By Myste French
This morning, work begins where I made camp. I arrived after dark last night and didn’t notice the trash strewn about the campsite. I remove all litter from the area and burn trash from the fire ring, then distribute the ashes in the forest before moving on to my real work site for the day.
When I arrive at the Blue Lakes Trailhead, the parking lot is packed and the sun hasn’t risen yet. I open up the San Juan Mountains Association tent and set out maps and brochures. For the next two hours I’ll staff the tent, talking with hikers about their plans and how we can support them in Leaving No Trace. We discuss preparedness, trail etiquette, wildlife safety and fire regulations.
I am in my fifth month as a Forest Ambassador with SJMA. Eleven of us worked for the interpretive partner of the San Juan and Uncompahgre National Forests – this season. Together we covered 40 trails across six million acres of Public Lands, an area roughly the size of the state of New Hampshire.
Today 31 backpackers are planning to spend the night in the Blue Lakes Basin. I ask them about their plans for human waste management. So much surface defecation happens at this site that E. coli bacteria is starting to infect the water. I distribute PACT Lite cat-hole kits, and Waste And Gelling bags to mitigate overnight waste impacts.
After the traffic in the parking lot slows, I hike the trail, making frequent stops. There are hunters with questions about game sightings and the trail needs attention. This is my seventh weekend at Blue Lakes this season. Each time I walk the trail I note the work our team has done: fallen logs cut and hauled off the trail, fresh trail drains installed, and new vegetation growing where a social trail was closed only two months ago.
I’ve conversed with 161 hikers in the time it takes to reach Lower Blue Lake, tipping the total number of Forest Ambassadors’ engagements with recreationists at Blue Lakes over 6,000 and more than 26,000 people throughout our service area for the summer. Enjoying a moment of solitude and appreciating the cerulean beauty of the lake, I head into the nearby camping area where 13 campsites and two illicit fire rings must be cleaned up and naturalized.
Back on the trail, a conversation begins with a group of hikers. I tell them of the impacts we are seeing from social media. A few weeks ago we dismantled an abandoned campsite which contained only photo-shoot props. I share with the group my favorite message: we need to take Leave No Trace ethics one step further as we consider our online footprint and attempt to Leave No Digital Trace.
Looking up, I realize that other hikers have stopped to listen. I count, and there are 18 of us gathered. We have a discussion about wilderness regulations (groups must be fewer than 15 people) and then split into smaller groups to reduce our impact before heading back down the trail.
Walking through the silent wilderness, I contemplate those who’ve walked before me, both literally and metaphorically. The original Stewards of these Lands were the ancestral Ute and Pueblo peoples. The Ute people consider the trails to be an integral part of their Creation Story. Not only the land, but the trails themselves are sacred – as is the work of caring for the land. In my time as a Forest Ambassador I have learned that being a Steward of the Land is a reciprocal relationship. When we take care of the land, the land most certainly takes care of us.
Myste French, MSW, is nearing the end of her first season as a Forest Ambassador with SJMA, she resides in Silverton and in addition to time spent outdoors, Myste is also an Artist Member of the Silverton Powerhouse Collective and the Market Manager for Silverton Farmer’s Market.
By Jake Anderson, SJMA Wilderness Crew Member
Dawn breaks. Squinting and rolling awake, I rise quickly. A coyote yowls, calling out to its pack, sounding like a rooster to my ears. The backcountry morning bites at me as I crawl out of my bag and begin to ready myself for the day ahead. Popping my head out from my tent, I’m greeted with a glowing view of the surrounding forest. The sun casts a radiant blanket over the trees, memorializing a kingdom of dead giants and nurturing the inconspicuous saplings aspiring to replace them. It pours out into the meadow from which I gaze, gradually dispelling the shadow. It reaches and warms me as I muse.
I’ve had this sort of pleasant subalpine morning many times; its vibrancy is familiar to many, no doubt. But this morning, my achy back reminds me, I’m not at leisure – there’s a job to do. It was a push just to get to this campsite, and there are untold trees down on the trail ahead. If anyone is going to enjoy moving freely up and down this trail, it’ll be in the wake of my crew. Feeling purposeful, I grab my saw.
Our crew of four SJMA Wilderness Stewards and two USFS Forest Protection Officers is dedicated to the task of opening trails in the Rio Grande NF, working our butts off in the face of some daunting challenges. To date this year, we have covered 212 miles, done 340 ft of tread work, brushed 4,912 feet of trail, removed a whopping 2,086 trees, and met 194 people along the way.
