Great Outdoors Colorado board awards $15.2m for Fishers Peak, land conservation, youth corps projects

Fishers Peak. By Michelle Goodall from Trinidad, USA – Fishers peakUploaded by xnatedawgx, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14915627

Here’s the release from Great Outdoors Colorado:

oday, The GOCO Board awarded $15.2 million in funding to 24 projects across the state, which includes open space grants, youth corps grants, and an additional $9.75 million investment in Fishers Peak Ranch in Las Animas County.

The Fishers Peak funding will support Colorado Parks and Wildlife in the agency’s acquisition of the property, which will become Colorado’s 42nd state park. This brings GOCO’s investment to date in the acquisition to $17.25 million. Given the size and scale of the property, visitors can expect multiple phases of development, with the first stage of public access slated for 2021 if not sooner.

GOCO awarded $5 million as part of its open space grant program, which funds private and public land conservation projects that give outdoor recreationists a place to play (or simply enjoy the view), protect wildlife habitat, safeguard the state’s water supply and watersheds, and sustain local agriculture.

GOCO also awarded $500,000 in Youth Corps funding through the Colorado Youth Corps Association (CYCA), which represents a statewide coalition of eight accredited corps that train youth, young adults, and veterans to work on land and water conservation projects. Corpsmembers earn a stipend for their service and an AmeriCorps education award to use toward college or reducing existing student loans.

In total, the open space and youth corps projects awarded grants this round will:

  • Invest in 23 projects in 18 counties
  • Conserve 16,852 acres of land, including wildlife habitat for 39 rare and imperiled species
  • Protect nearly 40 miles of riverway, creeks, and streams
  • Leverage $11.2 million in local matching funds
  • Reduce wildfire risk on 50 acres of open space
  • Restore and rebuild 6 miles of trail
  • Clear more than 350 acres of invasive plant and weed species
  • Funded projects are as follows:

    OPEN SPACE – $5,000,000 AWARDED

    Conejos Ranchland Initiative– Preserving Working Wet Meadows, $925,986 to Colorado Open Lands

    COL will work with the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust and Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust to conserve the 500-acre Rancho la Luz, the 433-acre Jackson Ranch, the 160-acre Crowther Meadows Ranch, and the 587-acre Caldon Cattle Company property, all located in the Conejos River floodplain near Manassa and some of the oldest ranches in Colorado.

    In addition to helping maintain the region’s agricultural heritage, as the ranches will stay in operation, conserving the properties will protect 3.48 miles of active channels of the Conejos and San Antonio rivers. The riparian areas create a rich nesting and foraging environment for a wide array of waterfowl and migratory birds, such as bald eagle and greater sandhill crane. Large and small mammals call the ranches home, including a resident elk herd and river otter.

    E Bar Ranch Conservation Legacy, $245,000 grant to Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust

    CCALT will conserve four parcels of E Bar Ranch, comprising 5,250 acres of native grasslands and riparian corridors in Elbert County. This project builds on a growing effort toward landscape-level conservation in the area, protecting its unique agricultural heritage, wildlife habitat, and ecological features forever. Several miles of Middle Bijou Creek, Wilson Creek, and Cattle Gulch run through the property, which serve as tributaries to the South Platte River and are essential to the overall watershed. The riparian areas provide important habitat for migratory birds and other wildlife, while also sustaining the livestock raised on the property.

    Native short-grass prairie covers most of the property. Colorado has lost approximately 50 percent of its native prairie grasslands due to development, and it is a priority for many conservation groups to protect what remains of this landscape.

    Heartland Ranch Preserve Expansion– Jagers Phase 1, $1,000,000 grant to Southern Plains Land Trust

    SPLT will use its GOCO funding to expand Heartland Ranch Nature Preserve by purchasing a 6,614-acre parcel of the adjacent Jagers Ranch. The Jagers parcel will protect 7.4 miles of Arkansas River tributaries. The property is highly biodiverse, with critical habitat for leopard frog, swift fox, golden eagle, ferruginous hawk, burrowing owl, horned lizard, and the potential reintroduction of black-footed ferret.

