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 Rachael Woodie
Located in the foothills north of Mancos and set against the backdrop of the prominent La Plata Mountains, you can find a web of trails meandering through ponderosa pines as far as the eye can see. This peaceful place offers opportunities for solitude, hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, and cross country skiing. Perhaps you have visited the Chicken Creek trail system to walk your dog in the warming Spring months as the Oregon grape and spring beauty flowers begin to emerge. Or maybe you have traversed this landscape on your cross country skis, soaking in the still winter landscape muffled in snow. While Chicken Creek offers plentiful recreational opportunities, its potential for stewardship work also abounds.
In 2020 San Juan Mountains Association (SJMA) entered into a partnership with the Forest Service and the National Forest Foundation to embark on stewardship projects at Chicken Creek. These projects include installing new trail signs, mitigating social trails, and helping to engage the public in how to be good stewards of this beautifully forested land.
SJMA has not been alone in conducting conservation work at Chicken Creek. A collaborative partnership has formed around this area to include Mancos Trails Group, the Forest Service, and the help of youth from SJMA’s various education programs. Included in this has been the youth from Deer Hill who helped SJMA install new trail signs at Chicken Creek this summer. The hands-on experiences that these teenagers gained is what helps form the foundation of our next generation of land stewards. In physically investing in this conservation work, these youth were able to see the tangible results of their hard work and the benefit that they could bring to both the landscape and the surrounding community. They learned that by installing trail signs, they could not only show recreationists the way to go, but also help them stay on the trail and prevent unnecessary damage to the surrounding flora.
In addition to the amazing work of the Deer Hill youth, SJMA’s Forest Fridays program also brought local middle school youth to Chicken Creek to invest in stewardship work while learning about the natural environment. Finally, SJMA’s Forest Ambassadors have given many of their summer hours to continuing the work of trail signage and engaging trail users in conversations about the conservation work that they are doing.
The work to responsibly steward Chicken Creek has been a communal effort and SJMA is grateful to our various community partners for all of their help!
National Public Lands Day (NPLD)
We are just around the corner from NPLD, the nation’s largest volunteer day for public lands! NPLD was established in 1994 to celebrate and steward our nation’s beautiful public lands. This year NPLD is on September 25th and SJMA has several projects planned. For our main project this year we are collaborating with Canyon of the Ancients National Monument to restore the Bradfield Bridge Campground and Dolores River put-in. We encourage you to get involved with your local public lands, whether that’s joining an organized project, picking up trash with a friend, or enjoying the “Fee-Free Day” at National Parks. To learn more or if you are interested in joining SJMA’s activities on this day, please reach out to Erica Tucker at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rachael Woodie is the Community Education Specialist for SJMA. In her spare time you can find her seeking some water-related adventure; on Durango’s lakes and rivers, or across the Pacific Ocean .
By Adriana Stimax
Summer creeps, SJMA leaps
Imagine yourself as a kid again. It’s spring and you can hardly sit still in class as you gaze out the window and watch puffy clouds drift by on a warm breeze. The early flowers have poked their heads above ground and summer is so close you can feel it. You daydream about hot days that seem to stretch on and on forever. Everyone is buzzing with energy and ready to run out the door the second the bell rings.
As summer unfolds before us, everything shifts gears. Young and old alike are energized with the longer days. Everything is so busy and full of life. But, it may no longer feel like the endless days of sun and play that it once did when you were child. Now the responsibilities of adulthood weigh heavily on our shoulders, taking much of our time. Each precious summer feels shorter and shorter. If you blink, you might miss it. Although there may no longer be someone at home making dinner so you can stay out until dark, we still must find time to go outside and play.
Recent science has found that spending time outside is very beneficial for our mental and physical health. In Japan they call it forest bathing, and it’s even prescribed as a treatment by doctors. Although that may not come as a surprise to you, our culture treats outdoor time as a luxury not a necessity. It’s considered a recreational activity and not something fundamental for our health and happiness.
At San Juan Mountains Association, we are passionate about getting people of all ages outside and engaged with their public lands in a sustainable fashion. This summer we will be offering a variety of ways to get active outdoors. For adults, SJMA’s interpretive programming offers free community hikes to learn about edible plants, geology, archeology and more. You definitely don’t want to miss our springtime full moon hike through Sand Canyon while learning about the human history of the area.