The logs we move, using only hand saws and levers, axes, wedges, and good communication, are sometimes astounding. The difference we make is really tangible; it’s very affirming. I’ve also witnessed firsthand the enormity of what we are undertaking, trying to keep trails open amid the dead and dying trees and the inevitability of gravity. Despite the impressive numbers, there’s a lot left to be done. More than once this summer we have had to leave sections of trail uncleared, simply because we lack the labor force to finish the job. And there’s always another project waiting in the wings – the trees keep falling. Beetle kill, wildfire, windstorms and washouts have all amounted to more complex situations on trail and at camp in the backcountry.
Besides just having to climb over and around more trees, visitors to our wild places these days have to be more aware of dangers like fire and falling trees, an unfortunate fact of our evolving world.
Being the boots on the ground, cutting trail, I see a lot of kerf and only an occasional passerby (usually elk, sometimes human). I have plenty of time to think about the metaphor in my work, about how unignorable a tree in the way is, then how easily the fresh cuts that mark its removal go unnoticed. The logs pile high, trailside.
Ed Abbey once said, “The idea of wilderness needs no defense, Only more defenders.” You can help! You don’t need a crosscut saw to make an impact. Become an SJMA member, donate, or volunteer by visiting: https://sjma.org/get-involved/
Nearly three years ago, in October 2020, Governor Jared Polis signed executive Order B 2020-008 creating the Colorado Outdoor Regional Partnerships Initiative (RPI). The goals of the RPI are pretty straightforward:
- Ensure that Colorado’s land, water, and wildlife thrive while also providing equitable and safe access to quality outdoor recreation experiences;
- Convene representatives from different outdoor interests, races, cultures, ages, and sectors through Regional Partnerships to identify regional priorities and strategies;
- Collaborate to develop a state-level vision and plan for conservation and recreation that will inform future investments to conserve Colorado’s landscapes, rivers, wildlife, sensitive habitats, and recreational opportunities.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) has partnered with Great Outdoor Colorado (GOCO) to establish a statewide grant program to provide funding to establish regional collaborations and provide support for their ongoing success. Prior to the most recent grant cycle, more than $1.5 million had been awarded to 15 collaborations across primarily the Western half of Colorado – with a couple of gaping holes, including one in our corner of the state.
In the latest grant cycle this spring, after consulting with our federal, state, and local partners, along with other key stakeholders, San Juan Mountains Association (SJMA) submitted an application to launch a research and planning process for an RPI in Southwest Colorado. CPW notified SJMA in late June that we were awarded funds to create the new Southwest Colorado Conservation Outdoor Recreation Roundtable (SCCORR).
There is no shortage of collaborations and initiatives occurring in Southwest Colorado right now. There are two landscape-scale forest health initiatives underway through the Rocky Mountain Restoration Initiative (RMRI) and the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (CFLRP), along with the Animas Headwater Ecological Action Division (AHEAD), a Recreation Strategy in the San Juan National Forest’s Columbine District and other efforts to care for the water, wildlife, and public lands that have drawn so many people to call this place home.
For more than 35 years, SJMA has played an integral role providing education and outreach and encouraging responsible recreation across public lands throughout Southwest Colorado, and now through SCCORR, we seek to bring a very diverse group of stakeholders together to share information, address concerns, and prioritize a sustainable vision for conservation and outdoor recreation in our region We are starting out with a planning and research grant, and as such, SCCORR’s initial steps include:
- Convening a diverse suite of stakeholders to convey and share regional priorities, issues and ongoing conservation and recreation efforts.
- Determining the appropriate scale and geography for the regional partnership’s focus.
- Engaging a facilitator to develop a process for ensuring that the diverse conservation and recreation interests have ongoing input on efforts underway in this region and to the development of the Statewide Conservation and Recreation Plan.
- Developing a complete inventory of the current initiatives and collaborations currently in process throughout Southwest Colorado, identifying overarching goals and strategies.
- Mapping existing data on recreation use, wildlife habitats and other information that will ultimately provide critical input into the current array of initiatives and collaborations.
The ultimate goal is to work toward priority areas for long-term planning that both protects our wildlife and enhances this area’s recreation economy sustainably. Equally important, having a CPW-supported regional partnership in Southwest Colorado provides us with a communication channel to those who are working on the Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan (SCORP) update for 2024-2028. As this process progresses, this regional partnership will ensure that the people and interest groups of Southwest Colorado have an opportunity to provide input on statewide level planning as well as on initiatives developing in the region.
