The Dirt Diaries Blog

Jennifer's picture

El Niño Likely to Last Through Spring 2016 - What Does This Mean for Colorado?

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).

Molly's picture

BLM Proposes Campground and Infrastructure Expansion to Shelf Road Recreation Area

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/

Jennifer's picture

Red Rock Canyon Open Space: Past and Present

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

Andy's picture

Who are those Field Staff at RMFI?

Each year, at about the first week of April, the active RMFI staff team almost doubles in size as our Field Staff members return to Colorado Springs from various winter pursuits (or perhaps, awaken from hibernation). It is an exciting time in the office and in local project areas as we gear-up and orient for upcoming field projects. 

Ever wonder about the background, training and certification a RMFI staff member has when working with you out on a field project? At RMFI we are thrilled about our staff members who are out in the field and where the action is; working with our great volunteers and with our great youth corps partners. Thrilled with their infectious passion for conservation and their considerable talent because, after all, you deserve our best!

Our Field Staff typically come from a diverse set of backgrounds; truly a strength which RMFI values, but they share a few special things in common:

Youth Corps Experience.  More than half of RMFI Field Staff members (over the past 5 years) have extensive experience serving in a youth corps organization, usually an organization under the “AmeriCorps” family. Some of these include Mile High Youth Corps, Nevada Conservation Corps, American Conservation Experience, National Civilian Community Corps, VISTA, and City Year. These programs continue to be a great way for young adults (often 18-24 years of age) to gain work experience in conservation and education-focused fields, work with others from different backgrounds, and to earn college financial awards. Staff joining us from other areas of the country bring with them new conservation techniques and expertise that often may be adapted to the environmental conditions of the southern Rockies region.

Education. Most RMFI Field Staff members have a college degree in a natural sciences field which can be valuable for several reasons. First, a natural sciences background will help equip a staff member to apply science-based solutions in the work that makes up our conservation and restoration research components of the RMFI mission. Next, this background enables staff to provide special insight to our volunteers about how their work fits into a healthy ecosystem and why the work matters. This especially supports the environmental education component of RMFI’s mission. Finally, along with other aspects, this background can indicate the strong passion which a staff member will bring to projects.

Leadership Experience. They have significant peer and team-leading experience in back-country environs. Some have been graduates of our summer Earth Corps program which exercises a team of 10 college students engaged in a rigorous service and academic project in a strenuous back-country environment. Others were leaders within their youth corps program or have led multiple student excursions in wilderness areas.

Basic Medical Training. Medical preparedness in this line of work is key! RMFI Field Staff maintain, at a minimum, Wilderness First Aid (“WFA”) and CPR certification. Many hold more advanced certifications such as Wilderness First Responder (“WFR”) or Wilderness Emergency Medical Technician (“WEMT”). These are nationally-recognized certifications which specialize in patient assessment, stabilization, care and evacuation for scenarios lasting hours to days in locations which are isolated from definitive higher-level medical care. We call these “isolated” locations back-country or wilderness, which happens to be the places many of our volunteers really appreciate working in. WFA is a 24-hour course, WFR is an 80-hour course, WEMT is a month-long course and they all have periodic re-certification or continuing education requirements.

Specialty Certifications.  RMFI enjoys many other applicable specialty skills amongst its staff including: chainsaw sawyer certification (S212 Wildland Fire Chainsaws), crosscut sawyer certification, Wildland Firefighter (type 2) certification, Leave No Trace, National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) experience, and various rock climbing and climbing safety experience. Little-known fact, one RMFI staff-member was part of the earliest generation of NOLS Instructors!

Lindsay Anderson's picture

El Desierto

“Hot and tired I stop in the shade of an overhanging ledge and take a drink from my canteen. Resting, I listen to the deep dead stillness of the canyon. No wind or breeze, no birds, no running water, no sound of any kind but the stir of my own breathing.” Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire.

Thus we arrive at Indian Creek, Utah...
Located in the San Juan County approximately 50 miles south of Moab, Indian Creek covers roughly 30,000 acres bordering the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park and is managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The “Creek” as it is lovingly referred to by the nomadic populations that flock to its corridors is characterized by meandering side-canyons, elongated mesas and buttes, and narrow spires. The Creek is an extension of the Colorado Plateau which means it’s classified as a high desert, receiving seasonal precipitation that does not ever fully reach the evapotranspiration rate; meaning the desert is capable of pulling more moisture from the area than it actually receives, creating a harsh living environment for its' plants, animals and human inhabitants.

