The 2016 field season was the biggest in the organization’s history in terms of staffing and project load. In all, we estimate to have grown by about 120% with the addition of 8 new project sites and the doubling of our seasonal field staff. We led a total of 444 workdays (many happening on the same weekend days) with a combined total of on-the-ground work exceeding 33,000 hours (16+ years worth of work). One major highlight included RMFI being awarded a multi-year stewardship contract through the City of Colorado Springs to lead stewardship efforts on open spaces acquired through revenue from the Trails, Open Space, and Parks tax. Other project highlights of the season included:
- Completing critical trail improvements to the popular Silver Cascade Falls Trail in North Cheyenne Cañon, the Edna Mae Trail in Palmer Park, and Barr Trail.
- Completing construction of the new 1.0-mile Buckhorn Connector Trail in the Bear Creek Watershed.
- Completing our 19th year of stewardship work in the Garden of the Gods.
- Beginning construction of the new, highly-anticipated Dixon Trail in Cheyenne Mountain State Park.
- Planting 1,000 willows in the Waldo Canyon burn scar to help restore a critical riparian area.
- Building sustainable climbing access trails at Indian Creek and Shelf Road recreation areas.
- Beginning new stewardship projects in our City’s open space properties including Stratton Open Space, Ute Valley, Blodgett Peak, and Red Rock Canyon.
- Making significant progress on our multi-year project to reconstruct the summit trail to Kit Carson Peak and Challenger Point in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
- Leading the 5th annual Pikes Peak Regional Crew Leader Training program.
- Completed the 15th annual Earth Corps program, RMFI’s signature college-accredited field studies program.
- Beginning a new citizen science monitoring program.
Final volunteer and worker statistics:
- Total Volunteers: 2,006
- Total Workdays: 444
- Volunteer Hours: 14,499
- Volunteer Value: $375,524
- RMFI Crew Hours: 13,084
- Youth Engaged (8-24): 950
- Conservation Corps Members: 89
- Community Groups and Schools: 72
- Veterans/Active Military: 191
- Project Sites: 21
- Total On-the-Ground Work Hours: 33,752
We are well into our planning for the 2017 field season and it’s shaping up to be just as big if not bigger than next year, which means a greater reach and impact in our community. Some things to look forward to next year is the start of a new citizen science monitoring program and also making a big push to finish the new Dixon Trail in Cheyenne Mountain State Park, which will open up new and unparalleled access in the southwestern part of town. There will be plenty of opportunities for everyone to get involved, and we are super excited about what lies ahead and hope you’ll join us for the ride.
While the RMFI staff is out with volunteers working to maintain trails, restore impacted areas, and build buff physiques (in other words doing what we do best), trail-users often stop to chat and see what we’re doing. Here are a few of the questions we are often asked.
1. Q: Why are you closing this trail?! I’ve walked my dog on this trail for years!
A: There are a few reasons RMFI might be closing a trail. Often, the trail is a ‘rogue’ or ‘social’ trail that is user-created and not on the master plan for the park or open space. Trails on the master plan are most often planned by trail-building professionals and are aligned to shed water and tolerate heavy use. Rogue trails, on the other hand, are made by users repeatedly walking the same (unplanned) path until a trail forms, and as a result, the trails are not designed to manage water or be durable. A lot of rogue trails are also redundant, meaning that they are superfluous because they get people to the same places that planned trails do. Redundant trails allow humans to unnecessarily cut through habitat, resulting in animals being scared out of their homes and dining areas and plants being trampled. This is known as habitat fragmentation.
So, if RMFI is closing your favorite trail, it’s probably because the trail was redundant (causing habitat fragmentation) and/or it was unsustainable and was posing an erosion problem. Luckily, some of the trails RMFI closes will be re-routed and made more sustainable. If not, know that your favorite park or open space is now more sustainable and has better habitat for it’s non-human users.
2. Q: Why are you working on this section of trail when I’ve seen other sections that need the work so much more urgently!? Who decides what work you do first?
A: When RMFI begins work on a property, we discuss priorities with the land manager (i.e. the Forest Service, the City of Colorado Springs, El Paso County, etc.) and plan our work according to the sites they think are the most urgently in need of work. Because many of these properties are so well-loved, there is an infinite amount of work that could be done, so we have to prioritize some areas while leaving others for later. But don’t worry: the land managers have long-term plans for restoration and upkeep on the property, so they will often ask RMFI to return throughout the season and throughout the years to work our magic on different projects. For example, RMFI is currently working with the City of Colorado Springs to do some much-needed work on properties acquired through the City's Trails and Open Space (TOPS) tax. We will likely continue this project for the next five years, each year building on the work we did the previous season.
Once you start looking for areas that need a little RMFI love, you see them everywhere and you want them to get the attention they deserve. But you can rest easy knowing we probably have a plan for helping those places later. And if there’s a place that means a lot to you, look out for opportunities to volunteer there!
3. Q: Thanks so much for your work! Are you all volunteers out here?
A: RMFI has seven full-time field staff (and five amazing office staff) working our buns off to steward the properties where RMFI works, but we certainly can’t lift all that rock and shovel all that dirt by ourselves. That’s where volunteers come in! RMFI’s most valuable resource is the human power provided by the thousands of volunteers that work with RMFI every year. So no, we’re not all volunteers; there are always 2 or more paid professional RMFI staff members working with and guiding volunteers on all projects. Our volunteers are the lifeblood of the organization and certainly help make the work we do possible.
Long ago, when Colorado was covered with an inland sea, the parents of mankind prayed to the great spirits to remove the water. The spirits sent “Thirst”, a great Lizard Dragon, who drank all the water. His form remains as Colorado Springs’ own Cheyenne Mountain. Later the Cheyenne and Apaches came to the mountain for teepee poles, and the Utes retreated up the mountain’s ravines with their stolen horses, sometimes setting fires to block their pursuers.
Thus begins the history of the mountain RMFI is delighted to be working on, having built the Top of the Mountain Trail, laid out by our late founder Mark Hesse, and now progressing to constructing the Dixon Trail, which will connect the top with the rest of Cheyenne Mountain State Park.
But the mountain holds a lot more of interest besides the old Indian legends.
Our region’s grand old explorer Zebulon Pike famously looked from the summit of Cheyenne Mountain to the mountain he had his sights on (Pikes Peak) and said, “It would have taken a whole day’s march to arrive at its base, whence I believe no human being could have ascended to its pinnacle.” This was 1806.
Gold fever hit the area in the mid 1800’s, first in the Denver/Boulder area, and later in the Pikes Peak area, then part of the new Colorado Territory. In the 1870’s, prospectors built the Little Suzie Lode on the north end of the mountain. Not too much gold came from the mine, but it is now the source of water for the Overlook Colony, founded in 1911 by a group of Colorado College professors, which grew to include doctors, artists, musicians, oilmen, and an ambassador to India.
William Dixon homesteaded the northeastern lower slopes of the mountain in 1867, some of which was purchased by Spencer Penrose for the Broadmoor Hotel. Dixon also built a tavern on the trail along the backside of the mountain. He later turned the trail into the Cripple Creek Stage Toll Road, which we now call Old Stage Road.
In 1880, a man named John Lytle grazed cattle on the eastern slope of the mountain until he parceled it out to Lida Touzalin and her husband, who owned most of the land until 1937. Lida was an accomplished chef who wrote a cookbook in French, “L’Amerique a Table”. The Jones family then negotiated a land swap with the Touzalins to form the JL Ranch, which occupied the space until 1963 when NORAD forced Jones to move-both because the water on the property had dried up, and NORAD did not want cattle there. In 1979, the ranch was sold to a foreign investor, reputedly Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and the State of Colorado purchased the land in 2000. It was opened to the public as Cheyenne Mountain State Park in 2006.
The year 1885 saw a Wade homestead 4 miles up the Old Stage Road, which became known as Wade City. “Although never a city-outside its name-at one time it was quite a little settlement. The Cripple Creek stage, which started from the corner of Colorado Avenue at Tejon Street, always stopped at Wade City. The six horses that pulled the stage and passengers alike had easily raised a thirst by the time Wade City was reached.” Wade’s grandson was Fred Barr who built Barr Trail.
Grace Lutheran Church built a retreat in Emerald Valley in 1904. It changed hands several times and is now The Broadmoor's Ranch at Emerald Valley.
In 1905, Dr. August McKay homesteaded on 120 acres on the east slope of Cheyenne Mountain. He developed a series of trails and rest houses that led to The Sunshine Inn that he built as a health resort above Old Stage Road. The property was purchased by Spencer Penrose, who had the inn torn down, although some sources say that landslides from the construction of the Cheyenne Mountain Highway are what took it out.