We recognize that there is a chorus of different voices when it comes to conservation and outdoor recreation; and we firmly believe there is a need to collectively share our priorities and understand the very real constraints facing land use management. Through SCCORR, we plan to provide Southwest Colorado communities with a chance to better understand current and future issues from both sides of the table, and to craft a balanced future trajectory to sustain the quality of life in this region. I encourage you to engage and follow along as SCORR gets started. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Mike Wight, Associate Director
As the rivers continue to carry our snowmelt downstream, and the high country begins to open up, I’m finally getting a second to reflect on a busy couple of months hiring, training, and preparing for SJMA’s stewardship programs. This year represents continued growth and expansion of our programs, coupled with increased training and capacity for field programs with both seasonal staff and volunteers!
We hope you caught last month’s update on volunteer opportunities, written by Marly Saunders, SJMA’s Volunteer Coordinator, who has been busy training and connecting with volunteers to promote stewardship at Chicago Basin, Ice Lakes, Blue Lakes, naturalist interpretive events, and solitude monitoring in the Weminuche Wilderness. If you haven’t already, check out SJMA.org/events to view the array of events on our calendar and to sign up to volunteer!
In April, we brought on Meg Burke, our two year alumni Forest Ambassador, as our Stewardship Program Manager. She wasted no time interviewing and selecting a rocking team of ten Forest Ambassadors, and four Wilderness Stewardship Crew Members. We kicked off a two week training for seasonal staff on May 15th, providing CPR, Wilderness First Aid, a session from the Leave No Trace traveling team, and a multitude of guest speakers from the San Juan National Forest (thank you!) to cover topics including recreation management, wildfire safety, public engagement, trail maintenance, and area collaboratives Rocky Mountain Restoration Initiative and the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program. Special thanks to Regina Whiteskunk who spent a few hours with our team discussing the cultural history and context of the region!
On May 30th, our Wilderness Stewardship Crew began clearing trails on the east side of the Weminuche in collaboration with Rio Grande National Forest staff- covering 15 miles of trail and clearing 132 logs in their first three days! On June 2nd, our North and South teams of Forest Ambassadors began covering area trails and events across the San Juans. Our crew will rotate between more than 35 trails and trailheads providing public education and information on Leave No Trace, wildfire safety, responsible recreation, and forest restoration projects, while completing trail maintenance and clean up activities. SJMA’s “southern team” will rotate between low-country trails such as Purgatory Flats, Chicken Creek, Boggy Draw, Pine River, Vallecito, Junction Creek and as the snow melts, they’ll be stationed at Ice Lakes, Andrews Lake, Cross Mountain, Navajo Lake, Highland Mary Lakes, and more. Thanks to support from the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, and Gunnison National Forest, we’ve expanded SJMA’s Forest Ambassadors on the northern side of the San Juans. Not only will they be stationed at Blue Lakes, but they will also be at access points to Sneffels, Uncompahgre, and Lizard Head Wilderness areas, the forks of the Cimarrons, and Woods Lake, as well as Silverton area trails and Animas Forks. If you’d like to know more about what our Forest Ambassadors are doing, just ask them when you see them, or better yet, sign up for SJMA’s June 13th or 14th volunteer ambassador trainings for Ice Lakes, Blue Lakes or an upcoming fire ring clean-up project in the Cimarons on June 23d and 24th in partnership with Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, and the Ouray Ranger District (sjma.org/events). Wherever you recreate this season, please remember to follow Leave No Trace Principles, and drown any campfires, perhaps kindly reminding others to do so as well. Together, we can protect our beloved San Juan region for future generations!
The first time I worked with conservation volunteers, I led a group of high school students on a long-term volunteer trail project. As my students learned to use tools, cut tread, and spend all day in the woods, I watched something amazing happen. At first, they were hesitant and shy, holding back when hikers came down the trail. I talked to all the hikers and bikers and trail runners, educating them about our trail work. As the weeks went by, my group started to open up. They became knowledgeable and articulate and excited about what they were doing. Even my shyest students started jumping at the chance to chat with hikers, and those hikers became SO engaged. Hearing directly from volunteers why we should stay on the trail, why this work matters, and why we should leave no trace created a powerful connection to the land for recreationists. They saw how hard my students were working, and I saw it make a huge impression on many trail visitors.