However, this landscape is far from being a barren wasteland. It houses unique habitats that allow diverse plants and animals to flourish. It also provides weather conditions that promote the preservation of artifacts and culturally significant resources. Creating an ecosystem that constantly reminds one of what the balance of fragility and strength look like.

The majority of visitors to the Canyon are drive-through in nature, making their way to the Needles District of Canyonlands. However, the area has over the years collected a variety of user groups ranging from OHV (off highway vehicle), overflow camping from the park, hunting, and rock climbing. The Creek is now widely accepted as a world renowned rock climbing area, boasting Wingate sandstone cliffs that provide the perfect opportunity for climbers to test their technical skills. Because of the advances in climbing gear, the scope of climber abilities and boldness are now wide ranging, drastically increasing the Canyon’s visitation numbers. Due to its' popularity, climbing has now become land managers’ main focus for recreational use.

In walks RMFI…
In 1989, our founder Mark Hesse catalyzed a group of friends and fellow climbers to begin building trails and restoring impacted areas in Indian Creek, all under our original name: The American Mountain Foundation. A decade later in 1997, Mark and his grassroots organization became the Rocky Mountain Field Institute. Since the early 90’s, RMFI has partnered with the Dugout Ranch, a privately owned parcel of land within the canyon, and the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) to deal with the needs of the area, thus marking the beginning of what has been a 25 year long relationship with Indian Creek. In order to meet the volunteer numbers needed to restore these disturbed areas, RMFI has collaborated with groups from Outward Bound, Prescott College, Western State College, Colorado College, and Montrose High School, completing major restoration projects and climbing access trails, all while emphasizing environmental stewardship to students and volunteers. As of 2015, RMFI, alongside over 1,600 volunteers, have given more than 24,600 hours to the Creek. 

As the popularity of Indian Creek expands so does its need for a steward whose presence can be felt more than twice a year. Thus, our partners now include The Access Fund (a national climbers’ advocacy and conservation organization), the Boulder Climbing Community’s Front Range Climbing Stewards,and The American Alpine Club, all of whom recognize the cultural and environmental significance of the area. After all, “There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth. We are all crew.”  ~Marshall McLuhan, 1964

Joe's picture

Knowledge Nook: How Are RMFI Projects Funded?

During the winter months, our supporters often ask us what we’re up to. When wet weather precludes us from working on trail and restoration projects (it often does more harm than good), we stay just as busy working to further RMFI’s mission. Off-season activities include writing grant proposals to fund future work and writing final reports to inform our funders of the work accomplished during the previous field season.

RMFI is funded through a variety of sources including corporations, foundations, and government. Here is a breakdown of revenue generated in 2014:
Government revenue: 21%
Fee for service: 20%
Foundation: 20%
Corporate: 15%
Individual: 14%
Organization: 5%
Government contracts: 4%
In-kind: 1%
Other: <1%

The majority of revenue RMFI generates is through a funding request proposal, whether it’s awarded through government entities (such as the U.S. Forest Service), or through a foundation (such as the Pikes Peak Community Foundation). These sources are often project-based, meaning RMFI identifies a public lands area where a need is present and then pursues a funder that would have a stake in the project. Often times, this is the land management agency that manages the property, but other times there are foundations that like to help RMFI with a particular component of its mission such as burn area restoration or community stewardship. Funds received for a specific project or purpose are called restricted funds.

Sometimes, a partner organization will directly contract RMFI for a project. This is known as fee for service revenue. There is an agreed-upon objective and amount of funding required to accomplish those objectives. For example, in 2014, RMFI was contracted by a partner organization to improve trails at Lake Pueblo State Park.

RMFI has also been fortunate to be beneficiaries of several major fundraising events including the Veda Fashion Show and Greenie Awards, Banff Mountain Film Festival, the Waldo Waldo 5K, and Indy Give!. These events are of great benefit because they help to support the greater mission of the organization in general, and not necessarily a specific project. This provides the organization with greater flexibility to pursue high priority environmental service projects in the region. Funds received to support our overall mission are called unrestricted funds.

This is a simplified breakdown of the variety of funding sources RMFI pursues year-round to pay full-time and seasonal field staff, fund high quality restoration projects in the Pikes Peak Region, and keep the lights on at the RMFI office. Next time you’re on the west side of Colorado Springs, pop in to the old Midland School and say hello.

Jennifer's picture

RMFI Records Another Successful Year!

As 2014 comes to a close, all of the RMFI staff have been spending a lot of time reflecting on our accomplishments and challenges over the past year and looking forward to all that 2015 promises to bring.