Thomas Dixon (possibly William’s grandson?) and Bert Swisher homesteaded the top of the mountain in 1917. Both had cabins there and after a title dispute the land wound up in the Swisher family. They sold 10 acres for the Antennae Farm in 1950, and eventually put conservation easements on the land and sold it to State Parks and the City of Colorado Springs to become part of the state park.
Dixon, the entrepreneur, when he heard the Broadmoor was serving frog legs in their restaurant, made a frog pond near his cabin to supply them. The pond is still there, but dried up. What does remain is a great stand of rhubarb, which we made a pie out of this summer.
The Dixon Trail was Dixon’s access to his cabin up the southeast end of the mountain. Swisher’s namesake trail heads up the west side, accessed from Old Stage Road and the MacNeill Trail. MacNeill was a notoriously nasty manager of the gold processing mill in Old Colorado City.
Spencer Penrose was flush with his earnings from Cripple Creek gold when he began purchasing property near Cheyenne Mountain in 1915. He built the Broadmoor Hotel in 1920 and hired the Civilian Conservation Corps to build the Cheyenne Mountain Highway in 1925-much to the consternation of many residents who felt it created an unsightly scar on the mountain. The beautiful white adobe Cheyenne Mountain Lodge was built the next year with a 3rd floor penthouse suite for Penrose’s personal use. Guests could ride to the lodge on an elephant, which had been given to Penrose by an Indian rajah. The lodge closed in 1961 and is the site of the Broadmoor’s Cloud Camp. The zoo was also built in 1926, or rather moved to its present location from down by the hotel where the smell bothered some of the guests. In 1938, a cog railway, a miniature version of the Pikes Peak Cog, was built from the Broadmoor lake to the entrance of the zoo. It was a two-mile ride and closed in 1974. In 1957, a T-33 training plane en route to Peterson Airfield crashed into the southern ridge of Cheyenne Mountain; the wreckage remains to this day.
It has a fun history, this mountain-next-to-our-town. In addition to its colorful past, the mountain and its 1,021-acre state park are home to a unique blend of ecosystems, and represent the last significant open space along the southern section of the Colorado Front Range. Soon, portions of the park closed off for decades will be open to the public thanks to RMFI’s work in building new, sustainable trails to its summit and surrounding areas. The new Dixon Trail could take another couple years to complete and will open up the Top of the Mountain to all who are willing to tackle a steep hike. It’s a wonderful backcountry setting close to town that has thankfully been protected from development.
This latest blog post comes to you from a 2016 Earth Corps program participant, Tracy Jacobs, who recently spent 30 days in the backcountry of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, helping to reconstruct the summit trail to Kit Carson Peak and Challenger Point. Her blog is a personal account of her experience. Read on for some inspiration!
“I wanna rock and roll all night.” More like rock and roll all day. From 8:30 to 3 every day for 30 days, the students and instructors of Earth Corps 2016 moved rocks by carrying, rolling and sliding them across a mountain to reconstruct a trail for the public to summit Challenger Point and Kit Carson. The existing trail is dangerous and straight up the mountain, but the one we were working on is so much better, but I may be biased. We were working on steps and retaining walls for vegetation. The rocks for these two projects had to fit just right so that meant we needed perfect rocks, even if that meant crossing a talus field or walking up the mountain a bit. With that being said, there was a lot of rocking and rolling.
Aside from moving rocks, Earth Corps was both mentally and physically challenging, which I think made it a great experience for all. It really pushed your limits. Day 1 was probably the most challenging because I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Day 1 was hiking up to base camp, 4.5 miles straight up…at least it felt like it, I did the trail later and it was barely straight up. Anyway, after about 2 and a half hours of hiking I was really thinking “what the heck did I get myself into?” but I kept on trekking. By hour 4, I was mentally being challenged, I was telling myself everything I could to keep going, and finally I saw the orange tents we would be staying in for the next month. Thank goodness, I had made it.
In the days that followed that first day, there were many more physical and mental challenges that everyone faced. Your body becomes tired and your mind tells you to stop, but you keep going because you end up realizing you are a lot stronger than you think and you push yourself a little bit each day.
Some days, the days that still lay ahead would look like forever and it seemed like you’d never get that Chick-fil-A milkshake that you’ve been craving, but then you look around and see the beauty that surrounds you. The wilderness would truly take my breath away and I would take a minute to stop and take it all in, and that’s when the 30 days seemed so short because you didn’t want to leave the wild.
My favorite days were the days I completed a personal goal or something I didn’t believe I could do. I was rocking and rolling at life, kicking butt at it too. These were the days that I knew I was becoming stronger both physically and mentally and it felt good because I was learning so much about myself. I will forever look back on these past 30 days and remember that there are no limitations in life unless you put them there.
RMFI’s current office is located in an historic school building on Colorado Springs' eclectic Westside. The Second Midland School, or the Old Midland School as it’s lovingly referred to, is steeped in rich history that is too good to not share in a blog post.
The First Midland Elementary School was built in 1889 to meet the growing needs of a city that was in the midst of an economic boom. In 1891, gold was discovered in Cripple Creek. People with newfound fortunes flocked to Colorado Springs, building large homes on what are now Wood Avenue, Cascade Avenue, and other streets just east of downtown. Colorado Springs was officially incorporated on June 19, 1886. The year before, the Colorado Midland Railroad began service, and in 1889, the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroads all began service in the city. By 1898, Colorado Springs had annexed Old Colorado City, Ivywild, Roswell, and other towns. Between 1880 and 1890, the city’s population had grown by an estimated 164%.
Land for the First Midland School was donated by Anthony Bott, a key player in the organization and development of Colorado City and El Paso County. Bott also donated the 43 acres of land across the street from the school, which is now Fairview Cemetery. Within a few years of opening, the first school had outgrown its walls and in 1902, the Second Midland School was opened on the same property (the first school was eventually demolished). The new school was three stories and built of red sandstone and brick. The principal of the new school was Augusta Kneipp who reportedly ran a tight ship and demanded excellence from teachers and students. Under Kneipp’s leadership, the school would go on to win many prestigious awards.
In 1956, the Midland Annex of the school was built on what was supposed to become Pine Street, situated at the northwest corner of Broadway. Pine Street was never built, but the Annex eventually housed the intermediate grades and administrative offices. The primary grades continued to meet in the Second Midland School on South 25th Street until 1970 when the entire school moved to the Annex on Broadway after it was expanded.
The school was put up for sale and purchased by Mel and Louise Eskanos who, along with their 5 children, used the school as their primary residence. All of the school’s original features including classrooms, blackboards, and stage were kept intact. A few years later, the Eskanos’ sold the property to the Traditional Catholics who transformed it back into a grade school with classes being taught by Catholic nuns. The school was added to the National Register of Historic Places on September 12, 1980. In the early 1980’s, the school was again sold to Our Lady of the Rockies who operated a private Christian school in the building until March 2006.
In 2007, the school was purchased by Luanne Ducett who transformed the building into office space for a variety of local businesses, artists, and, of course, RMFI, which moved into the old school in 2012. Today, the Old Midland School evokes the charm of a bygone era with tall tin ceilings, original woodwork, hardwood floors, and classrooms still fully intact. We feel lucky to call this old school home (creaky floors and all!), and invite you to stop by and check it out if you ever find yourself in the neighborhood.
The outside facade of the Old (Second) Midland School.
Teacher's names still mark coat hangers in what is now the RMFI conference room.
The old historic tin ceilings take you back in time.
As our season in the high country kicks into full gear, we thought we'd focus this week's blog on the history and legacy of RMFI's work in the Sangre de Cristos (Spanish for "Blood of Christ'). The Sangres are located in southern Colorado and extend into northern New Mexico; they are the southernmost subrange of the Rocky Mountains. There are 9 peaks over 14,000 feet in the range. Since the early 1990's, RMFI (then known as the American Mountain Foundation) has been working in a variety of capacities to address recreational impacts on Colorado's high peaks, initially making improvements to summit trails in the Sahwatch Range, specifically on Mount Belford, La Plata Peak, and Mount Huron. In 1993 and 1998, RMFI completed studies on 52, 14'000 ft. peaks in Colorado. The studies found that 14'er routes were marked with erosion gullies, networks of user-created social trails, and large denuded areas. It was determined that the lack of single, sustainable summit trails was the principal cause.
Beginning in 1997, RMFI shifted its focus to the South Colony Lakes Basin in the Sangre de Cristos and the surrounding peaks (Humboldt Peak, Crestone Needle, and Crestone Peak) where RMFI completed some of the most difficult alpine restoration and trail work ever accomplished in the region. Over the course of several years, RMFI repaired the trails throughout South Colony Lakes Basin, constructed a trail to the summit of Crestone Needle, built a trail over Broken Hand Pass, and improved the trail into Cottonwood Lake Basin. RMFI also completed extensive restoration in conjunction with the trail work.