For the younger generation, SJMA is offering summer camps available for rising first graders through 17 year olds. Our state child care licensed camps are led by fun, experienced outdoor educators, inspiring the next generation of conservationists. Our grade-school Junior Naturalist Field Camp is returning this summer to offer kids a space to learn, play, and make friends safely outside. We’re also excited to announce a new Adventure Camp for older kids aged 13-17 in both La Plata and Montezuma Counties. In addition to spending days packed full of exploration, students will have the opportunity to spend one night camping in the mountains.
Last year we saw a huge increase in visitors to public lands and open spaces, driven by the need to get out of the house and away from the endless screen time. For the first time, many people are realizing the value of our wild spaces. There is an opportunity to shift our culture to one that not only values time spent outside as an important part of daily health, but understands why it’s important to do so in a responsible manner.
For more information about summer programming visit sjma.org/learn or contact Education Director Adriana Stimax at email@example.com.
By Mike Bienkowski
With snow and subzero temperatures and feet of snow one week, then warm sun followed by rain and thunderstorms and t-shirt weather the next, it seems like the weather is very confused about what season it is. Regardless of the wild weather, the days will grow longer, the sun stronger, the bears will start to stir and the birds will break into song.
Spring is a magical time to spend long afternoons rambling in the outdoors, reconnecting with the rhythms of nature and delighting in the almost daily changes as flowers pop, birds return, and animals big and small come out of dormancy. Anyone who has ever spent time with young children outdoors knows that they are perfectly equipped to find joy in the small details of a landscape returning to life. Hiking with kids, you stop a lot, and inevitably notice things you never would have otherwise. Kids adventure outdoors much the way they live–occupied with the present moment and fully enraptured by their immediate surroundings.
While many Durangatangs associate SJMA with dreamy alpine Instagram photos, our information booth at the Ice Lakes trail, or encountering Forest Ambassadors in the Weminuche, you may not know that we are also a state-licensed childcare provider perfectly equipped to help children explore the way they do best–up close with the landscape and immersed the the plethora of beauty at eye and ground level. Come April, SJMA will once again be offering after-school enrichment for elementary students. These programs, called the San Juan Science Ramblers, take science education into the forest, where students learn about nature and ecology by getting their hands–and hiking shoes–dirty.
With experienced educators as guides, kids explore topics specific to place and season, in ways that can only be done on the land. From wildflowers to edible plants, winter survival to predator-prey adaptations, actual experience in the field makes for memorable learning while developing observation and critical thinking skills, all in a context of fresh air, healthy movement, and much-needed safe social interaction. Thanks to a partnership with the San Juan National Forest, all of these programs take place on local public lands, accessible within fifteen minutes of town.
As a kick-off to after-school enrichment, SJMA is also offering a weeklong Spring Break Camp the week of March 15th – 19th. From exploring desert ecology and archaeology at Sand Canyon, to learning about indigenous culture at the Southern Ute Cultural Center, investigating snow science and winter ecology and building snow caves at Molas Pass, and taking on some of the most rewarding hikes right in our backyard, this camp will incorporate hands-on learning into the ultimate Durango stay-cation for youths aged 6 – 11.
It is SJMA’s mission to empower people to explore, learn, and protect the amazing public lands in our backyard. We believe that in connecting the youngest generations to the natural world and helping them fall in love with it, ethics of conservation and stewardship will inevitably be woven into our future. For more information on camps or to register, visit sjma.org/learn or contact Education Director Adriana Stimax at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mike Bienkowski is a former secondary science teacher and educator with Durango Nature Studies who now works for San Juan Mountains Association as the curriculum coordinator for education programs.
By Mike Bienkowski
It is early June, and we are five minutes into our first day of San Juan Mountains Association’s “San Juan Ramblers” nature camp.
Twenty kids have gathered in a small field near the upper Junction Creek Trailhead. They play games, search the high grass for insects and make nature journals from a box of craft supplies. A typical enough scene for a Monday morning, but my colleague and I exchange apprehensive glances. We are already exhausted. This is the most human contact any of us have had in months, and undoubtedly everyone, counselors and kids alike, is already thinking, “And we have how many more hours of this?”
We begin to walk, and within minutes everyone has dropped back into the wonder of the present moment. Blooming flowers, verdant green, the golden filtered light and the popping colors of butterflies quickly erase any anxiety or apprehension.
After a day spent filling basins with nymphs collected from the stream, sketching wildflowers, building forts and lizard homes, and catching up with friends amid the safety of open air, the kids are all smiles as they return to the trailhead and their waiting parents, the colorful face-coverings the only indication that anything is different in the world.
