By Mike Wight
As the seasons change in Southwest Colorado, I’m reminded how much I look forward to stoking the fire, sitting back, and enjoying the radiant warmth. Fall is a time to prepare, and stock up for the winter months. For me, the simple act of wood cutting, splitting, and stacking is a satisfying way to build confidence that all will be well in the coming months. We’re fortunate at the San Juan Mountains Association (SJMA) to have our own kind of satisfying wood harvest each fall – preparing for our Christmas Trees for Conservation fundraiser. This month, we’ll bring together over 70 volunteers- old friends and new- to help gather white fir from the Junction Creek Road beyond Animas Lookout. It’s one way we help prepare the forest for the year ahead.
Rocky mountain white fir (Abies concolor), adorned with bluish silvery-green needles, is a popular choice for Christmas trees, due to their attractive triangular shape and excellent needle retention. White fir is a softwood tree existing in an elevation range between 7,900 and 10,200 in Colorado, and growing up to 1.5 feet per year. Unlike our local ponderosas, white fir trees retain their lower branches, which – while attractive – can have serious implications for forests in the path of a wildfire.
Over the past two centuries, the harvesting of larger diameter trees, coupled with wildfire prevention, has caused an abundance of fuel loading and an increase of Abies concolor on the landscape. In the past, white fir were considered undesirable by the lumber industry, which meant they were not harvested- adding to the hardy populations we see today. In the face of a wildfire, the establishment of these trees increases the horizontal continuity of fuel loads. White fir, in particular, acts as a wildfire ladder fuel, quickly transporting flames from the ground into the canopy- which if conditions are wrong, can result in a rapidly moving, potentially catastrophic wildfire. By thinning the population of white fir, we can help reduce this risk.
On November 19th we’ll thin over 350 white fir from the proximity of Junction Creek Road, contributing to the spacing between forest fuels by enhancing a buffer to the natural fuel break that is the road. The Christmas Trees for Conservation event is just one of the ways that SJMA is working with the San Juan National Forest and our community to preserve our beloved landscapes in Southwest Colorado. We need your help! Please consider volunteering up for a morning or afternoon shift on Saturday, Nov 19th! We especially need drivers with 16 foot open trailers to help us transport trees to town this year. You can sign up here: https://sjma.org/events
When we bring these trees to town, we’ll again set up sales at the D&SNGRR parking lot at the corner of Camino del Rio and W. College Ave. Along with Balsam Fir trees from Wisconsin, the local white fir trees will be available starting November 25th. The SJMA Christmas Trees for Conservation lot will be open Sunday- Friday 12-6pm; and Saturday 9am-6pm. This is SJMA’s signature fundraiser, now in its 10th year, and proceeds contribute to our stewardship and conservation education programs. We’re grateful to the D&SNGRR, along with other marquis sponsors, including Target Rental, Southwest Ag, Inc., Durango Local News, and Bob’s Johns, for their support of Christmas Trees for Conservation.
So, as you look ahead to winter months and the coming year, consider stoking your own fire by contributing to SJMA, and bringing a white fir from the San Juan Mountains into your own home to enjoy. You’ll feel the radiant warmth from helping the forest, and your community, by adorning your home with a beautiful Christmas tree this year.
Mike Wight is the Stewardship Director with San Juan Mountains Association.
By Cassidy Storey
In Durango, the shift from Summer to Autumn brings warmer layers out of the closet, plans for desert season, and a rush to behold the aspens before their leaves fall. At the San Juan Mountains Association (SJMA), it also signifies the end of our summer stewardship crews. As the first spots of gold splashed across the highest aspens in the San Juans, SJMA’s front-country Ambassadors wrapped up a summer of outreach and stewardship throughout the San Juan and Uncompahgre National Forests as well as the Alpine Loop.
With one year of Ambassador work under our belts, we began this season optimistic for a second successful summer. We employed a crew of eight to engage with the public on “Leave No Trace” principles, responsible recreation in a variety of ecosystems, and protecting the magic of the San Juans, all while improving environmental conditions and removing hundreds of pounds of trash. Thanks to support from the Rocky Mountain Restoration Initiative (RMRI); county, state, and federal government; and support from SJMA members and corporate sponsors, we were lucky enough to welcome back five Ambassadors from the 2021 season and add three new stellar individuals to cover trails from Blue Lakes to Ice Lakes, Vallecito to Lizard Head, and many popular places in between.