In 2011, RMFI began one of its most successful 14’er projects on Blanca Peak and Ellingwood Point. The project focused on reducing and mitigating recreational impacts to the fragile alpine lands by constructing a safe, sustainable summit trail from Lake Como Basin to the summits of Blanca Peak and Ellingwood Point.
RMFI's latest 14'er project is focused in Willow Lake Basin and the surrounding peaks of Kit Carson and Challenger Point. A defined route from Willow Lake to Kit Carson and Challenger Ridge has never been constructed or designated. With the lack of a defined route, people tend to take the most direct and/or obvious path with little regard for the sustainability of the route or the fragile ecosystem around them. Consequently, the current route is a network of user-created social trails, which is causing significant vegetation and soil loss. The increased use seen on Challenger Ridge and Kit Carson, like other 14'ers in the state, creates an immediate need for a thoughtful, sustainably planned route to provide an enjoyable user experience that minimizes environmental degradation in the very fragile alpine environment. RMFI began reconstructing the summit trail in 2014 and will have the project completed by 2020.
Since 2002, RMFI has been leading a backcountry field studies course in conjunction with its high alpine work in the Sangres. Earth Corps, is an award-winning, college-accredited program that provides motivated, environmentally conscious students the opportunity to live and learn in the incredible natural classroom of the Colorado wilderness. The program integrates key lessons in environmental studies with the completion of multiple critical environmental restoration projects. In 2016, students will be working on the Kit Carson project while learning from experts in alpine ecology, botany, wilderness management, and other pertinent topics. The program runs from July 11-August 9 - be on the lookout for updates from the field during this exciting program!
RMFI's extensive experience has positioned the organization to play a major role in the current statewide effort to construct sustainable climbing routes and restore badly damaged sites along 14'er summit corridors. In 2015, the Colorado Fourteener’s Initiative completed baseline inventories on 42 existing 14'er routes in Colorado. The report concluded that $24 million is needed in direct field-related costs to properly build out 14'er summit trails, including $18 million to build new trails and $6 million to bring existing planned trails up to ideal conditions. In addition, the report card rated routes on a scale from A to F (A being the highest, F being the lowest). RMFI's summit routes to Blanca Peak and Ellingwood Point, Humbolt Peak, and Crestone Peak and Needle all rated extremely high; the Sangres, in fact, were the highest rated mountain range inventoried in the state.
Fourteener work in the state is critical as recreational use and external environmental impacts increasingly threaten the health and function of fragile alpine ecosystems. Coupled with these threats are declining budgets at the federal level to support this important work. RMFI is excited to announce a new initiative spearheaded by the National Forest Foundation, which will create dedicated funds for 14'er work in the state to tackle the backlog of trail and maintenance work needed along key summit routes. We'll continue to keep you posted on the developments, but we're excited about the possibilities and are looking forward to a highly productive field season in the Sangres!
Blanca Peak and Ellingwood Point.
Kit Carson Peak.
Rogue or “social” trails are unofficial, undesignated, user-created trails. These trails are often formed as shortcuts, or lead to an area not accessed by a designated trail. They form over time by visitors who are often unaware they are violating park policy.
Because rogue trails are not properly designed, they can often cause serious land management issues and ecological impacts. Whereas properly designed trails consider drainage patterns, trail width, vegetation characteristics, topography, and other factors, rogue trails do not. Consequently, water often becomes trapped on rogue trails, causing channelization, increased water velocity, and massive sediment movement. What starts out as an inconspicuous trail can often lead to unruly erosion gullies that require substantial time and resources to repair.
In areas where multiple rogue trails exist, closing and restoring those trails helps protect natural resources by:
- Keeping visitors on designated trails and out of protected areas
- Reducing habitat fragmentation
- Maintaining adequate soil moisture levels on site necessary to support natural plant communities
- Creating a self-sustaining plant community that will protect the restored site from excessive soil erosion and provide wildlife habitat.
To close and restore rogue trails, RMFI follows a 5-step process:
- Decompact the trailbed: It is crucial to decompact the trailbed at least 4-6 inches when closing a rogue trail. Overuse can compact soil, which will make natural establishment of vegetation extremely slow. Freshly decompacted soil will increase the success of reseeding efforts and enhance vegetation regrowth.
- Bring area back to grade: This step will prevent water from continuing to downcut along the rogue trail while also helping to minimize sedimentation. Additionally, if the rogue trail is not brought back up to grade it will continue to be perceived as a trail and will attract use. Filling the old trailbed with a native soil is crucial for fully restoring the impacted area.
- Revegetation: Once erosion is addressed, revegetation treatments should be applied to achieve long-term slope stabilization and develop a self-sustaining, native plant community. Spreading native seed and installing erosion matting or covering with mulch is crucial to fully restoring the eroded area. Revegetation can be supplemented with transplants from the surrounding area to increase the ‘natural’ look of the restored site.
- Minimize the visibility of all rogue trails: As long as use continues on restored areas, erosion control and re-vegetation attempts will be unsuccessful. Physical structures, such as barriers and debris (fencing, large boulders, vegetation, timber slash, etc.) can help disguise closed trails. Visual barriers in conjunction with educational signage can substantially increase the success rate of any restoration project. Education is often an overlooked portion of restoration, but most people will not walk off-trail if they realize the damage they may be causing.
- Monitor and assess site: Monitoring the site is an effective method to determine if restoration goals were achieved. This may be as simple as taking ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos to assess effectiveness of restoration treatments. For certain projects, more quantitative measures may be required.
Colorado Springs and the Pikes Peak region are home to more than 2,000 nonprofit organizations, each working to make our community a better, healthier, and more vibrant place to live. With so many nonprofits, we often get asked how we differ from other like-minded organizations focused on environmental stewardship and conservation. The truth is, while all of us have different missions, values, and objectives, we are all ultimately working toward the same broad goal of protecting our region’s treasured natural landscapes. This may come in the form of engaging volunteers in hands-on stewardship projects, advocating for increased trail connectivity and access, adding new public open space to our parks system, or permanently protecting key open lands and the region’s important landscapes. With that in mind, today’s blog focuses on how the Rocky Mountain Field Institute (RMFI) and Palmer Land Trust partner to protect and steward our region’s iconic natural landscapes.
RMFI is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization located in Colorado Springs. Its mission is to conserve and protect public lands in southern Colorado through volunteer-based trail and restoration projects, environmental education, and restoration research. RMFI’s restoration model centers on community involvement as a means of connecting people to the outdoors, promoting a healthy lifestyle, conserving public natural landscapes, developing the next generation of environmental leaders, and fostering an ethic of environmental responsibility and stewardship. RMFI accomplishes its mission by actively engaging thousands of community volunteers and youth conservation crews each year in hands-on stewardship projects, leading and coordinating environmental education courses and trainings, and completing research and monitoring activities to assess the effectiveness of various trail and restoration techniques implemented on the ground. At 34 years old, RMFI has established itself as a leader in completing high quality, technical trail and restoration projects that are community-based, impactful, and focused on enhancing the health and function of southern Colorado’s land and water resources.
Palmer is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization located in Colorado Springs with the mission of guaranteeing that open lands, recreation, and working farms and ranches remain a part of southern Colorado’s identity forever. It works with both public and private landowners to permanently protect the beauty, identity, and rich natural landscape of our unique region. Since its grassroots beginning in 1977, it has permanently protected more than 100,000 acres of agricultural lands, inspiring panoramas and scenic corridors, and public recreation spaces in a 10-county region. It works at the landscape level to conserve land and water resources across property lines and political boundaries in collaboration with its landowner partners. Today, Palmer is one of the 15 largest land trusts in the country based upon conserved acreage easement holdings (there are approximately 1,700 land trusts in the United States) and is one of the country’s first 100 nationally-accredited land trusts.
So, what do an environmental stewardship organization and an accredited land trust have in common? How do the missions of the two organizations complement one another to support the broad goal of protecting our region’s treasured natural landscapes? Let’s take a look at Red Rock Canyon Open Space.
Red Rock Canyon is located on the western edge of Colorado Springs and is one of the most popular and beloved open spaces within the city. It has a rich and storied history including gypsum and Lyons sandstone mining in the 1800s and owners with visions of a resort community just a few decades ago. In 2003, the City of Colorado Springs purchased the property through the Trails, Open Space and Parks Program, better known as TOPS. As a component of the purchase, the City placed a conservation easement on the property with Palmer. The conservation easement guarantees the property will remain as undeveloped open land and allow public recreation forever. With the addition of Section 16 in 2010, Red Rock Canyon now encompasses 1,200 acres, all of which is protected in perpetuity.