2014 was a year of transition for RMFI. With the sudden passing of our founder, Mark Hesse, and the transition to a new Executive Director, 2014 was certainly not without its challenges. However, even with all the ups and downs we had, our 2014 field season was amazingly productive and jam-packed with several high-impact restoration projects. In addition, 2014 marked the first time in our organization’s history where we hired our first full-time volunteer coordinator, Molly Mazel. Molly has been a tremendous asset to our organization and we are incredibly excited to have her on board.

Here’s a snapshot of our 2014 field season:

• 257 total workdays
• 2,323 total volunteers
• 22,347 total volunteer hours
• $510,357 total volunteer value
• 16,371 feet of trail improved
• 6,907 feet of social trails restored
• 575 pounds of native seed planted
• 587 log erosion barriers constructed

With all of our volunteers, we:

• Conducted fire and flood mitigation in both the Waldo and Black Forest Burn Scars.
• Hosted the first public workday on the Waldo Canyon Trail, which has been closed to the public since 2012.
• Restored alpine wetlands on Pikes Peak.
• Began construction of a brand new circuit at the top of Cheyenne Mountain State Park, called the Top of the Mountain Trail.
• Began a new 3-year project to reconstruct the summit trail to Kit Carson Peak and Challenger Ridge in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
• Stabilized eroding hillslopes and closed non-designated trails in Garden of the Gods and on Barr Trail.
• Created sustainable trail climbing access trails in a handful of climbing areas including Shelf Road Recreation Area, Indian Creek, and Turkey Rocks.

As a small token of our appreciation, RMFI recently acknowledged some of our volunteers, partners, and funders at our annual Fall ShinDIG. Below is a list of award recipients:

Superstar Volunteers (individuals who volunteered at least 5 times with RMFI in 2014):
Marco Catanese, Josh Deck, Steven Driska, Justin Duerksen, John Etzel, Aaron Flanagan, Michael Flanagan, Lucy Hamamoto, Jon Hill, Susan Jarvis, Eric Julian, George Lee, Madeline Lewis, Marina Loeper, Bill Morris, Nicholas Perez, Brian Picklesimer, Mary Rodas, Dusty Rhoades, Joey Rhoades, Dylan Schubert, Solangel Sinclair-Tucker, Sean Stellick
Volunteer of the Year: George Lee (volunteered 34 times!!!)
Outstanding Funder: Marcus Selig, National Forest Foundation
Stewardship Partner: Carol Ekarius, Coalition for the Upper South Platte
Land Management Partner: Bob Leaver, retired, Monticello BLM
School/Volunteer Group: Montrose High School

Be on the lookout for our 2014 Annual Report that will provide more detail on all of our accomplishments this year.

2015 promises to bring new challenges, successes, and adventures. RMFI is well positioned to tackle all the future brings and are excited for what lies ahead!

Joe's picture

Earth Corps 2014 Recap

What has RMFI been up to this summer? We’re glad you asked. For the past 12 years, a portion of RMFI's summer plans include donning our professorial hats to run a college course, called Earth Corps. Earth Corps is a for-credit field studies course where 10 undergraduate college students from universities across the country descend on the Colorado backcountry to complete critical trail and restoration projects in exchange for college credit…

This year, RMFI changed the format of the program from working at one location for one month to spending two weeks each at three sites. This change offered the students the opportunity to experience the diversity of Colorado’s ecosystems while engaging in three distinct projects addressing a variety of ecological needs. The course started in late June at the Waldo Canyon burn scar. The students learned about fire ecology while working to stabilize hillslopes and protect the Waldo Canyon Trail infrastructure. Visiting lecturers from the US Forest Service, University of Colorado Colorado Springs, and Colorado College discussed restoration ethics, geomorphology, and fire history.

The middle two weeks of Earth Corps were spent breaking ground on the highly anticipated Top of the Mountain Trail at Cheyenne Mountain State Park. Working out of a basecamp in a beautiful montane meadow, the crew built trail tread and staircases on the rocky, exposed, and panoramic section of the trail. Late RMFI founder Mark Hesse designed the trail, and Mark’s style shines through with steep climbing turns, natural step formations, and a flair for dramatic views. Insects and pollinators, public land management, and mountain climatology were a few of the topics lectured on by college professors during this hitch.

Willow Lake Basin (elevation 11,500 feet) in the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range played host for the final two weeks of Earth Corps. The crew scratched the surface of what will be a 3-5 year project re-constructing the summit trail to Challenger Point and Kit Carson Peak, two 14ers in the Sangres. Experts from the field of conservation trekked into the Basin to lecture on wilderness management and water law.