The small but mighty team of Forest Ambassadors made nearly 14,000 public contacts, hiked about 1,200 miles, naturalized or cleaned 150 fire pits, and packed out over 400 pounds of trash! At the same time, our Alpine Loop Ambassador single-handedly removed more than 1,000 pounds of trash from the high alpine tundra and spoke to over 1,000 OHV users about the importance of staying on the trail in the high country where damage manifested by motorized vehicles could take many years to regenerate.
But why do these numbers matter to the average public lands’ enthusiast? Think of it this way: every time you visit an iconic trail in the San Juans and your trip is not tainted by human and pet waste, poorly-draining trails, excessive trash, overgrown vegetation, or messy campsites, there is a good chance an SJMA Ambassador had something to do with it. If you don’t notice our work, it means we’re doing it right and contributing to a safer and more enjoyable public lands experience.
The Oxford Dictionary defines an “Ambassador” as a person who acts as a representative or promoter of a specified activity, and, in our case, there’s more to the job than just time on trail. You may have encountered one of our Ambassadors in a variety of settings. Representing SJMA, RMRI, and our federal partners, the crew led volunteer cleanup events, provided visitor information in Durango and Silverton, hosted interpretive walks, and attended many community events to share messages on forests, wildlife, water resources, and recreation opportunities across the mountains. We can’t thank this team enough for sharing their passion for public lands in our neck of the woods.
While our stewardship programs slow down for Fall, we have big plans for Winter. The San Juans are a year-round destination, so we’re preparing to bring back our Snow Ambassador program for a second season. In 2021, SJMA’s Snow Ambassador stationed at Molas Pass reached hundreds of visitors about avalanche safety, winter ecology, and how to “Leave No Trace” as a winter recreationist. Stay tuned to our website or social media for updates on this year’s Snow Ambassador as well as snowshoeing interpretive hikes and other winter events.
By Corbin Reiter
With Moab two hours to the northwest, Telluride an hour to the southeast, and Durango several hours further south, the West End is easily accessible to many recreationists seeking new terrain, but it remains off the beaten path for now.
“The West End” refers to a collection of communities in close proximity along the western slope of the rockies and includes Norwood, Redvale, Naturita, Nucla and Paradox. Telluride is by far, the most recognizable community in the West End. Most people that visit the area don’t look much farther than this well-known, long-standing, highly developed recreation hub.
The desert trails and climate found around the West End presents a unique recreation opportunity for the area, and is an area that has a growing community of recreators that are invested in a more remote and high-skill recreation environment. With temperatures getting colder, the warmer climate of the West End means longer access to trail systems for biking, hiking, and off-roading after the more mountainous areas to the east are restricted by snow. It also means that residents of the West End have more opportunities to get out and do some stewardship and education programs that ensure that this part of Colorado can remains protected and well-managed even as more people find their way to the area.
Serving as San Juan Mountains Association’s community outreach specialist this summer in the West End, I have had the opportunity to put together events to help improve some of the public spaces in the area. In August, SJMA partnered with the Norwood ranger district to host a planting cone pickup event that removed plastic waste from the forest. This event included Forest Service and SJMA staff as well as volunteers from the area that chose to spend time contributing to the health of local public lands. Together, those present filled dozens of garbage bags with plastic planting cones that had outlived their usefulness and were polluting the Forest.
As the Community Outreach Specialist for the SJMA in the West End, my goal has been to connect with the organizations and people that are already invested in the West End. This has presented a range of opportunities from creating volunteer opportunities to expanding the reach of Forest Service programming.
The Norwood Ranger district office and SJMA have worked together in the West End to put together youth education opportunities through local libraries. Throughout the summer, the Forest Service hosted five youth education events that introduced concepts regarding sustainable stewardship, using public lands, and education about public lands in the area. The Wilkinson Library in Telluride provided the first venue for this series, hosting four separate youth education events. Norwood’s Lone Cone library also hosted a youth education event and had the second highest attendance out of any library education event hosted this summer.
Going into the fall, the Norwood Ranger district office is continuing its youth education programs. As the school year starts, we are engaging with Fourth Grade classes to continue to engage local kids in outdoor education. As part of this program, students will attend a series of events that are sponsored by the Forest Service, and once the students attend enough sessions, they will receive a parks pass and a
free Christmas tree.
