky Mountains is an area of high biodiversity and includes many species of willow. These willow-dominated communities are often used for both summer and winter recreation. The maintenance of winter recreation trails has the potential to disturb wetland vegetation and compromise the long-term persistence of the wetland. In Breckenridge, Colorado, willow plants are clipped in October to a uniform height to prevent stems from protruding through the snow onto the ski trails, and large grooming tractors compact the snow on the trails. Our objective was to investigate the impact of winter recreation trail maintenance on growth and reproductive output of Salix planifolia (common names: planeleaf or diamondleaf willow) and to determine impacts on community diversity in a willow-dominated wetland system. Catkin production, plant height, and branch elongation were evaluated in meter-squared quadrats within paired belt transects both inside and outside a ski trail during the growing seasons of 2008 and 2009. In addition, percent cover of total vegetation was estimated for each species to calculate species richness and diversity. We found that maintenance of winter trails reduced catkin production and limited willow growth. Additionally, winter trail maintenance may have promoted the introduction of invasive species within the willow community. The activities associated with winter trail maintenance could interfere with the long-term persistence of the willow community adjacent to ski trails and should be considered when planning new trails in or along a wetland ecosystem.

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