    The property contains short grass prairie, dramatic rock-covered mesas, lush canyons and bottomlands, perennial springs, and juniper woodlands that serve as feeding and breeding grounds for bison, pronghorn, and elk herds. Conservation of this property advances Colorado Parks & Wildlife’s conservation plan for grassland species in the area that the Colorado Natural Heritage Program considers of high biodiversity significance.

    Homestead Ranch Preserve, $854,014 grant to Pitkin County

    With the help of the GOCO grant, Pitkin County will acquire an inholding located in Thompson Divide from a private landowner. The property, which lies within a Colorado Natural Heritage Area of high biodiversity significance, is comprised primarily of aspen meadows and ponds and offers unique ecological features such as cottonwood, blue spruce, and alder trees. The project will protect one mile of pristine riparian habitat, which contributes to the outstanding wildlife habitat in the area. Elk and mule deer use the property as calving and fawning grounds, and it also provides habitat for bear, moose, mountain lion, lynx, and rare plants.

    Morimitsu Farm/Historic Splendid Valley, $750,000 grant to The Conservation Fund

    Morimitsu Farm is a 79-acre property located south of Downtown Brighton in the recently branded Historic Splendid Valley. The City of Brighton and Adams County have identified the area as prime for growing, processing, and distributing local food crops. The Conservation Fund will acquire the property with the help of GOCO funds and convey a conservation easement to Adams County, allowing for continued agricultural production on the land and protecting it from development forever. The farm’s soil is some of the most fertile in the state, and the property’s access to water from Fulton Ditch, a diversion of the South Platte River, makes it valuable for agriculture. Several migratory bird species rely on the land for habitat, and deer, fox, coyote, raccoon, and other wildlife are also found on the property.

    Ridgway Inholding, $700,000 grant to Eagle Valley Land Trust

    In 2017, with the help of GOCO funding, Eagle County purchased a 1,540-acre property formerly known as Hardscrabble Ranch and developed Brush Creek Valley Ranch and Open Space (BCVROS). With its new grant, in partnership with Eagle County Open Space, EVLT will purchase and conserve a 129-acre private inholding to BCVROS that will connect hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands and conserved riparian habitats. Conserving this property will forever protect the land’s scenic views along the well-traveled road to Sylvan Lake State Park, as well as one mile of Brush Creek, resulting in seven contiguous conserved miles of the creek. The riparian corridor serves as high-quality habitat for fish, waterfowl, migratory birds, raptors, reptiles, amphibians, small mammals, and big game. It also contains vital winter habitat and migration corridors for elk and mule deer.

    The stretch of creek will complete the missing piece in the three miles of creek running through BCVROS, creating new opportunities for public fishing, education, and recreation. A trailhead is planned for the northern border of the inholding; future trails will provide connectivity to thousands of acres of Bureau of Land Management land.

    Taylor-Oswald Ranch Conservation, $525,000 grant to San Isabel Land Protection Trust

    San Isabel, in partnership with The Trust for Public Land, Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, will conserve the 2,687-acre Taylor-Oswald Ranch, a working ranch adjacent to the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness in Fremont County. Conserving the property will permanently protect its significant wildlife corridors, water resources, and scenic vistas from U.S. Highway 50. The conserved property also provides connection between other protected lands.

    The ranch encompasses 122 acres of productive irrigated meadows and native wetlands, 26 miles of Arkansas River tributaries, and habitat for bird species of concern such as bald eagle, ferruginous hawk, willow flycatcher, prairie falcon, and others. Elk, mule deer, pronghorn, wild turkey, mountain lion, black bear, and bobcat also call the property home. Providing a crucial wildlife corridor that links the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the Arkansas River, the ranch is directly adjacent to other conserved ranches and thousands of acres of public lands.

    Russian Olive

    YOUTH CORPS – $500,000 AWARDED

    Alamosa Riparian Park, Alamosa City Ranch, Malm Trail, $16,600 grant to the City of Alamosa

    The City of Alamosa will use its GOCO funding to hire Southwest Conservation Corps crews to construct new trails and improve existing trails at Alamosa Riparian Park, at Alamosa City Ranch, and on the city’s south side. Alamosa has expanded its trail network in recent years, creating additional, ongoing need for care and maintenance.