As spring turns to summer, San Juan Mountains Association (SJMA) is hard at work preparing for a successful season. At SJMA, we want to create those experiences where volunteers can share their perspective with San Juan National Forest visitors. I know that volunteers can have a huge impact on how people connect to and use our public lands. Visitors see how you care for the land and know you are there because of that passion.
This summer, we’ll have six different ways to volunteer with SJMA on our public lands. There is so much to do, but so many different ways to contribute! If each SJMA volunteer plays to their strengths, we can accomplish even more. If you’re interested in helping out, but don’t know where to begin, I’ve created a quick overview that will help you decide!
Do you love chatting with strangers, always excited to hear a new story and make a new friend?
Volunteer to be a San Juan Trailhead Ambassador at Blue Lakes or Ice Lakes!
Do you typically work alone, prefer to roam the forest in silence, drawn to the quiet parts of our Wilderness areas?
Volunteer to help with Wilderness solitude monitoring!
Do you live for summer backpacking months, riding the train into the Weminuche Wilderness, and hiking to new alpine lakes every year?
Volunteer for the basecamp at Chicago Basin!
Do you light up when you work with kids, love helping the next generation explore the San Juans, and feel passionately about science education?
Volunteer with our education program – After-School Science Ramblers or school field trips!
Are you always the “host” friend, looking for any chance to welcome friends, new and old?
Volunteer as a Durango Nature Center docent – a program returning for the first time since SJMA merged with Durango Nature Studies!
Are you one of those hikers who loves to identify each flower, tree, and rock, talking about ecology and our environment?
Volunteer as an interpretive naturalist on our summer nature walks!
Do you want to protect our public lands, but prefer to work on your own schedule and drive rather than hike?
Volunteer with our Adopt-A-Road program!
However you decide to volunteer, know that we couldn’t do any of this without you! Sign up for volunteer training & shifts for this summer at https://sjma.volunteerlocal.com. This will also ensure that you are notified of emerging opportunities. You can reach me directly at email@example.com if you have any questions or ideas!
Marly Saunders is the Volunteer Coordinator for San Juan Mountains Association & is excited to see you out on the trails this summer!
By Cassidy Storey
There is no shortage of splendor in the grandiose peaks, sprawling meadows, and diverse forests of Southwest Colorado. Whether you’re a mountain biker seeking the most epic of single tracks, a hiker finding solitude in Colorado’s largest Wilderness, or a fledgling outdoor enthusiast just scratching the surface, this region is unmatched. The San Juans have everything, and something for everyone.
When I moved to Durango from the front range two years ago, I thought I knew Colorado. Growing up near Denver and studying ecosystem science at CSU, I thought I had my home state figured out. I had yet to spend much time in the Southwest but was confident in my knowledge of and familiarity with Colorado’s diverse landscapes. Two years later, I know I could spend a dozen lifetimes just in the San Juans and never touch it all. These mountains are where I learned to love winter, doubled the interests that get me outside, and formed a deeper connection to the landscape than I thought possible.
But I didn’t do it alone. One of the reasons I moved to this area was to work in public lands stewardship and conservation education through the San Juan Mountains Association. I’ve dedicated my time to empowering locals and visitors in the region to explore, learn about, and protect our wealth of natural resources. Much of my SJMA career centered around developing interpretive programs. Interpretive programs are designed to bring out the relevance and meaning of the area you’re enjoying. They can help you understand how different plants and animals interact in an ecosystem, how ancient people lived off the land, how geologic processes have shaped the landscape, historic events, and more. Now, as warmer weather slowly approaches, and the signs of spring and summer start to make themselves known, the SJMA team is gearing up for an exhilarating schedule of community events.
Starting later this month, we will have a variety of opportunities for you to learn more about your public lands. On April 29th, we welcome you to join us at the Durango Nature Center Open House where you can take a hike, enjoy nature-based activities, and explore the location of our popular summer camps. Then on May 20th, we’ll celebrate Colorado Public Lands Day with two interpretive events: a wildflower-focused hike at Sand Canyon and the Boggy Draw Forest Restoration Bike Ride. Thanks to our partners at Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, our educators will work with their rangers throughout the year to connect you to the fascinating desert ecosystem and rich archaeological history west of the La Platas. Look out for more information on a summer Full Moon Hike (July 31) as well as a fall Star Party (September 16).