The West End is an area that has been quietly nestled among other recreation powerhouses. It has massive potential to be a local hotspot that serves high-skill recreators looking to push their skills in a new area, but SJMA is helping to ensure that the next generation of residents understands the value and importance of caring for those public lands well even as it becomes discovered.
By Stephanie Weber, SJMA’s Executive Director
San Juan Mountains Association’s seasonal stewards have reached the final third of their summer stint. While I hear anecdotal updates from them throughout the season, it’s the time of year when I begin to look more closely at their impact throughout the San Juan Mountains – from Navajo Lake in Montezuma County to the eastern reaches of the Weminuche Wilderness, and from Blue Lakes to Junction Creek.
San Juan Mountains Association (SJMA) has two seasonal stewardship crews – the Wilderness Stewardship Crew and the Forest Ambassadors. The Wilderness Stewardship crew is in its third year. Supported, in part, by the community through SJMA’s Wilderness Fund, this season we have a crew of four who work with the San Juan National Forest Wilderness team. They are clearing trails, collecting data for the US Forest Service which provides necessary information on future management plans, and conducting education and outreach to backcountry users.
The Wilderness crew spends most of their summer in the Weminuche Wilderness, but they also spend at least one or two hitches in other Wilderness areas in the San Juans. During their weeklong hitches, they clear downed trees along trails, laboriously using crosscut saws since chainsaws are not allowed in Wilderness areas. At the start of this summer, they worked diligently to clear more than 150 trees from Needle Creek to provide easier access to Chicago Basin. On a hitch on the Rio Grande side of the Weminuche a couple of weeks ago, they cleared more than 300 trees from Archuleta Creek and South Fork trails.
While SJMA’s Wilderness Stewardship crew works in the San Juan’s backcountry, SJMA employs a crew of front country stewards, too. SJMA’s Forest Ambassadors’ primary objective is to educate public land users on recreating responsibly and “Leave No Trace” principles in order to provide a better, safer experience for all users and to protect our public lands so that they remain a gem for generations to come.
Forest Ambassadors work at some of the most popular trailheads over the weekends to interact with as many people as possible. This summer, the Forest Ambassadors are focused on a dozen locations throughout the San Juan and Uncompahgre National Forests.
Their rotation includes Ice Lake and Blue Lakes, two locations that have forever been changed by social media’s reach. At each of these locations, SJMA Forest Ambassadors interact with an average of 125 visitors daily, and on some days, they easily surpass more than 250 engagements.
SJMA also tracks the preparedness of the recreationists for all of the trails that we monitor. It’s no surprise that the average readiness at Ice and Blue Lakes, in particular, is lower than average for all the trails we monitor. Forest Ambassadors routinely talk with visitors arriving in the afternoon as the monsoons roll in, ill-equipped with footwear and gear. These interactions allow Forest Ambassadors the opportunity to instruct recreationists in how to better prepare and prevent potentially dangerous situations.
The one pervasive issue that plagues all of our seasonal crews: trash. Whether it’s dog waste, human waste, wrappers, or trash bags deposited into port-a-johns or vault toilets, our stewardship crews contend with trash on a constant basis. Oh the stories they can tell! If there’s one thing you can do to help your public lands, it’s to pack out all trash.
On a regular basis, our staff are buoyed by their interactions with many public land users. Repeatedly, we see that many people simply don’t know the common principles of “Leave No Trace.” We have heard from quite a few people who have been pleasantly surprised to find their favorite trails in good shape despite increased us, and most people our crews interact with appreciate the work we are doing.
SJMA’s stewardship crews work hard because they are passionate about protecting our unsurpassed public lands, and they want to ensure that all of us can have safe, enjoyable experiences for years to come. If you cross paths with one of our crew, take a minute to thank them – or better yet, sign up as a San Juan Volunteer and shadow them for a day. I guarantee that you’ll look at the lands you love to play on with a little more appreciation and knowledge.
By MK Thompson
Those of us who cherish the San Juan Mountains are familiar with the term “loved to death”. We’ve seen photos and stories of beautiful places around the world being carelessly degraded by throngs of tourists. We don’t want this to happen here, and it doesn’t have to.
Yes, more people are learning about our little slice of heaven, and the number of hikers, backpackers, and peak baggers has skyrocketed in the last few years. But the impacts on the land don’t have to increase so long as we educate visitors about how to visit with respect.