As the property owner and land manager, the City of Colorado Springs is responsible for the maintenance and resource management of Red Rock Canyon. To help meet these responsibilities, the City relies on nonprofit partners like Friends of Red Rock Canyon and RMFI to assist with the ongoing stewardship of the open space. This includes trail maintenance, new trail construction, habitat restoration, and weed control to ensure the health of this public open space.
In the summer of 2015, RMFI worked with City staff and the friends group to repair damage to the park’s trail and drainage infrastructure that resulted from historic spring rainfall. Specific projects included trail maintenance and repair on the Quarry Pass Trail, restoration of Round Up Trail Creek, and stabilization of the Sand Canyon Pond breach site. Work will continue in 2016 to improve access trails to popular climbing areas within the park. All work objectives will protect the park’s natural resources while enhancing ecosystem health and function.
Each year, Palmer staff monitors all of its protected properties to ensure the conservation values are being safeguarded. The ongoing stewardship of preserved properties is one of Palmer’s top priorities, as effective stewardship ensures a property maintains its ecological integrity, sustainable recreation infrastructure, and strong conservation protection. Palmer partners with the City on large projects within the open space to ensure infrastructure improvements and ongoing maintenance does not degrade the conservation of the property.
By partnering, RMFI and Palmer, along with the City and friends groups, are ensuring our valuable community treasures like Red Rock Canyon remain accessible and healthy for generations to come.
My great great great grandfather, Dennis Holmes, had a farm and mill in Holmesville, New York in the mid 19th century. I have his son John’s handwritten account of life on the farm. “We used oxen in most of our farm work. The mowing in early days was done by hand with cythes. I have spread out grass many and many a day after I had turned the cows to pasture.”
“You must remember there was no plumbing in the country houses in those days where I lived. When the dishes were washed the dish water was thrown out onto the grass in front of the house. The privy was nearly a Sabbath day’s journey back of the house—the pig pen was also in that neighborhood. In the winter you can imagine the pleasure it was to go to the toilet.”
“In the corner next to the pantry door was a shelf where the water pail rested. A dipper hung near or most of the time it rested on the water in the pail. Everybody drank from this dipper. Just outside the kitchen door was a large watering trough with running spring water brought by wooden pump logs about ½ mile away.”
I moved to Colorado Springs from the east coast, drawn to the mountains, and had not been here long before I learned that one Julie Archibald Holmes was the first white woman to climb Pikes Peak (that was one of the first things I did on arriving here, too). Julia’s husband, James Holmes, hailed from upstate New York. Surely a cousin of Dennis, making me a relative of the celebrated Julia!
Julia and James were both liberal activists who moved to Kansas to support it as a free state. Julia’s family farm was a meeting place of anti slavery sympathizers in the rough and tumble Lawrence where slavery was fiercely contested. Their home was a station on the Underground Railway. James became closely allied with abolitionist John Brown’s Free State Rangers, and was quite a rabble rouser.
Despite their dedication to the anti-slavery cause, they felt the pull of the west, and joined a Pikes-Peak-or-Bust party headed for the gold camps in Colorado. Julia, a staunch believer in women’s rights, would have none of the hooped skirts and corsets, the de rigueur fashion of the times. She adopted women’s liberation activist Amelia Bloomer’s recommended outfit, a short skirt worn over loose pants, which became known as “bloomers”. Thrilled to be on this grand adventure, and determined to pull her own weight, Julia walked most of the way, and demanded to take her turn at guard duty. Excited to befriend the only other woman of the party, she was disappointed to learn that Mrs. Robert Middleton was appalled by Julia’s ways. “I soon found that there could be no congeniality between us. She proved to be a woman unable to appreciate freedom or reform, affected that her sphere denied her the liberty to rove at pleasure, and confined herself the long days to feminine impotence in the hot covered wagon.”
Julia loved the journey, and after two months they made camp at the foot of Pikes Peak, near the Garden of the Gods. Gold, however, was not to be found, and partly to escape the boredom of camp, she and James set out to climb the peak. Wearing moccasins, and bloomers, of course, carrying a 17-pound pack full of bread, a quilt, and clothing, she spent three days en route and reached the summit on August 5, 1858. It was cold and snowy up there, so they stayed just long enough to write their names on a large rock and write a few letters. No doubt walking across the prairie from Kansas helped get her in shape.
The couple soon headed to New Mexico, and later settled in Washington DC. Julia continued to be a prominent supporter of abolition and women’s rights, organizing national conventions and holding professional positions in the city. No doubt she would be thrilled with our recently announced changes to the $20 bill featuring Harriet Tubman.
Pikes Peak, Garden of the Gods, New York, Washington, DC . . . I love sharing some of the same touchstones as my cousin Julia. Now to do some more research and confirm it is so.
In January 2016, RMFI began a new pilot project in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service to investigate the role that mature rooted willows can play in helping to restore critical riparian areas within the Waldo Canyon burn scar. In the summer of 2012, the Waldo Canyon Fire burned over 18,000 acres west of Colorado Springs, impacting four major watersheds within the region. Since that time, a tremendous amount of work has been completed within the burn scar by a variety of different groups and entities aimed at stabilizing steep slopes, protecting watershed health, improving drainage, minimizing post-fire storm flows, and catalyzing native vegetation recovery. RMFI has been instrumental in providing hand crew project planning and field crew training and supervision.
As a result of the Waldo Canyon Fire, a substantial amount of riparian vegetation was lost, which has significantly impacted erosion rates and watershed health. Resultant sediment deposition has inundated unburned riparian vegetation within portions of Queens and William Canyons. This residual plant cover is an important component of the mosaic vegetation communities associated with spotted owl breeding habitat. The Waldo Canyon Fire also resulted in a reduction in the extent and suitability of Preble’s Meadow Jumping Mouse habitat within several drainages. In addition, increased peak flows and decreased flow resistance from destroyed riparian vegetation have resulted in an increase in the headward expansion of associated drainage networks.
Riparian areas provide critical ecosystem services. Riparian vegetation including grasses, forbs, and woody plants growing along the edges of ephemeral and perennial drainages is critical for controlling erosion, improving water quality, and providing habitat. Willows are among the most common woody plants found in riparian areas. They are an important source of food and cover for wildlife and their roots help stabilize streambanks, minimizing wind and water erosion.
Willows are commonly used in a number of recovery and resiliency initiatives including post-fire conditions. They can grow rapidly and provide effective soil stabilization along streambanks or in other highly erodible areas. Willows can sprout new shoots from roots and root crowns readily, and their stems possess abundant adventitious buds that have the flexibility to form roots when in contact with saturated soils.
Traditional use of willows in post-fire recovery efforts involves strategic harvesting of dormant willow stems from vigorous healthy willows. Dormant cuttings are then driven into the ground, where they sprout shoots and roots during the growing season. Once established, willow cuttings form a web of fibrous roots that can provide highly effectively soil stabilization. This method is advantageous in that it is quick and relatively easy to accomplish, however, survival rates of cuttings can vary dramatically depending upon environmental conditions. Low survival rates of stakes are often observed in areas where the water table fluctuates resulting in poor soil moisture during the growing period. Monitoring of willow transplants in the Hayman and Waldo Canyon burn scars has revealed an estimated 10% survival rate.
RMFI’s new project seeks to pilot a willow propagation program in high priority riparian areas identified within the Waldo Canyon burn scar where post-fire vegetation recovery using traditional willow staking and other methods have not been successful to improve watershed health and stream function.
In January 2016, RMFI and U.S. Forest Service personnel spent some time in the field harvesting several species of willows off the Pikes Peak Highway. Species included narrowleaf willow (Salix exigua), scouler willow (Salix scouleriana), bebb willow (Salix bebbiana), and Rocky Mountain willow (Salix monticola Bebb). The cuttings were overnighted to the Bessey Nursery in Halsey, Nebraska where they will grow in pots for approximately 4 months. Around the end of May or early June, the plants will be trucked back to Colorado Springs for transplanting in priority riparian areas in the burn scar identified by the U.S. Forest Service. With the help of youth corps crews and volunteers, RMFI will use power augers to plant the willows as soon as the ground has thawed and the spring high water period has passed. The cuttings will be planted to a depth that will allow their bases to be at or near the level of the normal water table.
Two additional components of the project are monitoring the survivability rates of the willow transplants as well as completing complementary hillslope stabilization and erosion control treatments started by RMFI in other portions of the burn scar. Overall, this project will help increase the composition of native riparian plants, vegetative cover, structural diversity, and promote bank and channel stability.
We are very excited about this project and will continue to provide updates through social media and other outlets. We'll also be needing volunteer help and will post those announcements as soon as we can! Finallly, we'd like to send a big thank you to the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the Pikes Peak Community Foundation for funding this important work!