Other highlights of the program included summiting Pikes Peak, Almagre Mountain, Kit Carson, and Challenger Point, wildlife sightings of bears, big horn sheep, pine martens, and many species of birds, and developing new skills like packing mules on a pack string, learning to cook in the backcountry for 15, and building steps in the alpine. After a final meal of pizza back in Colorado Springs, the students went their separate ways back to school to resume classes this fall. We always know Earth Corps will accomplish a ton of work, and that we’ll learn a lot about the environment, land management, ecology, etc. But more than anything, it’s the personal growth and discovery that comes from spending 6 weeks in the backcountry that makes Earth Corps what it is. A big thanks to the students of Earth Corps 2014!

Robert Bishop – University of Colorado Colorado Springs
Bain Caton – University of South Florida
Jackie Curry – Denver University
Alex Curtze – Penn State University
Elaine Gallenberg – Northland College
Spencer Gould – University of British Columbia
Jamie Lay – University of Colorado Colorado Springs
Brian Lonabocker – Gettysburg University
Niveditra Rajendra – University of California at Berkeley
Taryn Schreiner – Northern Arizona University

Molly's picture

Volunteer Vacation Celebrates 40 Years in 2014

This year as RMFI begins gearing up for our annual Volunteer Vacation, we take a look back at the rich history of this national phenomenon which celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2014. I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Bill Ruskin, the man behind the first trail stewardship project that would evolve into the ongoing tradition of Volunteer Vacation. The ball got rolling on outdoor stewardship in 1972 when Congress passed a bill to give members of the public interested in environmental preservation the opportunity to volunteer on USDA Forest Service lands. In response to the new legislative act, Ruskin, a Colorado resident and founding member of the National Hiking and Ski Touring Association, created the Volunteer Conservation Corps (VCC) to recruit volunteers to work on public lands. These volunteers would assist land management agencies with trail building and maintenance needs, which were often backlogged or never completed. The mission of VCC was to provide recreational users of public lands the opportunity to give back to the lands they love. 

In 1974, Bill and the VCC organized their pilot trail stewardship project right here in Colorado. More than 1,200 volunteers from all over the country applied to participate in this unique opportunity. Fifty-eight of these applicants, from fourteen different states, ended up traveling to Colorado that year to become trained in land conservation technique. These men and women spent days working on key projects in the Pike National Forest and other areas. The event was such a success that it continued on an annual basis and in 1978 the National Hiking and Ski Touring Association merged with the American Hiking Society. The very next year this growing volunteer stewardship event became known as 'Volunteer Vacation,' a program that has spread around the nation. As Bill Ruskin told me, "Colorado is a stronghold of volunteers taking care of the outdoors. Volunteer Vacation was a bellwether for engaging volunteer stewardship."

RMFI's 2014 Volunteer Vacation will take place in the Severy Creek Basin on Pikes Peak from August 20 - 24. Severy Creek Basin is an ecologically remarkable site and is recognized by the Colorado Natural Heritage Program for its outstanding biological diversity. Unfortunately, stormwater runoff from the Pikes Peak Highway has caused severe environmental impact to the Basin. Participants of the Volunteer Vacation will work out of a basecamp located off the Pikes Peak Highway at approximately 10,500 feet. We will spend the days constructing hillslope stabilization structures, revegetating stream banks, and transplanting willow and sedges to assist with the restoration of this delicate ecosystem. Our evenings will be spent recreating, relaxing, cooking, and eating delicious meals (provided by RMFI!). Find more information about RMFI's 2014 Volunteer Vacation here. We hope you'll join us in celebrating the 40th year of Volunteer Vacation by enjoying and giving back to our majestic mountain, Pikes Peak. 

RMFI's picture

Garden of the Gods Project Update

RMFI is currently focusing on the North Gateway corridor within the Central Zone of Garden of the Gods. This area sees the majority of the Park's use as visitors park at the Main Lot, walk down the sidewalk alongside North Gateway Rock, and then continue between North and South Gateway. This corridor has seen a lot of use over the years, resulting in areas with significant vegetation loss. In partnership with the City of Colorado Springs Parks, RMFI and our steadfast volunteers restored a significantly disturbed area over the past month.

Known as the Jaycee Plaza, this area is often the first stop on foot for visitors after parking their vehicles in the Main Lot. RMFI worked with City personnel to determine which areas to restore while maintaining an open corridor for park visitors. Armed with rakes and pick mattocks, the RMFI crew decompacted the hardened soils in the area, spread seed and mulch, and transplanted native plants into the previously disturbed area. Park staff finished the project with split rail fencing to protect the newly restored area.

