Telluride Institute AmeriCorp’s VISTA
Paul supports TI’s environmental programs- WEP and Prospect Basin Fens Project. Paul hopes to help build capacity around these two projects by: applying for grants, developing and implementing educational curriculum and identifying research and restoration opportunities. Paul is currently a student at Western Colorado University in the Masters of Environmental Management (MEM) program. Through Paul’s Master’s project, he hopes to increase public awareness and expand services provided by the WEP and Fens projects.
My two students and I followed the chair as it passed around the bullwheel to load the Prospect Lift. The Prospect lift on the Telluride Ski Resort gives recreationists access to the highest inbound terrain in North America. Snowflakes from the night before cooled the seat causing the two 10 year old boys from Texas to beg for hot chocolate. They were not used to January’s in Colorado yet. “No hot chocolate this run,” I told them as we passed over skiers hitting playful kickers on Magnolia, a blue ski run. They scoffed at me crossing their arms, dramatically insisting they needed hot chocolate for their survival. The landscape changed drastically as we floated over a large flat opening the size of a football field completely void of trees. In this void we observed a skier trudging and cursing as he moved slowly through the flat terrain near a sign simply stating “Bad Idea.” This change in landscape followed by watching the skier struggle through the deep snow captured the boys and made them completely forget about being cold.
“Are we above a giant lake?” one of them asked. “What is that guy doing!?” The other one shouted. Answers to questions about this specific landscape feature and how people interact with it are ones that grab my attention these days.
It wasn’t until my seasonal job teaching snowboarding ended and I took an AmeriCorps VISTA position with Telluride Institute that I became familiar with these unique wetlands called fens. Telluride Institute (TI), a non-profit supports education and research in Prospect Basin’s fens. TI has a variety of other programs, including Telluride’s Annual Mushroom Festival, The Talking Gourds (poetry) and their Indigenous programs. As a VISTA intern, my work focuses on research, education and outreach in the Prospect Basin Fens and helping to support the Watershed Education Program. This summer all of my work with the fens culminated into facilitating a restoration project, which took place at the end of July.
To gain a background on the fens project, I had the fortune of meeting Dr. David Cooper and his team of researchers one spring morning when the fens were still covered with spring corn. “I hope those boots are Gore-Tex,” David said sternly but with a good sense of humor, as I stepped out of my vehicle. (My boots were not Gore-Tex, and indeed got very wet. David and his crew all had rubber Xtra tuff boots, and dry feet). David, in his late sixties now, has a rich history with the ski resort. “It was either pay thousands of dollars to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in fines or hire me,” David joked when I asked how he got involved with the ski resort. It turns out the resort was sued by the EPA during the development of the golf course for filling and draining wetlands. Instead of paying fines, Telski chose to restore what they degraded and hired David Cooper as a consultant for the restoration project. Preceding the restoration project, Telski was aware of the uniqueness of the fens and hired David again to help with the planning of new ski runs in Prospect Basin. David discusses Colorado plants with the enthusiasm a kid would tell their parents about something cool that happened at school. “Traditionally when making ski runs a lot of bulldozing and grading takes place, but none of that happened up here. This is why there is such an abundance of native plants in Prospect Basin,” David tells me as he points out several sedges in one of the fens, eloquently giving their latin names.
We spent the rest of the day setting up David’s graduate student’s- Kate Miller’s sampling plots for her CO2 study. Kate proved to be a valuable resource in helping me learn about the fens and spearheading the restoration project that would take place in the summer. The three of us postholed to Spruce fen- the site where David wanted restoration work done. We followed a meandering creek on the perimeter of the fen. As we got to the northern end of the fen the slope steepened and the creek began to erode.
“This disturbance is no good,” David explained, boots in the creek pointing upstream to the eroded bank. “I’m concerned this could get worse and reduce the number of plants and or lower the water table.” Fens take up less than 3% of earth’s surface but sequester ⅓ of Earth’s terrestrial carbon. Given Fen’s role in regulating Earth’s carbon budget, it motivates this team of researchers to study, protect and restore them.
By the time summer rolled around I was saturated with knowledge about Prospect Basin fen’s and ready to share those experiences with others. Telluride Institute partnered with Telluride Academy, a summer outdoor education camp for youth, to help facilitate the restoration project. I arrived at Prospect Basin one morning to find nine highschoolers and their instructors camped adjacent to one of the fens. After they wrapped up their breakfast, Kate, TI’s Watershed Education Program(WEP) Director- Garrett Smith and I led the Academy kids through the ski resort. We stood below the chair lift overlooking one of the fens as Kate spoke of the wetland plant’s unique qualities.
“Sedges are the main type of plant found in fens. They look like grasses but have a distinct difference… because sedges have extremely large root structures; they are far better at storing carbon in the soil.”
Kate got giddy as she smiled and went into more detail about the plants found in the fens. “Some of the plants you find here are 8,000 years old! Fen’s are saturated with water year round which causes low decomposition rates. Overtime, slow decaying organic material forms peat, which additionally helps store large amounts of Co2.” Kate finished her spiel and meticulously led us around the south side of the first fen, careful not to disturb any of the ancient plants.
We arrived above Spruce Fen, before starting the restoration project I discussed with the class sustainable practices. “What are strategies we use to reduce our carbon footprint?” I asked. “Electric cars!” one student shouted. “Energy efficient appliances” another student politely raised her hand. We discussed barriers to being a steward of the environment. A lot of the CO2 reduction strategies they suggested are expensive making it difficult for everyone to participate. However with hands-on activity it reduces those barriers. “Not everyone can buy an electric car, but planting a tree or participating in a restoration project creates a low cost entry to doing “your part” for the environment,” I stated. This memento instilled a sense of excitement on the students’ faces. “Cool! When do we get started?” a 16 year old from Washington DC asked.
We followed the meandering stream to the eroded part of the channels and reiterated the importance of restoration. The students hastily grabbed their shovels and buckets and formed an assembly line from the forest, where they shoveled dirt to the creek. Moving buckets of dirt isn’t the most exhilarating activity especially during a summer camp, but the students understood the importance of the project and maintained a positive attitude. One student excitedly pulled me aside to point out the porcini and amanita mushrooms growing on the forested edge. When I returned back to the restoration site, I was pleased to see all the students enjoying themselves. I overheard a conversation one of the older students from Bedrock,CO was having with Garrett and Kate. “I graduate from high school next year, and this conservation work is fun! How did you get into this field?” Garrett discussed his experiences working with the Arizona Conservation Corps’ on a trail crew. “A lot of the work was on trails and doing restoration projects like this,” Garrett encouraged. The high school senior had a look of inspiration on her face.
It is my hope that this experience provided by TI and its partners will instill a long term interest in environmental stewardship. It makes me happy that students may use this experience to find careers in ecological restoration as well. Through partnerships like these Telluride Institute hopes to foster a connection between people, place and planet, and help create the next generation of environmental stewards.
Moving forward TI is working on applying for additional funding to restore Cottongrass fen where erosion is also occurring. TI will also have a presentation in 2022 about the fens and will go into detail about Telski’s history with them and the current research being done. Additionally, TI will host tours up to the fens starting the summer of 2022. All ages are welcome to attend. If you’re interested in getting involved in future projects or would like to learn more about the fens, please contact TI’s Executive Director, Tucker Szymkowicz at email@example.com.
This project couldn’t have been done without help from the Telluride Ski Resort, Montezuma Land Conservancy, Telluride Academy, Patagonia, CCASE, San Miguel County, Town of Mountain Village and TMVHOA (Town of Mountain Village Homeowner Association). A big thanks to all of these organizations in helping TI by providing the resources to pull off this project.