Educating trail users is the main goal of San Juan Mountains Association’s (SJMA) Forest Ambassadors and San Juan Volunteers. The vast majority of visitors who disrespect our favorite places do so because they honestly don’t know any better. Yes, they could have done more research preceding their trip, but they didn’t. Instead of berateing these people, we have genuine conversations with them which leads to positive interactions and grateful people who will help spread the word.
An important thing to remember when visiting any wild place is that we don’t live there. As the Wilderness Act of 1964 states, true wilderness is “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain”. The plants live there. The animals live there. The rivers and springs flow freely. Humans are not a natural part of this ecosystem; therefore, it is important that we do our best not to impact it.
Recently, in a partnership with the San Juan National Forest (SJNF), SJMA, and the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (D&SNGRR), an old educational program has been resurrected – the Chicago Basin volunteer basecamp. The goal is to reach more visitors and provide them with tips on how to respect this incredible place. Volunteers take the train to Needleton and then hike up to the camp with a lighter pack than usual since the camp already contains some necessities and luxuries.
The basecamp has a long history – so long that even the original mastermind of the camp, Kathe Hayes, can’t remember what year it started. I first helped set up the camp in 2011, after it was already well established, and participated in several set-ups and break-downs. We typically used llamas to pack the gear up there in mid-June. Then, in early September, would use horses to haul the gear out. All of this is made easier with cooperation from the railroad.
The volunteers in Chicago Basin focus on the 4 W’S – wildlife, water, waste, weather, and snags. For a boatload of details about how to respectfully visit Chicago Basin, go to sjma.org or do an internet search for the Chicago Basin Trip Planning Guide. Here are the 4 W’S in a nutshell:
- Wildlife: Mountain goats and marmots in the area are habituated to humans and will approach campers. They love salt. Marmots will chew on anything salty – trekking poles, boots, backpack straps, etc. Mountain goats love salt and other minerals in human urine. Seriously. It’s important to pee in flat rocks or rotting logs. If humans pee on vegetation, the goats will tear up the plants in an attempt to get the salt.
- Water: The land and plants that surround water sources make up less than 1% of the landscape and vegetation. It is important to camp, eat, and “go to the bathroom” at least 100 feet away from water in order to protect the ecosystem that lives there all year-round.
- Waste: Human waste should be packed but can also be buried 6 to 8 inches underground. All trash and toilet paper must be packed out. This includes all food scraps – even sunflower seed shells, fruit peels, and anything accidentally dropped on the ground. This can attract ant colonies or make wild animals sick.
- Weather: Afternoon thunderstorms are common from late June until mid-September. Plan accordingly to be in a safe place and prepare for a drop in temperature.
- Snags: There are many dead trees due to a previous spruce beetle infestation. Be sure to camp where dead trees are not going to fall on you.
No matter where you recreate outdoors, you are always a visitor. These guidelines apply to everyone. No one wants to love a place to death. Many people just haven’t been educated. Don’t be afraid to have a conversation with people. This is how we can all begin to take care of these magical places. And if you think you want to volunteer for the basecamp in Chicago Basin, email Erica Tucker, email@example.com or go to sjma.volunteerlocal.com/volunteer/
MK Thompson has been with SJMA since 2009 and currently serves as a Forest Ambassador. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
by David Taft
Carl Sagan once mused, “who are we, if not measured by our impact on others”, and as members of a thriving community and a dynamic ecosystem, we all have impacts on our surroundings and society. In the context of public lands, which are so essential to our economy and sense of place, these impacts can vary wildly from restorative to devastating. Ultimately, we all must strive to understand the negative impacts so that we can design effective solutions to maximize positive impacts.
Recent years have taught us profound lessons about what can happen when the balance starts to tip towards negative impacts. We saw this through the unexpected public lands boom of 2020, the desperate need for educational outreach throughout heavy-use areas, the Ice Fire, and the ways in which all of these impact the watershed, forests, trails and surrounding communities. Fortunately, the lessons learned from recent years have guided new and innovative approaches towards land management, invigorated partnerships, and spurred community members towards a level of engagement commensurate with challenges at hand.