The highly visible location of this restoration project gives us the opportunity to showcase the importance of the Park's protection and stewardship to visitors. The Garden of the Gods is a tremendous ecological resource and is a cornerstone of our region's tourism. Next time you're in the Park, go check out this fine work. Big thanks to our volunteers and to the Garden of the Gods Park Staff!

See more photos here.

Amber's picture

Knowledge Nook: Trail Closures - What's the Deal?

We’ve all noticed; trails throughout the region have been closed due to fires and flooding for more than a year now. But what does this really mean, the fire’s out and the flooding has dissipated, so why all the continued closures? Each land management agency has their own specific reasons for the closures impacting our region and they should be contacted directly if you have specific questions. However, there are a multitude of ecological reasons trails and open areas should remain closed following disturbances, especially after a wildfire. Read below to learn more!

Ecological Concerns:

Fire has many ecological consequences that can be exacerbated by the premature re-introduction of visitors to an area.

A hydrophobic layer will often form in soils that are exposed to fire in this region. Hydrophobic soils occur when a water-repellent layer is created within soil layers. This layer prevents water from percolating into the soil, decreasing water infiltration and increasing overland water flow. Increased overland water flow can displace sediment on hillslopes, creating gullies upstream and sediment deposition in downstream reaches.  This layer can also make it more difficult for seeds to germinate by preventing rooting and access to moist soils. Additional disturbance, such as people walking on hydrophobic soils, can cause an even larger increase in displaced soils and unnecessary damage to hillslopes and downstream reaches. 

The absence of vegetation on fire-scarred slopes causes serious negative impacts to soils. Without foliage to intercept them, raindrops directly hit soils, causing displacement. The combination of hydrophobic soils and a lack of vegetation to absorb some moisture can cause extreme increases in the quantity of water moving through a watershed. The water must go somewhere and without the ability to absorb into soil or vegetation, it tends to move downstream very quickly, in fact, post-fire flooding can be anywhere from 10-100x worse than in undisturbed areas.

Sensitive soils are slow to recover and newly germinated vegetation can be easily re-disturbed with just a few footprints.  The more time we can leave soils undisturbed, the faster vegetation will re-establish. The quicker vegetation re-establishes, the safer downstream areas will be!

Fire-scarred landscapes are at an early successional stage and are often more susceptible to non-native species invasions. Since fire typically damages or destroys much of the above ground vegetation, the opportunity for new species to invade is high. If non-native species invade the site native species may have a tougher time reclaiming the area. Unfortunately, visitors to the area and their pets can unintentionally transport non-native seeds via cars, shoes, clothing, and fur.

Of course, don't forget that fire is a completely natural process in our ecosystems and can make a forest more resilient to stressors by removing unhealthy trees, increasing and recycling nutrient availability, creating breaks in the canopy to allow light to reach the forest floor, and increasing the diversity and abundance of native understory plant species.

Here is a list of native species (good plants!) that tend to benefit when exposed to a fire or smoke:

  • Wild geranium
  • Aspen
  • Golden Smoke
  • Front Range Beardtongue
  • Fendler’s ragwort
  • Spreading Dogbane
  • Fireweed (pictured)
RMFI's picture

Sub-Surface Stabilization Structures on Barr Trail

Barr Trail Maintenance

Barr Trail is one of the most beloved trails in our region. It is the primary summit route, by foot, to the top of Pikes Peak, elevation 14,115. The adjacent Incline route, legalized for public access in 2013, has made the lower 3-mile portion of Barr Trail extremely popular as users ascend the Incline and descend Barr Trail. The unstable nature of the soils in this region and significant visitor usage on the Barr Trail make management and sustainability of this trail challenging. Soils along the Barr Trail consist of decomposed granite derived from Pikes Peak Granite. Decomposed Pikes Peak Granite is well known for high susceptibility to erosion, creating a trail that is vulnerable to downcutting and incision. Additionally, vegetation along this trail is highly impacted due to erosion, sediment movement, and heavy visitor use.

Barr Trail is popular with a variety of recreational user groups including trail runners, hikers, and bikers. Given the diversity of users, RMFI has explored a variety of trail maintenance options to avoid the much-maligned timber riser. While the timber step-riser is a common structure to stabilize steep, erosive trails, it provides an unpleasant user experience for runners and bikers.