I am amazed each day at how naturally learning happens in the outdoors. Young children are very much in their “explorer” phase of life. They are wired to connect to the world around them, which is still so new.
Their excitement shows up in many ways – from one child exuberantly declaring, “Lookit! We got a biggie big BIG big!” in reference to the giant stonefly nymph he just pulled from the stream to the enraptured silence of an entire group, as a harrier emerges from the ponderosas and circles us noiselessly before sweeping off toward a new clearing.
Learning in our programs tends to follow the same model – a memorable experience involving direct contact with something wild serves as an anchor point for learning. Once captured by the experience of the harrier circling, suddenly questions about flight adaptations, hunting strategies and predator-prey interactions become far more relevant and real.
While the benefits of outdoor learning are real and easily observable, the impacts go far beyond content and standards. These days, we live our lives amid a constellation of stimuli that pull our attention in multiple directions at once. We get caught up in stories about how things are different than we remembered them, or in anxieties about planning for an uncertain future. Mix this with the increased access to information afforded by technology, and we have a recipe for very unsettled energy indeed.
Children are not impervious to this energy – they absorb it, carry it and feel the weight of it, just like adults do. Nature offers a symphony of sights, sounds, smells, textures and sensations, which capture children’s attention, stimulate their senses and imaginations, and immerse them fully in the present moment so they can focus on what they are wired to do – explore, connect and learn to love.
SJMA continues to offer nature education year-round. Fall programming includes after-school hiking and outdoor science camps, school-based nature enrichment and teacher education workshops. For more information about our programming or to enroll your child, visit our After-School Program page.
By Harry Bellow
Oftentimes, our work leads us off trail, bushwhacking to high alpine lakes in the shadows of towering peaks. Odds are you have stumbled across our work at some point during your trips into the wilderness. Our work is often invisible unless you know what to look for: clear trails, litter-free campsites and the disappearance of illegal campsites. The life of a wilderness steward is not easy, but the rewarding nature of the work draws one into a vast array of uncomfortable situations.
Funded with donations to San Juan Mountains Association’s Weminuche Wilderness Stewardship Fund, the task of the Wilderness Stewardship Team is to preserve, protect, monitor and educate people about wilderness principles. Our office is the wilderness areas around Durango, some of the most extreme terrain in the Lower 48.
On a typical week, we arrive at the Public Lands Center at 7 a.m. with backpacks filled with four days’ worth of supplies. We gather tools and team equipment, such as radios, crosscut saws, Pulaskis and shovels. Our drive out to the wilderness can take anywhere from 30 minutes to a whopping five hours. Sometimes, it is impossible to get all the way to a trailhead as the roads can be extreme in the rugged country. Upon arrival, the team suits up and begins work.
As we enter the wilderness area, we mark down the time and begin to count people we see. The data we collect about usage goes to classify the area in terms of impact. Pristine areas are relatively untouched by humans while semi-pristine areas are impacted by constant visitor use.
While we collect this data, we are monitoring campsites as well. Led by Asia Pfiefer, wilderness monitoring lead of the San Juan National Forest, the team is given GPS coordinates of existing campsites in the area. We find all of these campsites, survey them, pick up any litter and destroy them if they are illegal or have not been used for many seasons.
Commonly, we find aluminum foil in the fire rings, toilet paper in the bushes and forgotten frying pans. Most often, campsites are found along the trails and near a water source. Camping too close to a water source, less than 100 feet, dissuades wildlife from using it.
As we wander through the wilderness, we also complete trail work and make visitor contacts. Our mission is to protect the wilderness character. By clearing trails, we funnel the impact of visitors into a narrow area leaving most of the wilderness in its pristine state. We inform visitors about ways to minimize their impact so the wilderness character can be preserved for generations to come. All the while, mountains and the sounds of wind, birds and insects surround us.
As the sun sets, our work is finished. We often cook dinner, jump into lakes and sleep like the rocks surrounding us. I prefer to get in a nature run before the light fades. I am rewarded with the sights of deer and elk bounding away from me, and I am reminded of my visitor status. The sights I am privileged to see and the clean mountain air remind me of why I do what I do.
Harry Bellow works with San Juan Mountains Association as a wilderness steward.
By Lexie Stetson-Lee
San Juan Mountains Association (SJMA) is developing a pipeline of conservation education programs to connect the local community with their public lands. SJMA has long provided interpretive programs as a partner of the U.S. Forest Service, serving up glacial geology tours, edible plant hikes and volunteer crew training for adults with a passion for conservation. And
now, after the organization’s merger with Durango Nature Studies, we are able to pair youth education, from preschool to high school, with stewardship of local land.