By popular demand, we’ll also bring back our volunteer-led “San Juan Nature Hikes” at Andrews Lake this summer. From June to August, join our experienced volunteer naturalists in one of the San Juans’ most iconic locations to learn about wildflowers, mushrooms, geology, and ecology of the subalpine environment while practicing your identification skills and enjoying the company of other nature enthusiasts.
In addition to the events we have planned so far, our education and stewardship teams are working continuously to bring more informative and fun opportunities to you and the landscape. Follow San Juan Mountains Association on Facebook and Instagram, or subscribe to our e-newsletter on our website (sjma.org) for the latest information on all our programs.
Cassidy Storey was the Community Education Manager for San Juan Mountains Association before returning to Fort Collins, CO to pursue a master’s degree in wildlife biology.
By Hannah Green
I stand on the edge of the Wilderness as the late afternoon glow hits the peaks. Clouds hug the tops of the mountains signaling the incoming storm. The wind is cold, and the snow blows across the peaks in delicate wisps. It has felt like a long winter, with weekly storms and more recently lots of wind. Durango Weather Guy calls it “snow fatigue” but in moments like these, deep into winter, the snow and its beauty are undeniable and not to be forgotten when the next blizzard hits.
As the Snow Ambassador for San Juan Mountains Association (SJMA) this winter, I’ve watched hundreds of people take off into the hills around Andrew’s Lake. For some it is their first time out in the backcountry in winter and others have lost count. But no matter their level of experience they are just happy to be outside. Since visitation to the San Juans doesn’t stop during these snowy days, neither does SJMA’s outreach and education efforts. My role is to provide visitors with forest and backcountry information from winter recreation opportunities to daily CAIC avalanche forecasts. Most people are just wondering where to go, some are interested in what I’m doing, but most people, especially outside of the parking lot, are just looking for some quietude or a chance to catch up with a companion.
I hear the word “playground” used a lot to describe the mountains and the word “playing” to describe our connection to these places, but I think in many ways those words degrade the importance of this land and of our responsibility in protecting it. This isn’t a playground, but the lifeblood to the four corners. Without the snow to fill the headwaters of our rivers, we, as a species, wouldn’t be able to survive here. After all, the water that fills our cup and keeps our gardens alive comes from high in these peaks.
It’s easy to become apathetic these days but when I ask myself what else I can do to help the aching planet, the only answer is to show people the beauty of these mountains. We all together have to be stewards of the land. This is not just my job, it’s everyone’s who steps out into these mountains.
I’ve criss-crossed the San Juans many times by foot: long ridgelines, big peaks, even bigger fields of wildflowers, and hundreds of miles of untracked snow across the wilderness; and have developed a relationship with the topography akin to the closest friendship. Through the highs and lows of life the mountains continue to inspire and motivate me to keep moving forward. This land gives me so much- and in an effort to not just take from it-I hope I can give back by helping people find their own relationship with this landscape.
And back to all the snow this season, if you too are experiencing snow fatigue right now just remember that the spring skiing, river season, and wildflowers come July will be incredible. The snow will keep us afloat for another summer as our climate changes and our weather systems vary greatly. A reminder to myself that we are lucky to have such regular storms and they will surely blossom into a magical summer.
Hannah Green is the Snow Ambassador for San Juan Mountains Association.
By Mike Wight
Ah, winter… As the white stuff piles up around us this year, I’m excited to get out in the mountains – to sled, ski, and explore the backcountry. When white-capped, the San Juans are majestic, but can also be dangerous. Tuning in to local avalanche conditions and following some basic safety precautions can make the difference between a day of winter fun and an avoidable accident.
This winter, all of us at San Juan Mountains Association (SJMA) are excited to kick off our second winter season at Andrews Lake and welcome our new Snow Ambassador, Hannah Green, who is stationed at our Mobile Basecamp at the Andrews Lake winter parking area on Molas Pass. We’ll be stationed in the area every Friday through Monday until the end of March to provide information to visitors using this popular spot for winter recreation.
Hannah brings great experience to this position as she served as a SJMA Forest Ambassador in 2021, volunteers for San Juan County Search and Rescue, and holds an Recreation Avalanche Training level 2 certification. Stop in to say hi this year when you are in the area, grab a hot drink, and check in on what’s happening with the snowpack on the daily. Hannah will be primarily based at the Andrews parking area, but roving area trails and trailheads to interact with both motorized and non motorized visitors, to share information on winter Leave No Trace, Wilderness boundaries, groomed snowmobile trails, and more. This position represents a partnership between SJMA, CDOT, and the San Juan National Forest with a purpose of promoting safe and responsible use of our shared resources. Thank you to San Juan Sledders Ken Hilfiker for developing a detailed map of the Andrews Lake area and nearby motorized use trails for us to share this year!