To that end, RMFI is experimenting with alternative structures to stabilize the trail while providing a fun and safe user experience. Since March 17th, RMFI staff and an AmeriCorps NCCC crew have been on Barr Trail installing sub-surface stabilization structures. The structures are placed in incised segments of the trail and designed to provide stabilization below-grade, meaning there is no structure above the trail tread. The goal is to tranform an incised portion of trail into a smooth, properly outsloped trail. The end effect for trail users is that you don't see anything at all, just a "normal" trail. 

 

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Tree Planting in the Waldo Burn Scar

We are often asked about planting trees in the Waldo Canyon Burn Scar. The US Forest Service has strict guidelines about tree planting. Read a one-page overview here: Reforestation in the Waldo Canyon Burn Area, US Forest Service

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Waldo Vegetation Cover Increase 2012 to 2013

Check out this map created by US Geologic Survey's Special Applications Science Center in Denver. It displays their assessment of vegetative recovery on the Waldo Canyon Burn Scar from post-fire in July 2012 to September 25, 2013. The product shows a few areas of vegetative loss likely due to trees dying over the winter/summer as a result of damage from the fire; however, there is a significant amount of recovery. While some of the re-vegetation is attributed to natural recovery, many of the areas shown on the product are places where hand work was conducted over the spring/summer/autumn. 

View Full Map

 

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Thoughts from the Field

Reflecting on Williams Canyon Volunteer work June-August 2013

Wow – it went by quickly - a very productive and safe 10 weeks completed in upper Williams Canyon!  Working in the highest reaches of the priority sub-watershed for mitigation work in the Waldo Burn Scar, our team of extremely hard-working volunteers and staff installed masses of LEBs, numerous cross-vanes and pioneered and emplaced 15 first-of-their kind hand-installed log crib walls.   As each of these mitigation structures continues to fill with sediment and to slow water flow we are all hoping they take at least a small bite out of the troubles Manitou Springs and western Colorado Springs face with future flood potential.  A rough estimate indicates that the crib walls should hold better than 225 tons of sediment. 

While nearly every RMFI volunteer counts on getting at least a bit dirty and sweaty, this work was particularly strenuous; and on demanding ‘charcoal-ized’ terrain in the middle of a hot summer many of you were likely asked as you returned from a day there if you’d started a new job in a coal mine!  (I personally re-learned there’s value in sorting work clothes from other clothes in the laundry…)  Williams Canyon looked huge as we drove up it each morning while our team of people looked so small as we hiked in with tools to its upper reaches – that’s why each volunteer figured so hugely in our capabilities each day.  Couldn’t have done it without you --- A tip of the blackened hard-hat to all of you who helped in this very important project and hope to see you on another project soon!

- Andy Riter, Field Instructor

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Knowledge Nook: Watershed Assessment of River Stability and Sediment Supply (WARSSS)

Put on your hydrology hats, folks, we’re talking WARSSS! Last week, Dave Rosgen, Ph.D., renowned hydrologist and principal of Wildland Hydrology, presented the highly anticipated results of the WARSSS assessment for the Waldo Canyon Burn Area. As the road map for land management activities from here on out, the WARSSS document, or Watershed Assessment of River Stability and Sediment Supply, is a comprehensive analysis on the condition of the land burned by the fire.  This analysis tells us where the highest priorities for restoration are based on the current and potential status of the area’s waterways and hill slopes.

And the results? “The reduction in forest vegetative cover (trees and gambel oak) following the Waldo Canyon Fire created a major reduction in evapo-transpiration leading to an increase in the magnitude and frequency of floods as a result of precipitation events.” Layman translation: fewer trees and ground cover means more water and sediment pulsing faster through streams after rain storms in the burn area. This document tells us where, why and how the land has been damaged and can be repaired after the fire. The assessment highlighted locations where processes such as road, trail and stream bank erosion are occurring. It also outlines what can be done to prevent downstream impacts to infrastructure, property and riparian vegetation.

This is where we step in.

RMFI’s initial restoration focus is getting ground cover on hill slopes and stabilizing drainages and waterways. Rosgen’s analysis has identified both impaired streams (or “representative reaches”) as well as unimpaired streams (or “reference reaches”), setting the foundation for what is degraded and what is working. With Rosgen’s analysis, we can move forward with work on Forest Service land. Utilizing volunteers and youth corps crews, we will install structures on steep slopes and in valley bottoms. Erosion control designs such as log sills or log toe catches will slow water and prevent erosion on barren hill sides while gulley plugs and bank stabilization will prevent erosion in stream channels and drainage ways. Heavy machinery work includes digging sediment detention basins to capture moving soil and redesigning road infrastructure to allow for larger storm events.

We have a long road to recovery ahead of us, and we look forward to working with members of our community to help protect our region from the impacts of a post-fire landscape. Stay tuned for open enrollment work days, and come ready to get charred and dirty in the name of watershed health and restoration!