This year at the San Juan Mountains Association (SJMA), we will be working closely with land management agencies and community partners to amplify the positive impact we have on public lands. As with the past two years, our Wilderness Stewardship Crew will be working throughout the Weminuche, Hermosa Creek, and Lizard Head Wildernesses. They’ll be educating visitors about best practices, clearing trails such as the Needle Creek trail, and performing monitoring to ensure future management is well-informed. You will also see our Forest Ambassadors throughout the San Juan, and, new for this year, the Uncompahgre National Forests. They’ll be promoting Leave No Trace principles, maintaining trails, and collecting user data to help us understand on-the-ground conditions. Our Alpine Loop Ambassador will also be patrolling the high passes, improving outreach capacity on these spectacular roads and offering help to the quarter-million visitors who tour this world-renowned amenity. Last year, SJMA ambassadors racked up tens of thousands of educational contacts, and they’ll be working hard this year to top last year’s accomplishments.
Our staff are only one piece of the puzzle towards maximizing positive impact in the San Juans. We’ve been a volunteer-driven organization since our inception, and this year will be no different. We have a raft of new (or returning) opportunities to give back, including getting out as a volunteer trail ambassador, spending a few days doing public outreach, learning how to clear downed trees with a crosscut saw. The tens of thousands of volunteer hours contributed each year to our public lands make all the difference, and we are here to ensure that community members have everything they need to give back in whatever way they can.
As we transition into our busiest season of the year, we encourage everyone to sign up for a volunteer day, give one of our seasonal staff words of support, and most importantly enjoy their time in the San Juans in a respectful and low-impact way. With another busy fire season to our south already, it will likely be a popular year to the San Juans, and we all need to do our part to protect the places we love. Visit sjma.org for more information on how to give back.
By Rachael Woodie,
The Spring wind rushes across a plateau of rabbitbrush and gamble oak as the gently flowing Florida River chatters over shallow rocks below. To the north, the monumental snowy 14,090’ peak of Mount Eolus pierces the blue expanse of sky. In the river bottom, towering cottonwoods prepare to welcome in Spring with their tangy and sweet smelling crowns of leaf buds. Gazing across this valley reveals a rich riparian ecosystem that abruptly rises and gives way to nearby arid cliffy outcroppings of sandstone and shale.
Can you guess where this desert oasis is? This varied landscape is the San Juan Mountains Association (SJMA)’s 140-acre Nature Center, located 20 miles south of Durango just upstream of the confluence of the Animas and Florida Rivers. From conservation and ecological perspectives, the Nature Center has long filled a vital niche for wildlife, plants, and humans alike. The Ute people are the oldest inhabitants and stewards of this land. They relied on many of the resources that we find at the Nature Center today, such as the three leaf sumac, sagebrush, and yucca plants.
Today, with 105 of its acres along the Florida River, the Nature Center provides an important riparian corridor for wildlife year-round. If you were to meander down the trail from the parking lot and pause on the bridge, in the soft sand of the river’s banks you could likely spot the prints of deer, raccoons, great blue herons, and perhaps bears and mountain lions. Crossing the bridge, you would find yourself waist high in an ecotone of sagebrush, rabbitbrush, and depending on the season, a plethora of vibrant indian paintbrush and flowering milkweed–but watch out for the prickly pear cacti!
Journeying on you will pass the Lion’s picnic Pavilion and be greeted by the woody pine smells of the next ecozone: piñon-juniper. Piñon Jays may dart through these ever-greens as you step into their shady corridors. Yet quicker than you may expect, your path will begin to rise and you will soon find yourself surrounded by large red rocks of sandstone as you hike along Rattlesnake Ramble. The trail is aptly named, so keep your eyes keen and your ears alert as you watch Collared Lizards and Horny Toads scamper across the rocks. Rattlesnake Ramble will bring you up the other side of the valley where a panoramic view of the Florida River valley and La Plata mountains will beckon you to pause and take it in.
The multitude of flora and fauna within the diverse ecozones of the Nature Center makes it an ideal outdoor learning laboratory. Since 1998 the Nature Center has inspired a love of learning in thousands of students through Durango Nature Studies. SJMA has continued these education programs since the merger between these two organizations in 2020. After two years of limited operations, restricted to summer camps and educational programs, SJMA is thrilled to once again open this beautiful place to the public on April 24th.
We invite you and your family to join us on Earth Day weekend at the Nature Center for self-guided and naturalist-led hikes, educational activities, picnicking, kid-friendly scavenger hunts, and more! Pack a picnic and water and stop by the Nature Center (63 County Road 310, Durango, CO 81301) on April 24th between 9am-2pm. We hope to see you there! More information at: www.sjma.org/nature-center.