In addition, SJMA and Mountain Studies Institute are excited to offer our Snow Science and Social interpretive snowshoe hikes once again this year. Starting January 14th, these free events will be offered every other weekend through mid March. Free to the public, these events offer a combination of snow education, travel awareness, winter ecology and fun! Finish with a hot beverage around a fire, check out our new Mobile Basecamp and meet our team! Registration is required, and details can be found at https://sjma.org/events/. Snowshoes can be provided for those that need them.
If you don’t have an opportunity to swing by the Mobile Basecamp or attend one of our winter events, remember to be safe out there, regardless of your activity.
A few tips for winter safety: Plan ahead and Prepare!
- Check the avalanche forecast and local conditions at https://avalanche.state.co.us/ .
- Let someone know your plan for the day, including an exact location and time of return. Check in with them when you are back.
- Carry the right equipment for any situation- extra layers, food and water, first aid kit, emergency gear repair, wag bags, and a communication device.
- Stay off slopes above 30 degrees, and areas with steeper slopes above.
- Educate yourself! Consider an avalanche awareness course, such as those offered by our local Friends of the San Juans.
- Remember- just because someone else went there, doesn’t mean it’s safe!
Mike Wight is SJMA’s Associate Director.
Anticipation hangs heavy in the air at this time of year. We see it in the faces of all the children (and adults, too) who visit the Christmas Tree lot, selecting the perfect tree to adorn their house for the holiday season. We feel it as we look to our favorite weather apps, hoping to see the promise of accumulating snow and the adventures it beckons and the impact on next year’s growing season. And those of us associated with non-profit organizations and small businesses feel it as we look at our financial statements and the calendars marking the end of the year, hoping that we close out the year strongly.
At the San Juan Mountains Association (SJMA), we have also spent time reflecting on a solid year. The SJMA staff work hard to fulfill our mission to empower residents and visitors to the San Juan Mountains to explore them responsibly, learn about them more deeply, and to join us in protecting them for future generations. In summary:
- SJMA hosted more than 190 distinct educational programs this year, including widespread return to school-based field trips and full-capacity summer camps. Many third-graders experienced their very first field trips with SJMA, highlighting just how abnormal the past several years have been.
- Our visitor information specialists worked diligently to provide information and resources through thousands of phone calls and walk-ins – even though the public lands offices still operated under variable schedules due to COVID-19.
- SJMA’s seasonal stewardship crews – including the Wilderness Crew and Snow, Forest, and Alpine Loop Ambassadors, engaged with nearly 20,000 visitors over the entire calendar year, providing them with information on how to recreate responsibly and protect the public lands we all love.
- After Outdoor Research sold the iconic tiny home that has served as SJMA’s basecamp for stewardship efforts at locations such as Ice Lakes, Molas Pass, and Lizard Head Pass, we purchased an off-road utility trailer that is currently being modified to serve as SJMA’s mobile basecamp, version 2.
We collaborated not only with federal land management agencies throughout the region, including the San Juan, Rio Grande, and Uncompahgre National Forests, and the Bureau of Land Management, including Canyon of the Ancients National Monument, but also with a number of other non-profit partners, including Mountain Studies Institute, La Plata Open Space Conservancy, Southwest Conservation Corps, and Companeros. Partners only strengthen our efforts.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t highlight one of our most valuable resources – all of you who have supported SJMA’s efforts through your time and your gifts. Hundreds of you have supported us financially and contributed thousands of hours to assist with SJMA’s myriad activities. Whether you have volunteered to help with our children’s enrichment programs, interacted with visitors at popular trailheads, spent a long weekend at the Chicago Basin basecamp, adopted a section of one of the many forest roads in the region, conducted solitude monitoring throughout our Wilderness areas, helped greet visitors at the public lands offices, served on our board of directors, or assisted with the Christmas Trees for Conservation lot, all of us at SJMA recognize your contributions, and we know that we are stronger and more effective as a result.
As we come to the end of 2022, all of us at SJMA can’t help but be filled with gratitude for our partners and supporters, and we look to 2023 with great anticipation for more opportunities to work with you to care for the public lands we all love.
Stephanie Weber is the executive director of the San Juan Mountains Association.
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.