Read the WARSSS document here.

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Knowledge Nook: Cheatgrass!

cheatgrass

Most people have heard of cheatgrass (Bromus tectorm) and even if you haven’t, you have probably seen it. If you’ve ever walked through a grassland in the foothills there is a good chance you have had to remove its prickly seeds from your socks!
Cheatgrass is a noxious weed found throughout Colorado that can displace native species. Though it is perfectly capable of invading undisturbed ecosystems, it does especially well in areas that have been disturbed; this could be along roads and trails, in heavily grazed fields, or following fire and floods. Once established, cheatgrass is difficult to control and has the ability to modify the native plant community. It can alter soil properties, displace native species, and can actually change the fire frequency of an area.

You see, cheatgrass has a couple tricks up its sleeve that allows it to become so abundant. First, this grass is originally from Europe and Asia, hitchhiking its way to North America by way of ships. This means that none of its natural predators are around to keep this plant in check.

Second, cheatgrass is a winter annual, a plant whose seeds germinate in the fall and whose root system grows throughout the winter when most plants are sleeping. By spring, when many of the native seeds germinate and native species start growing again, cheatgrass may already be dominating the underground landscape. Cheatgrass is also a high water user; it has an extensive, very shallow root system that is able to intercept rainfall before it can reach the roots of many of the native species.

Third, cheatgrass can increase the fire frequency of its home. Since cheatgrass germinates early in the spring, it dries up early in the summer, creating vast areas of dry grasslands by July. The dry stalks of cheatgrass are highly flammable and they often burn before native species can produce seeds. These are just a few of the reasons cheatgrass is so successful in this region. Native plants have to compete for a place to grow, nutrients, and water; often this is too much stress and the native plants die back while the cheatgrass spreads farther and farther into the forests and across the plains.

What can you do to stop the spread of this nasty weed?

  • Clean all seeds from your clothing, your pets, and your vehicles before leaving an area you know to be infested with cheatgrass.
  • Be sure to completely put out your campfire, never throw cigarette butts out a window or on the ground, and always drive on designated roads (never drive through tall, dry grass as hot exhaust can ignite the vegetation).
  • Remove any cheatgrass you see on your property
  • Volunteer with RMFI or other stewardship organizations for invasive species removal work days!

Image: Cheatgass (the grass with a reddish tinge) invading a native arid plant community. Photo by Toiyabe at English Wikipedia

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Knowledge Nook: The ABCs and 123s of Seeding

RMFI volunteers seeding

Contrary to how it sometimes looks, restoration is a bit more than throwing seeds on the ground. A lot of thought and planning go into a site before the work is completed to ensure successful restoration. Our staff asks questions like when is the best time to seed, what type of seed should be used at a site, what type of prep work should be done at the site before the seed is sown, and will the seed stay in place?

RMFI staff and volunteers typically start a restoration project by decompacting and aerating the soil at the site. This helps create pores in the soil for nutrient transfer and to promote root growth. The next step is to prepare the seed bed. Decompacting the soil is often accomplished using a McLeod rake, a tool that can leave large chunks of soil lying on the ground surface. A garden rake is then used to remove any large rocks, to break any remaining soil clumps, and to smooth the soil surface. Some small depressions and hummocks should remain throughout the surface; this creates microhabitats where water can pool, seeds can collect, and where there may be more protection from wind and other weather.

Seed is then hand spread throughout the prepared area in accordance with the recommended density per acre for type of seed and ecosystem. Seeds are lightly raked into the soil with a garden rake. We are looking for good soil-to-seed contact during raking. If seeds are buried too deeply they will not have enough food reservoirs to push through the soil before the sunlight can feed them, but if they aren’t buried deep enough they may fall victim to the many critters that are searching for a tasty lunch.

The last step is to tamp the soil with a flat edged tool to firm the seedbed. On steeper slopes and areas where it is beneficial, RMFI stakes erosion control matting over the restored area. Matting can be used to minimize the likelihood of seed predation, to create favorable microhabitats, and to reduce soil and seed movement due to erosion. 

Timing is pretty important when it comes to seeding. Generally speaking, seeds should be spread right before the period of greatest precipitation; in Colorado this tends to be late fall. Spring and summer are unpredictable for seeding, but spring melt-off is pretty much a guarantee here. Planting seeds in the fall has other benefits as well. Many species have seeds that are dormant until special mechanisms to prevent them from germinating at inopportune times are activated. They may require a temperature or chemical trigger; for instance, Lodgepole pinecones are serotinous, meaning they require fire or heat to open. Some of our native species require cold scarification, meaning they need to be left out for a winter before they will germinate. A seed planted in November without this defense would have a tough time surviving the winter if it sprouted immediately!