With each passing year here at RMFI, we accomplish another 'banner year' in the scope of our reach in environmental stewardship. Here is a re-cap of just a few of our achievements from the 2015 field season:
Mount Muscoco Trail: RMFI spent more than 2 weeks working with the Friends of Cheyenne Canon to construct the new Mount Muscoco Trail. The re-route of what was a user-created trail is now easier to follow and less damaging to the mixed-conifer landscape. Topping out at 8,020 feet, the summit of Muscoco is the highest point on City of Colorado Springs property.
Pistol Whipped Trail: After three seasons of work on the new Pistol Whipped Trail, RMFI completed the project to this popular crag at the world-renowned Indian Creek Canyon in southern Utah. This project was old-school RMFI. Climbers, students, and volunteers came from across the desert to rally this project to completion.
Top of the Mountain Trail: The much-anticipated access to the top of Cheyenne Mountain is a step closer to completion after RMFI completed the 3.1-mile Top of the Mountain trail circuit. RMFI will turn its attention to the Dixon Trail in 2016. The Dixon will connect the 'bottom' of the state park to the Top of the Mountain, eventually providing access to the recently completed trail circuit.
Kit Carson-Challenger Ridge Summit Trail: 2015 marked the official start to the multi-year Kit Carson-Challenger Ridge Trail Improvement Project. RMFI ran its trademark Earth Corps program and partnered with the Southwest Conservation Corps for a total of 8 weeks of work on the project. The work RMFI oversees on Colorado's highest peaks is impressive in its scale and ambition.
Garden of the Gods: The decades-long stewardship of the iconic Colorado Springs landscape continued in a big way in 2015. Over the course of 50-plus workdays in the park, community volunteers rallied together to protect the natural amenities of the multi-use east side, as well as providing better access to the classic New Era climbing route on Gray Rock.
Red Rock Canyon Open Space: May of 2015 was the wettest month on record in Colorado Springs. The deluge of rain caused dams to breach in Red Rock Open Space, resulting in damage to trails and meadows. RMFI rallied its dedicated volunteer base to improve the Quarry Pass Trail and Sand Canyon dam breach site. This project was exemplary of RMFI's dedication to the protection of public lands in the region and helped lead to the re-opening of the Open Space in July.
What's in store for 2016? We are busy planning projects and already we are slated for more than 400 field days for the season. That's an increase of more than 67%. We will maintain our presence at legacy sites like Garden of the Gods and Kit Carson, as well as venturing into new public lands like Palmer Park and Ute Valley Open Space. Partnerships with local Friends groups will strengthen, and we are excited to continue to partner with youth corps organizations like Mile High Youth Corps and Southwest Conservation Corps.
For more information about past and present RMFI projects, visit the RMFI projects page on our website.
Thursday, December 17, 2015 began as any other day in the RMFI office. We were all buckling down to finalize and submit the last of our final project reports, and excitedly anticipating the holiday break, time with friends and family, too much food, and some well-deserved rest and relaxation. What began as a normal day became anything but by mid-afternoon when an inconspicuous FedEx package was delivered to our office. Inside the FedEx box was a green and red gift box with a perfectly wrapped bow around it. Inside the gift box was a stack of envelopes. On the top envelope were the following words:
“A Present for your Presence in Our Community. You may not know me, but I know you – and I’m aware of the good work you do. Please accept this check, no strings attached, to move the needle on your stated task. These special funds are yours to spend…for you from me, your mystery friend. Spread the joy and let me know, how you use this dough.”
Grinning from ear to ear and admittedly shaking a bit, we opened the envelope to see a $10,000 check written out to the Rocky Mountain Field Institute. If that weren’t enough, also included in the package were ten $50 gift certificates for each of the RMFI staff that read:
“You don’t know me, but I know you. I see the good work you do. You make our community brighter, oh boy! Please accept this gift and #COSSpreadJoy.”
The final touch was a beautifully written cover letter printed on silver paper that read:
“Why all the mystery? Because I’m not looking for notoriety or attention – I’m just looking for a way to say happy holidays and thank you for a job well done…I hope you will accept these gifts as a token of my appreciation for the tireless work (which oftentimes goes unnoticed) that you and your colleagues do to make our community a better place.”
Nearly 3 weeks have passed since we received the gift box and our overwhelming sense of gratitude, appreciation, and amazement haven’t diminished in the least. In fact, there hasn’t been a day that we haven’t discussed it in the office, the conversation inevitably ending with big smiles on our faces, and our heads shaking in pure disbelief that RMFI was one of the lucky recipients of this remarkable gift.
As a nonprofit, we operate in a unique environment with regard to funding and support. We are dependent upon the generosity of donors, grant makers, volunteers, and others passionate about our mission to make the work we do possible. Our staff works tirelessly every single day because we firmly believe the work we are doing is positively impacting our community and the world in which we live. The simple fact is that this works costs, and without the generous support from those who also believe in our mission and in giving back, our community and our natural landscapes would suffer.
The words “thank you” simply do not seem to fully convey our feelings of immense gratitude and appreciation, but they’re all we know to say. So, to our “mystery friend” – from the bottom of our hearts, we say THANK YOU. Your gift has become a part of our legacy and your story a part of our history. We take your words to heart and will do our part to keep spreading joy in the wonderful City of Colorado Springs and beyond.
My name is Katherine Guerrero, acting media intern at RMFI for 2015-2016 and junior at Colorado College. Colorado College functions on the block plan, allocating 3 ½ weeks for one topic, an opportunity for students to fully immerse themselves into respective class topics. My 1st block class was titled ‘Environmental Management,” which allowed an in-depth look into common management strategies and the complicated networks that directly correlate to RMFI’s work with the Waldo Canyon Fire. Below are my reflections from a site visit to the Flying W Ranch in relation to management and mitigation strategies learned from the course and my time at RMFI.
2012 brought the Waldo Canyon Fire, a forest fire that spread throughout the west side of Colorado Springs, resulting in the evacuation of over 32,000 residents, the ecological disruption of multiple landscapes, and a label as the 2nd most destructive fire in Colorado state history. The Flying W Ranch, a western entertainment venue, fell victim to the Waldo Canyon Fire, burning to the ground, becoming a site prone to flash floods and in need of intensive mitigation to prevent further environmental disruption.
My ‘Environmental Management’ course emphasized that management works best as a holistic process yielding to multiple interests and actors, preferring a collective end goal between all parties involved through collaborative management. Collaboration can be defined as “a form of participation where stakeholders are jointly involved in the planning, implementation, and evaluation stages of the process,” encouraging diverse stakeholders to resolve conflict together while understanding the mutual benefits of involved and long-term projects. (Davies 2012).
Management depends on trust and network building to eventually benefit all invested parties. In context with the Flying W Ranch, the landscapes’ transition to a sensitive floodplain with the potential to cause issues in irrigation systems invited community interest. RMFI has stepped in to host collaborative Fire Restoration Skill Trainings for volunteers at the ranch. These collaborations have been hosted by RMFI, the Coalition for the Upper South Platte (CUSP), the Flying W Foundation, and Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado (VOC) with the end goal of restoring burned landscapes in order to keep separate work consistent, current with the latest restoration research, and most effective while building the skills of volunteers who work with all organizations. Regardless of the private label on the ranch land, said irrigation issues could affect the city through sediment backup, flooding, and overall environmental degradation, thus become a larger community interest. Without proper mitigation strategies, the post-fire Flying W Ranch is somewhat of a threat to the surrounding area, highlighting the need for mitigation and restoration of the area. Since the burn, community members have volunteered in conjunction with the Ranch to slowly restore the ranch to its prior glory. Common mitigation methods in the ranch area include braiding, utilizing already available resources as logs for erosion barriers, and creating sediment detention ponds.
As natural with college courses, a majority of our learning revolved around academic articles assessing the weaknesses and strengths of management – in particular, an article authored by Carina Wyborn introduced the idea of scale of an area as a difficult but crucial barrier in collaborative conservation, relevant to Flying W Ranch because of the previously mentioned interconnectivity between direct private land and surrounding communities. Cross-collaboration is crucial to ensure that projects such as the Flying W Ranch are able to expand their reach outside their private land barrier. Organizations such as RMFI help provide the expertise needed for management/restoration in conjunction with government funding/support and an invested community. Without the interconnectivity of public, private and environmental agencies, RMFI included, large-scale projects so deeply integrated to surrounding communities would not be as holistically successful.
If interested in the ideas of ‘collaborative conservation’ and the importance of interconnectivity in management, I invite you to delve into the academic readings cited above:
Wyborn, Carina, and R. Patrick Bixler. "Collaboration and Nested Environmental Governance: Scale Dependency, Scale Framing, and Cross-scale Interactions in Collaborative Conservation." Journal of Environmental Management 123 (2013): 58-67. Web.
Davies, Althea L., and Rehema M. White. "Collaboration in Natural Resource Governance: Reconciling Stakeholder Expectations in Deer Management in Scotland." Journal of Environmental Management 112 (2012): 160-69. Web.