Rachael Woodie is the Community Education Specialist at SJMA and oversees the Nature Center, in her spare time you can find her seeking some water-related adventure.
By Cassidy Storey
It is (another) radiant bluebird day in the San Juans, and thirty people are strapping on snowshoes in preparation for San Juan Mountains Association’s third interpretive ski and snowshoe tour this winter. We have another full crowd ready to explore the powdery landscape, learn the story of the snowpack, and connect with fellow winter recreation enthusiasts. We are thrilled with the turnout and invigorated by the energy buzzing through the parking lot just north of Andrews Lake.
This is the latest success in a transformative year for SJMA. Since last Spring, we’ve exponentially expanded our stewardship and conservation efforts in the region. You may have run into one of our Forest Ambassadors on your favorite San Juan National Forest trail last summer, or volunteered at our biggest Christmas Trees for Conservation lot yet. Perhaps you were one of those thirty participants at the last Après Ski Science & Social or you joined us for a full moon hike beneath the Twilight Peaks. One thing is certain, we are increasingly energized in our goal of empowering people to explore, learn about, and protect the San Juan Mountains and public lands of Southwest Colorado.
There’s a lot to look forward to as our days noticeably get longer and warmer. Starting in May, SJMA’s Forest Ambassador crew will be returning to the most popular trails in the area while the Wilderness Stewardship Crew will work on improving the backcountry for users of all kinds.
Using the momentum we built this winter through our school field trips, interpretive events, and Snow Ambassador program, we’re making big plans for summer. You will have the opportunity to join us for volunteer-guided naturalist hikes, forest ecology tours in Montezuma County, and special interpretive events throughout the season to learn more about our beloved San Juans.
Our plans now will result in a summer season filled with learning, adventuring, and connecting as public lands stewards. We hope to increase responsible recreation in these special places and inspire appreciation for their existence and benefits. By creating engaging interpretive events, we aim to draw in visitors and locals, capture a curiosity, develop an interest, and leave our guests with an undeniable sense of place and a little bit more knowledge than they had before. For nobody will protect a place they do not care about, and nobody will care about a place they do not experience.
As winter comes to a close, there are still two more opportunities to participate in our popular Après Ski Science & Social. Join us on Saturday, March 12th, for the interpretive tour featuring Joe Grant, local ultra runner, Protect Our Winters Ambassador, and San Juan Mountain aficionado. We look forward to enjoying the San Juans’ finest powder, learning about the importance of our mountains’ snowpack, and hearing about how Joe came to be concerned with the precipitous decline in snowpack we’ve seen over recent years. We’ll wrap up this series on March 26th.
Stay up to date on all of our interpretive events by visiting sjma.org/events or signing up for our e-news at the bottom of our homepage. You can also find the latest on all our work by following us on Facebook and Instagram.
By Alex Miller
The San Juan Mountains Association works in partnership with our federal public lands partners to ensure that visitors to our mountains can continue to enjoy the grandiose viewsheds, beautiful hiking trails, world class off-roading, designated Wilderness Areas, and incredible winter recreation opportunities that make this area great.
Along with these claims to fame, the San Juans are also known for the huge number of avalanches they produce in the winter. Avalanches are cascading piles of snow, ice, and debris that occur on slopes steeper than thirty degrees. They require snow, which we often have here, and mountainous terrain, which we always have. Though only a winter hazard, avalanches are responsible for killing numerous backcountry travelers each year. Luckily, some wonderful resources can help visitors to southwest Colorado stay safe this winter. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) and the San Juan Mountains Association’s public lands stewardship programming both strive to inform winter recreationists on how to stay safe and recreate responsibly this winter.
Before the Rocky Mountains were so densely settled, mining town residents observed avalanches and developed local knowledge to avoid perishing in them. Greenhorns were filled in on how to survive their commutes to the mine, and when disaster struck, whole communities participated in rescue efforts (Di Stefano 2015). With the advent of winter recreation after World War II, local avalanche knowledge rapidly developed into a field of research with help from the US Forest Service and ski areas they managed (National Forest Foundation 2015). As the field grew, so too did the research locations, and what better place to study avalanches than the San Juan Mountains.