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Knowledge Nook: Colorado Christmas Tree in Washington DC

It’s that time of year again; Christmas music is playing in the stores, the lights are up around town, and with white stuff on the ground and with cold morning temps, it finally feels like winter. On December 4th, the Capitol Christmas tree was lit in Washington D.C., a tree that originated from Colorado. The small town of Meeker, CO had the honor this year of providing the tree for the Capitol.  The tree comes from the Blanco Ranger District of the White River National Forest on the Western Slope.

The tradition of providing a tree from one of the nation’s National Forests began in 1970, after the live Douglas-fir tree that was decorated annually was destroyed following a storm. The Forest Service selects 8-10 trees from within the Ranger District and the superintendent of the capitol grounds makes the final decision.

This year’s tree is a 74 year old, 73-foot Englemann Spruce (Picea engelmannii). The tree was cut November 2nd and made stops in 28 different communities in just over 3 weeks along its 5,300 mile journey to the US Capitol’s West Front Lawn. Security not only followed the tree along its route to the Capitol, but 24-hour guards were stationed around the tree from the time it was selected until its removal from the forest. The tree was transported by former CO US Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell in a SmartWay-certified Mack PinnacleTM model.  The MP8 engine with MACK® ClearTech SCR technology found in this truck allowed for a nearly emission free journey across the nation.

Colorado Congressman Scott Tipton and Senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennet joined Speaker of the House, John Boehner during the lighting ceremony in DC this year.  The actual lighting of the tree was completed by a senior from Colorado Springs. In addition to 10,000 low-energy LED lights, nearly 5,000 Coloradan-made ornaments adorn the tree. Each ornament is a symbol of this year’s theme: “Celebrating Our Great Outdoors,” a fitting theme from Colorado!

 

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Knowledge Nook: Campsite Restoration 101

Wait… why would we ever close and restore a campsite?! Before you go on thinking we’re anti-camping fanatics, hear us out! For over 15 field seasons RMFI has been working in South Colony Lakes Basin, a beautiful alpine cirque basin and designated Wilderness Area home to Humboldt Peak, Crestone Needle, and Crestone Peak. We spent over a decade building a sustainable trail infrastructure within the basin and to the summits of its peaks, and are now focusing on creating a sustainable camping infrastructure.

Over Labor Day weekend RMFI hosted two Colorado College New Student Orientation groups in the basin for 2 days of rock-hauling, dirt-moving fun to restore one of the basin’s undesignated, unsustainable campsites. There are many reasons to close a campsite:

  • Too close to a water source
  • Too close to a trail
  • Poor drainage
  • Lack of solitude and privacy (especially important in Wilderness Areas)

STEP 1: Decompact the soil. This accomplishes two things—it aerates the soil and stimulates the seed bank.

STEP 2: Add supplemental soil. Additional soil is often needed to bring the area back to grade and provide additional nutrients. Depending on the area, we either bring in top soil or we harvest it on-site. It's important to make sure we're never creating a new erosion problem in a different area! A good ol’ bucket brigade will usually get the job done quickly.

STEP 3: Seed. In this area we used Poa alpina, alpine meadow-grass. Be sure to spread seed consistent with the manufacturers recommended seed density. A little usually goes a long way!

STEP 4: Erosion control matting. In the alpine we utilize a coconut-fiber matting that degrades in 7-10 years. In lower elevations we use an aspen-fiber matting that degrades more quickly. Erosion control matting (or “EC matting”) acts as a ground cover and protects seed. Be sure to stake matting so that it stays in place.

STEP 5: Transplant native vegetation as necessary. In the basin, we transplant bunchgrass from nearby areas to the restoration site. Cut holes in the matting, dig a hole in the soil, and insert the plant. As with all planting, make sure you pack the plant tightly in the soil to avoid air around the roots. Never take more than 20% of the vegetation from an area for transplanting. Again, you don't want to create a new problem spot!

STEP 6: Visitor deterrence. To make the campsite inhospitable, rocks and logs were added on top of the matting. The logs and rocks also create microclimates and stimulate the growth of the transplants.

STEP 7: Signage. Signs inform the public to respect the closure of the newly restored area.

In all, Colorado College students restored 2,000 square feet of ground and transplanted 370 bunch grasses. RMFI would like to give a big thank you to our Colorado College students and their student leaders, job well done!

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