Building the “New” Incline Connector Trail in October 2014 was a great project for many, including volunteers hosted by the City of Colorado Springs, Friends of the Peak, Incline Friends, and RMFI. Over the past year many thousands of Manitou Incline hikers have had their chance to wind their way down the connector and have probably noticed recent trail updates as RMFI volunteers and partners, including Mile High Youth Corps and Incline Friends, completed 4 weeks of work in the vicinity this fall. Probably the most apparent update was the installation of 550 linear feet of cedar post and rail fencing along select stretches of the Connector Trail. Other work, such as restoration of many foot-worn areas off-trail and seeding and installation of 2,000 square feet of erosion-control materials, while less visible, was just as important to ensure that the trail does not degrade to the condition Incline users will remember of the rogue “Old” Connector Trail (and calling that a “trail” was probably a stretch!). Special thanks to both Cities of Manitou Springs and Colorado Springs for their support of this project!
It’s common for trail designers and trail-builders to re-visit their new trail after a period of significant use and weather to see how the trail “wears-in” and to evaluate areas that require tweaking or changes as they see how trail users navigate along the trail and how water flows near and on the trail. Often hiker patterns such as “braiding” of the trail can occur where standing water forms or where the intended route is not clearly delineated. Trail crews may install a well-placed drain, improve the tread surface or change the route through braided areas to encourage hiking along a defined path. At times, unanticipated things happen, perhaps the outside shoulder or “critical edge” of the trail may give way under regular use and require installation of a retaining structure to hold tread material in place. RMFI crews constructed three retaining walls these past few weeks in such places.
Other patterns may emerge more as a function of users who are unaware of hiking etiquette or of outright disregard of best practices. The practice of “cutting” switchbacks can be particularly damaging in our region where vegetation along the trail may be stressed by our drier climate and erosive soils. Fortunately, most trail users in our area are quite aware of hiking best practices and are stewards of their favorite trails, even in small thoughtful acts such as obscuring switchback cuts with natural materials or kindly reminding persons in their party to stay on the trail. In areas subject to persistent off-trail cutting, installation of fencing may be required; and this was the reason significant fencing was required on sections of the Connector Trail this fall.
And yet more trail update requirements may be indicated by soil erosion patterns that, sometimes unforeseen, manifest themselves over time and especially around large new structures, such as switchbacks and long staircases. For example, it was not easy to anticipate erosion alongside the very nice long timber staircase the Friends of the Peak had constructed to top-off the new Connector Trail last year. Now that water flow around the steps can be seen, it was possible for RMFI to install small rock checks and to seed and place erosion control matting to protect this structure.
As with many things, time and trial will show where improvements are necessary if we want to keep something in good condition, we just want to get there in time. We are fortunate to have friends and neighbors here ready to help with the necessary improvements and to care for our region’s natural places. Thanks to all the partners who work day in and day out stewarding our treasured parks and open spaces.
This month, on October 8th through 10th, the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) will celebrate its 50th Anniversary with an alumni reunion full of events and merry-making. The celebration will take place in Lander, Wyoming, the school’s home base. In attendance will be Liz Nichol, RMFI’s Office Manager, who completed her first NOLS course as a student in 1967 and went on to work as an instructor with both NOLS and Outward Bound in the 1960s and '70s.
Introduced to hiking by her father, Liz spent much of her childhood exploring the mountains of Switzerland and England. She attended high school on the east coast of the United States, during which time she was a founding member of the “Walt Whitman Rock Climbing Club” and would go climbing most weekends at Carderock and Great Falls along the Potomac River. It was from a fellow club member that Liz first heard about the brand new NOLS program in Wyoming.
NOLS was founded by Paul Petzoldt, “an Idaho ranch kid who climbed the Grand Teton on a dare, in jeans and cowboy boots, and went on to become one of the first climbing guides in Jackson Hole, was a trainer for the 10th Mountain Division, and helped found the first Outward Bound School in the U.S.” writes Liz about the influential man with whom she worked. Motivated by the challenge he faced in finding experienced leaders for Outward Bound, Petzoldt founded NOLS in 1965 in order to fill this need by offering a well-rounded experiential education program for future wilderness guides and trip leaders. Additionally, with the birth of the Wilderness Act, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson the year before, Petzoldt knew that the influx of people into wilderness areas would make education in wilderness immersion and conservation essential in preserving pristine wildlands in the face of increased human visitation.
Liz enrolled into a NOLS course in the summer of 1967, following her first year of college, and went back the next two summers to work for NOLS. Liz shared with us her memories of these first few years:
“I felt like I had found my place in the world. Those early days were pretty informal. Paul led one big group into the Wind River Wilderness. We were divided into patrols, and mine was the one girls’ patrol with three boys’ patrols. I think that summer was the first year girls were included at all. We carried old army surplus pack frames to which were strapped three large stuff bags: a polypro sleeping bag on the bottom, clothes & stuff in the center, and food in the top. We would carry about 10 days worth of food, mostly things available in the average grocery store, macaroni, rice, dried potatoes, margarine, cheese, beans, nuts, dried fruit and veggies, “fruit crystals”, Jello, two pounds per person per day. We slept under tarps (no tents, and lots of mosquitos), cooked over fires in a billy can, eating out of an insulating double beer can. Surplus wool army pants and double sweaters (the bottom of one sweater sewed onto the bottom of another sweater to eliminate that midriff gap) were our uniform.
A classic NOLS course is 30 days on a backpack trip in wilderness. Never coming out to civilization, we learned well how to not only survive, but to be competent and comfortable (except for the mosquitoes) out there. Camping, cooking, climbing, fishing, flora, fauna, geology, first aid . . . One of Paul’s great teachings in an emergency situation? “Sit down and smoke a cigarette” (and take the time to calm down, think things over, don’t act impulsively).
The first course I worked was as an unpaid assistant. The second I worked for my choice of a piece of equipment, and I chose a fishing rod. I think the next course I actually got paid $300."
From 1970 to 1973, Liz took a brief hiatus from NOLS while living in Europe and traveling overland to Nepal. She returned in 1974 when she took the brand new NOLS Instructors Course, and rejoined the NOLS team of instructors. The next several years Liz worked NOLS courses in the Uintah Mountains of Utah, Prince William Sound, and courses with both NOLS and Outward Bound in Baja California and the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico. It was during these years that Liz got to know fellow instructors Scott Fischer and Wes Kraus, which led to her outfitting the food for one of their Mountain Madness trips to Denali, and then to being a member of Fischer’s famous 1987 American Everest North Face Expedition. While on the 1987 Expedition, Liz witnessed first-hand an unfortunate result of increased visitation to the Earth’s highest peak: the accumulation of trash on the mountain. Motivated to take action, Liz organized the Everest Environmental Expedition of 1990, a trip to clean up trash where climbers would camp, and later formed the Everest Environmental Project, a nonprofit organization that ran several subsequent trips to continue this work.
A friend of RMFI’s late founder, mountaineer and environmental champion, Mark Hesse, Liz has been involved with our organization since its early years and has been a staff member since 2003. She currently serves as Office Manager, handling our daily administrative tasks, our financials and bookkeeping, and being the all-around “rock” of the office, holding everything together. Much more than your average office manager, Liz’s early wilderness leadership experience continues to benefit RMFI in a number of ways. Our program staff regularly garners her insight and consultation when we consider taking on new projects, working with land managers and funders, and navigating the logistical challenges associated with our work. Additionally, her passion and enthusiasm to collaborate with others in the land conservation field makes her a magnet for forming beneficial partnerships with interested community members and leaders in the environmental field.
Although we will miss her warm and magnanimous presence while she is away at the NOLS 50th, we can’t wait to hear all about her trip to see old friends and colleagues back in Lander, Wyoming, the place where it all began. As Liz shared with us, “NOLS was certainly my foremost formative experience, where I met the lifelong friends that many find in high school and college, and where I learned skills and a comfort being out for extended periods in the back country. It is exciting to be heading back to Lander this week to celebrate NOLS 50th anniversary. We old timers will bemoan our surgeries and arthritis, and pass some good stories on to the younger generation.”
The RMFI mission consists of three separate, but highly interrelated components – stewardship, education, and research. What are mostly visible to the public are the stewardship and education pieces that are carried out through our volunteer-based, on-the-ground projects located on various public landscapes across southern Colorado. Equally important, however, is the research component being conducted behind the scenes, broadly assessing the effectiveness of restoration treatments and landscape change over time.
RMFI has a rich history in conducting restoration research at select project sites including Garden of the Gods, Pikes Peak, and the Hayman burn scar, and more recently began a research project in the Waldo Canyon burn scar in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service. This blog will give you more insight into perhaps a lesser-known component of RMFI’s work in the Waldo Canyon burn scar and might also help you answer your own questions about what impact the millions of dollars worth of restoration work have had on the burn scar’s recovery.