Several prominent avalanche researchers worked in the San Juans from the 1970s onward through the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research’s (INSTAAR) San Juan Avalanche Project (INSTAAR History). The project’s goal was to study what caused so many avalanches here and how to mitigate the hazard they created along HWY 550. Researchers brought their avalanche experience to Silverton and, in the tradition of their mining predecessors, developed a strong, localized understanding of avalanches. This time, their local knowledge contributed to a broader community of avalanche researchers across the world and was informed by decades of scientific discussion. Between local observations and universal knowledge, INSTAAR researchers could more accurately predict when to close HWY 550 and similar mountain highways. Thus, the San Juans became not only a hub for avalanches, but a hub for their study.
After an avalanche buried and killed HWY 550 snow plow driver Eddie Imel in 1992, CDOT began sponsoring the CAIC, an organization responsible for studying and forecasting avalanche conditions throughout the state (Knox Williams 2020). The CAIC draws from the pool of knowledge established in mountains around the world, pairs it with local observations from individual mountain ranges like the San Juans, and spreads information in digestible ways to residents like you and me. For winter recreationists, checking the CAIC avalanche forecast is the first step to a fun day in the mountains. By providing this important information, the CAIC and avalanche researchers around the West are playing a vital role in helping visitors to the San Juans have safe, enjoyable trips into the mountains.
Through our winter programming and snow ambassador program, the San Juan Mountains Association is also doing its part in showing residents and visitors how to recreate responsibly in the snow. This winter, join us on one of our Full Moon Howler trips (hosted by the Durango Nordic Center), our bi-weekly Aprés Ski Science & Socials on Saturday afternoons outside the Outdoor Research tiny house north of Andrews Lake, or say “Hi” to our snow ambassador John next time you’re out for a ski tour near Molas Pass.
Alex Miller is the Montrose Public Lands Ambassador for the San Juan Mountains Association.
By Shannon Daily
Here at San Juan Mountains Association, we have experienced a bustling, exciting and fulfilling summer and fall. Whether it be our educators running science-based summer camps for youth, our Forest Ambassadors hitting the trails to spread the message of Leave No Trace, or our Visitor Information Specialists educating visitors about our forests, all of us at SJMA have experienced great satisfaction in working towards our mission to inspire and empower connection to and responsible use of the spectacular public lands of Southwest Colorado.
As our busy field season winds down and the golden leaves have turned to brown, we find ourselves ramping up for our biggest fundraiser of the year, Christmas Trees for Conservation. We would like to invite you to join us on the Tree Lot this year. You can volunteer by working a shift at the Tree Lot or stop by to purchase your Christmas tree from us and browse our Pop-Up Shop for some local stocking stuffers. Here are a few reasons why we operate the Tree Lot.
First, the Christmas trees! SJMA sells both freshly cut local white fir and farmed balsam fir trees from Wisconsin. The local white firs grow right here in the San Juan National Forest, which means an almost nonexistent transportation carbon footprint. There are no pesticides, fertilizers, or irrigation used so the white firs are not as full as trees from a tree-farm, and have smaller trunks. A large group of SJMA volunteers goes into the forest and cuts these trees from a designated area. Working in conjunction with our partner, the San Juan National Forest, thinning white fir along the road helps prevent catastrophic fires and protects the overstory trees from a crown fire. White firs represent the locally-grown option on our lot and bring a little bit of the San Juan National Forest into your home. We also sell farmed balsam fir trees which are grown in Wisconsin. The ideal growing conditions and fertilization allow the balsam trees to reach a perfect shape and size.
A second reason that we operate the Tree Lot is the camaraderie felt from working toward a common goal. Volunteering for a 3 hour shift at the sale is a wonderful way to spend time during the holiday season. Likely, you’ll see people you know from around the area and help them purchase the perfect tree.
Lastly, the proceeds from the Tree Lot go to supporting SJMA’s mission, and serves as our largest fundraiser of the year. We are deeply grateful for all the support from the community. The Tree Lot opens on Friday November 26th at noon and is open every day until the trees sell out. Last year, we sold out in under three weeks, so don’t delay! The hours are Sundays – Fridays from 12:00pm – 6:00pm; Saturdays from 9:00am – 6:00pm. The lot is located at the corner of Camino del Rio and College Avenue in Durango.
Whether it be volunteering or shopping, we hope to see you at the Tree Lot! Learn more and sign up to volunteer at www.sjma.org.
Another way to support SJMA? Check out Sticker Mule for the fastest and easiest way to buy custom stickers and other printed products! Thank you Sticker Mule for your support!