This pipeline of programs is rooted in the idea that consistent, repeated outdoor experiences over one’s lifetime can have a transformative effect. A transformative effect on self-efficacy levels, technical skills, mental health and a sense of belonging. A transformative effect on how we react to, and relate to those using public lands differently than we do. A transformative effect on the local landscape as we decide to respect and steward our public lands.
You know the ingredients: backyard exploration, cultural stories, time by a creek, experience working with animals and agriculture, chopping wood, hiking the blackened Hermosa Creek Trail, and looking for fish in the Highland Mary Lakes. These are the building blocks for an ethic of stewardship. Developing good stewards of the land is a process—it takes time and effort.
Outdoor education has the power to do this work, especially in small, myriad ways. The other day, my four-year-old daughter shrieked: “Harold!” She named an ant found on the sagebrush hill behind our house. “Airwld.” Repeated my two-year-old son after her. Monkey see, monkey do. Small, consistent trips outside serve as medicine during this time of stay-at-home anxiety, in addition to providing educational opportunities. Lately, in our household, we’ve learned about Wilderness designation, local watersheds, and the Woolly Apple Aphid. I treasure outside time with my own children as it reasserts that they will have a connection to nature, and if not an interest in, at least a willingness to learn about life interwoven with the land. Their future will depend on our collective ability to live in harmony with the natural world. Southwestern Colorado’s identity, heritage, quality of life and economic well-being all stem from our connections to the spectacular public lands that surround us. I hope that through repeated connections to nature, my own children will be given a voice in these issues.
Public lands stewardship is a recognition of our collective responsibility. A timely idea as we process the COVID-19 pandemic and our response to it. Seemingly, our collective responsibility for stewarding public lands is even more poignant—even more promising with a robust educational infrastructure. The small choices we make now, including educating ourselves and our community, are key steps towards a healthy land use future.
With Colorado Public Lands Day upon us, on May 16th , SJMA encourages everyone to recognize and celebrate the incredible access we have to open space and the outdoor education opportunities available in our region. In honor of Colorado Public Lands Day, SJMA is hosting a Facebook Live teach-in on the “Watersheds of the Weminuche Wilderness” at 10:00 AM on Thursday, May 14th . Join us to learn how the spectacular Weminuche Wilderness contains some of the West’s most important watersheds. We’re hopeful that your engagement will spur more interest in the land we all use and love.
by David Taft, Conservation Director, San Juan Mountains Association
As one of Durango’s longest running public lands education and stewardship organizations, San Juan Mountains Association has plenty of experience connecting folks with the outdoors and confronting challenges in the backcountry. However, just like everyone else, we are caught in the midst of the ongoing public health situation. We’re currently observing how it relates to our local public lands and the San Juans community, as well as figuring out how we will approach this season. We have been in close communications with our agency partners, fellow conservation organizations, and healthcare specialists to ensure that we can continue pursuing our mission of caring for our local public lands, while protecting the health of our staff and supporters.
This season we have planned on upping our efforts in the Weminuche Wilderness, and we continue working hard to ensure that these plans can go forward. This is especially important as people continue to retreat to the local mountains for their social distance, a trend likely to continue as weather warms and trails dry. In a collaborative effort with the San Juan National Forest, we will help manage a new San Juan Ranger crew thanks to generous donations from the local community. This crew will be backpacking through heavy use areas, documenting and maintaining trail conditions, restoring heavily impacted areas, engaging with the public (according to CDC guidelines), and ensuring that the SJNF has the information they need to make informed management decisions. We will be providing reports from the field over the course of the season so that we can all keep an eye on their progress.
While in-person volunteer events are off the table in the near term, there are still ways to get involved. Sign up for a webinar (we are hosting a Colorado Public Lands Day crosscut saw Zoom course!), stay informed about future volunteer outings through our E-News at sjma.org, and share your stories and photos to stay positive. We encourage everyone looking to stay excited about our magnificent local public lands by sending in a short write up along with photos of a memorable trip to the San Juans. You can send these to us at our instagram @sjma_co, Facebook, or email@example.com.
As always, we will continue to offer visitor information for local public lands, and our staff will do their best to provide the clearest up to date guidance on trails, access, facilities, and regulations.
Thank you, be safe, be healthy, stay close to home.