RMFI began monitoring select locations in the Waldo Canyon burn scar in 2014 to help the U.S. Forest Service determine the effectiveness of restoration treatments implemented with Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) funding. These treatments included the construction of several below-grade sediment detention basins as well as construction of hillslope stabilization structures and reseeding with native species. All structures ultimately help to minimize downstream sedimentation, which can threaten aquatic and riparian habitat and also pose severe downstream risks to life and safety. RMFI is currently in the process of conducting repeat measurements at all locations to allow for richer comparisons and assessments of change and recovery within the burn scar.
To date, a total of 38 sediment detention basins have been constructed within the Waldo Canyon burn scar on Forest Service managed lands. Sediment detention basins are below grade structures that reduce the flow of water and trap sediment. They can function as “borrow” pits for material used to fill active gullies, and can also help trap and disperse sediment to reconnect the floodplain and prevent the water table from lowering. Hillslope stabilization treatments including log-erosion barriers and reseeding help stabilize steep slopes and encourage revegetation and recovery of the burn scar.
Four monitoring locations were selected by U.S. Forest Service hydrologists (see map of locations below) and methods used to monitor the locations include longitudinal profile surveys, cross-section surveys, and monumented photopoints. In brief, longitudinal profile surveys enable evaluation of changes in slopes, streambed features, and channel aggradation (build up) or degradation (cutting). Cross-section surveys enable assessment of floodplain connectivity, changes in bed stability, channel enlargement, and lateral migration. Finally, photopoint monitoring is a standardized procedure developed by the U.S. Forest Service for taking precisely replicable photographs of areas that require long-term management. When combined with additional quantitative approaches, photopoints can be used to assess the success or failure of management decisions based on the use of clearly defined indicators and standards.
While we have not yet finished compiling and analyzing data for the measurements taken this year, we did analyze results from last year’s measurements. In summary, we found the longitudinal profile surveys conducted at the Upper Williams Canyon and Wellington Gulch sites where sediment detention basins were installed revealed minimal changes in channel gradient and a relatively stable channel bed for the duration of the monitoring period. In both locations, the sediment detention basins were functioning properly to capture sediment and reduce flow velocity.
The cross-section surveys conducted at the Upper Williams Canyon and Wellington Gulch sites revealed minimal changes to stream morphology or geometry. Bank location and channel width at each monitoring location remained relatively stable throughout the monitoring period. Cross-section surveys conducted at the Lower Williams Canyon site revealed relatively stable channel morphology and geometry, but more definitive locations of active bank erosion and degradation were observed.
Repeated photographs taken within the Camp Creek drainage suggested native vegetation was reestablishing itself on the hillslopes, the sediment detention basin was functioning properly to capture sediment originating from upstream reaches, and log-erosion barriers installed along the right bank of the basin were functioning to slow down water flows and minimize further rill erosion. Native vegetation seeded behind the log-erosion barriers was also establishing itself and helping to stabilize the soil surface.
By all accounts (and what the 2015 data are also supporting), the sediment detention basins and other restoration treatments constructed and implemented within the burn scar are functioning properly, are significantly aiding in the burn scar’s recovery, and are minimizing downstream risks to life and safety. While downstream communities like Manitou Springs continue to be inundated with high debris flows and flooding during substantial storm events, it is scary to think what the consequences would be if none of the basins had been constructed in the burn scar at all.
While significant investment has been made in restoration of the burn scar, the reality is that full recovery is still likely to take many many decades. To date, the U.S. Forest Service has supported a recovery approach that is heavy on the construction side of things. This approach has been necessary and beneficial in providing the initial emergency response and stabilization to jumpstart the recovery process. In recent discussions with the U.S. Forest Service, however, it is clear they’re intent on transitioning to a new phase of recovery, one that involves a longer-term and more sustainable strategy that is environmentally dynamic and focused on utilizing willow plantings and other vegetative treatments to begin building a base for increased resiliency within the burn scar into the future.
If you’re interested in taking a look at our 2014 monitoring report, please click here. We’ll have our 2015 results ready and posted in a few months so be on the look out!
If you've been following the local news lately, you've likely heard/read about the greenback cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii stomais) residing in the Bear Creek Watershed as well as reference to what is known as the "NEPA process." To some, these terms are clear as mud, but to others, they raise additional confusion as to what will become of the trout, the watershed, and recreational use/access in the watershed when it's all said and done. If you're on the confused side, hopefully this blog post will help answer any lingering questions you might have.
Some background...a few years ago, some biological sampling in the Bear Creek Watershed revealed that approximately 750 adult greenback cutthroat trout residing in Bear Creek were the sole remaining genetically pure population of the fish species. The greenback cutthroat trout is Colorado's state fish. The population is currently listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. This finding set forth a multi-year process of additional testing and sampling as well as initiation of the NEPA process by the U.S. Forest Service to guide future management decisions in the Bear Creek Watershed.
NEPA stands for the National Environmental Policy Act. It was signed into law by President Nixon on January 1, 1970 as the first major environmental law in the United States. Often referred to as the “Magna Carta” of environmental laws, NEPA established the nation’s major environmental policies. To implement these policies, NEPA requires that federal agencies complete one of three levels of analysis to evaluate the relevant environmental effects of a proposed federal project or management action.
These three levels include the preparation of a Categorical Exclusion (CatEx), an Environmental Assessment (EA) and applicable Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI), or an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). A CatEx comprises a list of proposed actions determined to not individually or cumulatively impact the quality of the human environment. If the proposed action is not listed in a CatEx, an EA must be prepared. We’ll stop at the EA since that has the most relevance to the Bear Creek Watershed. However, if you’re looking to delve deeper into the topic, click here.
The EA is a requirement of NEPA so that management decisions are better informed and so that citizens have an opportunity to be involved in decisions that potentially impact their well-being. An EA details the direct, indirect, and cumulative environmental impacts that would result from implementing a set of management actions. The outcomes of the EA determine whether implementing the proposed action would significantly affect the quality of the human environment, thereby requiring the preparation of an EIS.
To initiate the EA process, the U.S. Forest Service began the Bear Creek Watershed Restoration Project with the primary purpose being to develop and implement management actions that protect the watershed and the greenback cutthroat population, while allowing for compatible, appropriate, and sustainable recreational use. To maximize citizen involvement, the Bear Creek Roundtable was created. The group is comprised of land management agencies, special interest groups, advocacy groups, nonprofit organizations, recreationists, individual citizens, and others. RMFI has been an active member of this group since its inception.
After extensive analysis of the watershed, the U.S. Forest Service released the EA in May 2015. That document can be found here. After a public comment period, the U.S. Forest Service released their draft decision and FONSI on July 17, 2015, which detailed their selection of Alternative B, the Proposed Action for implementation, as well as their determination that an EIS was not warranted. That document can be found here.
In summary, Alternative B proposes implementing in-stream and upland restoration techniques to protect aquatic species and enhance riparian habitat and watershed health; conducting maintenance, reconstruction, and storm water drainage improvements on existing trails to minimize erosion risk and sediment production; building new trails and/or rerouting trails using proven trail construction standards and techniques; converting some non-system trails into National Forest System trails; closing and restoring all non-system routes within the watershed; and increasing education through installation of interpretive signage. In essence, this decision attempts to balance the needs of the fish with recreational use in the watershed. No decision is perfect. Current access and trails in the Bear Creek Watershed will change once the final decision notice is signed. However, the U.S. Forest Service should be commended for prioritizing public involvement throughout the entire process to ensure all voices were heard and had a seat at the table.
At the time of writing, the final objection period is in process, which allows objections to the decision to be submitted by those who have previously submitted specific written comments regarding the proposed project. The objection period ends on September 4, 2015. If no objections are filed, the decision notice may be signed 5 business days after the close of the objection period. If objections are filed, the resolution process will begin immediately after the objection period and will continue for 45 days. The final decision notice may be signed after the resolution process is complete and the Reviewing Officer’s response is received. Implementation may begin immediately after the decision notice is signed.
At the last Bear Creek Roundtable meeting in mid-August, the U.S. Forest Service had received two objections. This alone necessitates the 45-day resolution process meaning implementation won’t likely begin until late fall 2015, at the earliest. RMFI has close partnerships with all land management agencies involved in the project, and will play a key role in project implementation once the final decision has been signed. Successful implementation will hinge on community volunteers and youth corps crews, so be on the lookout in the near future about how you can get involved in this important project!
To find links to all documents resulting from the U.S. Forest Service analysis and NEPA process, visit their website here.
Forecasters with the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are predicting an 80% likelihood that an El Niño will strengthen and persist into the spring of 2016. Some models are predicting this El Niño to be the strongest since 1997-1998.
The term El Niño means “the Christ Child” in Spanish and was originally coined in the 18th century by fisherman along the coasts of Ecuador and Peru to describe a warm ocean current that periodically appeared in the fall/winter and lasted for several months. During the warming intervals, fish were less likely to bite, so fisherman would spend the winter and early spring repairing their equipment and spending time with their families.
The El Niño phenomenon has been studied extensively, and it wasn’t until the early 1960’s when scientists concluded the warm Pacific current was associated with periods of extreme wetness along the normally very dry Peruvian coast, low atmospheric pressure in the eastern Pacific, and high atmospheric in the western Pacific. Consequently, when scientists use the term, El Niño (warm episode), they are describing a warming of sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern equatorial waters of the Pacific Ocean that occurs every two to seven years and is associated with changes in the atmospheric circulation worldwide. So, what does this mean for Colorado?
When an El Niño develops, several consistent weather anomalies typically occur around the world. In North America, El Niño typically has its greatest impact during the fall and winter (and into the spring during a particularly strong El Niño year). In Colorado, a strengthening El Niño likely means more rain and snow for portions of the southwest and central mountains as well as the Front Range, which especially causes worry for residents of El Paso County who have already seen 25 to 30 inches of moisture since the beginning of January. With increased precipitation comes increased risk of flooding, particularly over the state’s burned areas including the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest burn scars. However, not all moisture is bad as the very rain that can cause flooding can also help vegetation regrowth in the burned areas provided the precipitation falls moderately.
With all the modeling and information available, it is still important to note that no two El Niños are exactly the same and El Niño is one of many factors that can impact the day-to-day variability in weather patterns. Ultimately, this El Niño will exert some influence on temperature and precipitation in the coming months, but the degree of impact remains to be seen. So, sit back and relax, this could be a bumpy winter/spring (or not).
Shelf Road Recreation Area was first discovered as a climbing area in the mid-1980s. The area, located approximately 10 miles north of Cañon City, Colorado, has since become a world-renowned destination for sport climbing and today boasts more than 850 bolted routes on its extensive spread of quality, vertical limestone cliffs. RMFI first began working with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in 1991 to address recreational impacts from increasing climbing use. Since that time, RMFI has mobilized thousands of volunteers, both within and outside of the climbing community, to construct a sustainable trail infrastructure linking climbing areas, parking lots, and campgrounds.
In 2014, RMFI and the BLM initiated a partnership with the newly-formed Pikes Peak Climbers Alliance (PPCA) to help further protect and improve the increasingly popular area. The PPCA is an all-volunteer climbing advocacy non-profit organization based in Colorado Springs focused primarily on the sustainability of existing climbing resources in the Pikes Peak Region. With an organization dedicated solely to climbing issues in the mix, momentum gained to evaluate the current status of Shelf Road and to develop future goals and objectives to address the growing maintenance and management needs of the area. With consultation from the PPCA, the Access Fund, and the BLM, RMFI developed and administered a public user survey in order to further understand current usage of the area and to gather the opinions and level of satisfaction of users regarding access, facilities, and management.
In early 2015, the data gathered through the survey was analyzed and the respondents heard! Although many useful insights were gleaned from the survey, there was one glaring and overriding theme: not enough camping, parking, and other infrastructure to support the masses of climbers that flock to the area during peak seasons. In response to this feedback, the BLM has crafted an official plan and proposal to add approximately 10-15 campsites to each of the two existing campgrounds of the area as well as additional restrooms and day-use parking.
The complete proposal can now be found on the website of the BLM and a public scoping period is underway through August 21, 2015. Area users and enthusiasts are encouraged to review the proposal and submit their feedback and any concerns regarding the impending plans. Comments that address the proposed action, alternatives to consider, and identification of any environmental issues are most helpful. Please find the proposal, including links to all relevant documentation and maps, as well as instructions on how to submit your comments at the following link. http://www.blm.gov/co/st/en/fo/rgfo/planning/shelf_road_campground.html
Find more information on the Pikes Peak Climbers Alliance and ways you can help their Shelf Road initiatives here: http://www.pikespeakclimbersalliance.org/
In light of the recent historic rains that walloped portions of Colorado Springs during the month of May and the news that we’d be leading volunteer efforts to help restore damages in Red Rock Canyon Open Space, we thought it would be prudent to discuss the unique history of this wonderful city treasure.
Red Rock Canyon Open Space is situated on 789 acres near the western edge of Colorado Springs. Archaeological evidence suggests Red Rock Canyon was first settled around 7000 B.C. by various American Indian tribes including the Jicarilla Apache and the Utes. The canyon’s proximity to nearby Fountain Creek and the presence of diverse wildlife made this area an ideal settlement location. Stone artifacts, chipped stone debris, and tools have been found in the central portion of the park.
During the late 1800’s, gypsum, building sand, and Lyons sandstone were mined from the upper and central portions of the park. These building materials were eventually used in the settlements of Old Colorado City, Manitou Springs, Fountain, and other nearby communities. The sandstone ridge running through the middle of the park was the site of the Kenmuir Quarry, which was owned and operated by the Greenlee family of Denver. At one time, this massive quarry operation ran seven days a week and supported offices, a boarding house, cottages, livestock, shops, and other buildings. The Kenmuir Quarry closed in the early 1900’s as concrete and steel began to replace sandstone as the preferred building material.
The Colorado-Philadelphia Reduction Company mill was located on the eastern edge of the property. The mill refined ore shipped in by train from the gold mines in Cripple Creek. In 1896, the mill became the largest mill of its kind in the United States, but was forced to close in the early 1900’s due to competition from the newer and more modern Golden Cycle Mill.
In the early 1900’s, the property officially became known as Red Rock Canyon and ownership soon after changed to John George Bock. Bock initially acquired land near the entrance to the canyon and operated the Roundup Stables, which provided scenic horseback rides through various nearby canyons. During the 1920’s and 1930’s, Bock purchased adjacent parcels from his neighbors and began trying to repair the extensive damages to the landscape caused by a half-century of occupation and exploitation. Bock also constructed extensive water diversions, dams, and other structures in an effort to control runoff and erosion through the property.
Bock’s younger sons, John and Richard, took over the property in the late 1900’s. Their vision was to develop the property into a resort community with a convention center, high-rise towers, commercial centers, and a golf course. In the end, they were only able to build a few residences and outbuildings, two-dozen mobile home sites, a 53-acre landfill, and two gravel quarries. In 2003, the City of Colorado Springs purchased the property to be used as public open space, and named it Red Rock Canyon Open Space.
Today, Red Rock Canyon Open Space is heavily used and loved by the public thanks to the extensive trail system, climbing opportunities, wildlife, and unique topography. The open space is dominated by a series of parallel ridges or hogbacks that run north to south throughout the property. The hogbacks are a result of bedded sedimentary rock strata that were upturned during the formation of the Rocky Mountains. The sandstone rocks that comprise the hogbacks are a continuation of the Fountain Formation that also makes up the sandstone formations in the Garden of the Gods a few miles to the north. Elevations throughout the property range from a low point of 6,130 feet in the northeast corner to a high point of 6,740 feet in the southeast part of the park. South and west of the property, the land rises steeply, culminating at the summit of Pikes Peak, approximately 9 miles away.
There are five prominent canyons within the park. The heart and namesake of the property, Red Rock Canyon, is home to several cultural features including large quarries cut into the sandstone ridge, caves, and remnants of the original Bock residence. Unique biological and geological features characterize the other four canyons, Wild Horse, Gypsum, Greenlee, and Sand Canyons.
In May 2015, an earthen retention pond constructed by Bock in Sand Canyon collapsed. Massive amounts of mud and water rushed downstream causing extensive damage to adjacent trails, parking areas, and drainages. Some parts of Colorado Springs saw nearly 12 inches of rain during the month making it the wettest on record since November 1894. As a result of the damage and associated safety concerns, the City of Colorado Springs closed Red Rocks Open Space for more than six weeks.
Soon after the rain subsided, the City of Colorado Springs began assessing the damage and making a plan to repair and reopen the park. Heavy machinery was used to repair areas of the park that posed immediate risks to life and safety. The park was finally reopened on July 3, 2015, but work remains to repair and restore trails, climbing areas, and drainages. The Rocky Mountain Field Institute, in partnership with the Friends of Red Rock Canyon and the City of Colorado Springs, will be leading 20 volunteer workdays in the park as well as 1-week of youth corps. Work will focus on stabilizing Round Up Trail Creek, repairing the Quarry Pass Trail, stabilizing the Sand Canyon Pond breach site, and repairing access to popular climbing areas. Please consider lending a hand in this important work by signing up for one of our volunteer days. Visit our volunteer calendar for more information on how to give back and get dirty!
Photos courtesy of the Friends of Red Rock Canyon.