    Box Cañon Falls Park Trail Repair and Beautification Project, $14,600 grant to the City of Ouray
    With its GOCO grant, the City of Ouray will hire Southwest Conservation Corps (SCC) crews to restore trails, remove old fences, thin limbs and brush, add check dams to assist with drainage, and repair a retaining wall at Box Cañon Falls. Crew members will also identify areas in need of updated interpretive signage to enhance visitors’ learning experience. Efforts by the City and SCC will help ensure visitors continue to enjoy a safe, enjoyable recreation experience at the park.

    Brush Creek Valley Ranch Fence Removal and Trail Reroute, $15,200 grant to Eagle County

    Eagle County will hire crews from Rocky Mountain Youth Corps (RMYC) to make updates to Brush Creek Valley Ranch and Open Space. Based on recommendations from Colorado Parks and Wildlife, RMYC corps members will remove outdated, barbed wire fences and replace them with wildlife-friendly, high-tensile fencing. In addition, crews will construct a trail to connect users to nearby BLM lands.

    City of Thornton Big Dry Creek Russian Olive Removal, $25,000 grant to the City of Thornton

    With the help of GOCO funding, the City of Thornton will employ chainsaw crews from Mile High Youth Corps (MHYC) to continue Russian olive removal at Big Dry Creek open space. Thornton and Adams County previously received funding for four weeks of work to remove invasive species from 293 acres of open space. Phase two will allow crews to remove the invasives from an additional 250 acres. MHYC will eradicate all remaining Russian olive from the open space corridor to improve the overall health and stability of Big Dry Creek. It will also promote the biodiversity of native vegetation, which is critical for wildlife habitat.

    Crested Butte Open Space Fencing and Noxious Weed Stewardship Project, $25,600 grant to Crested Butte Land Trust (CBLT)
    With this GOCO grant, CBLT will hire Western Colorado Conservation Corps (WCCC) crews to treat areas overrun with noxious weeds across 20 miles of trail and more than 100 acres of remote terrain on conserved lands. The work will support the land trust’s larger effort to create a long-term, noxious weed management plan and help restore the natural landscape of Crested Butte’s trails and open spaces. In addition, WCCC crews will help rebuild CBLT-maintained cattle exclusion fences, repairing wire breaks and broken posts, which have been damaged by heavy snowfall in recent years.

    East Plum Creek Restoration, $37,000 grant to Douglas County Conservation District

    Douglas County Conservation District will use its GOCO funding to hire Mile High Youth Corps (MHYC) crews to restore eroded sections of once-healthy areas of East Plum Creek. Overgrazing of cattle accelerated erosion and diminished the quality of the wildlife habitat on the property. In addition, road construction near the creek inhibited the soil’s ability to retain moisture needed to support native plants and hold the banks together. To restore soil quality and help restore the ecosystem, crews will remove invasive species, such as Russian olive trees, and revegetate the 42-acre area with native plant species.
    Elkhorn Creek Forest Health Initiative, $51,200 grant to Colorado State Forest Service (CSFS)

    CSFS will partner with the Elkhorn Creek Forest Health Initiative and Larimer County Conservation Corps to reduce fire hazards through thinning, pile burning, and prescribed fire treatments at Ben Delatour Scout Ranch. CSFS aims to outline a plan to help build capacity within neighboring communities to assist with future forest health maintenance and wildfire mitigation efforts.

    East Big Thompson River Invasive Species Removal and Mitigation Project, $18,000 grant to the City of Loveland

    The City of Loveland will use its grant to treat and remove invasive species such as Russian olive, Siberian elm, and tamarisk in the 140-acre East Big Thompson River corridor. Larimer County Conservation Corps chainsaw crews will cut invasive trees to ground level and treat the area with herbicide to prevent re-growth. The work will improve wetland habitat along the river corridor and provide optimal conditions for native trees, shrubs, and underlying vegetation to recover.

    Garden of the Gods & Rock Ledge Ranch Historic Site, $27,000 grant to the City of Colorado Springs

    With the help of GOCO funding, the City of Colorado Springs will hire crews from Mile High Youth Corps (MHYC) to treat a 17.5-acre area of Garden of the Gods Park for noxious weed species and distribute seed mix to encourage the growth of native grasses. MHYC’s work will help restore the natural resources in and around the park, support the city’s long-term noxious weed prevention plan, and promote the importance of conservation efforts in the region’s most visited park.

    GGP Seasonal Garden for Community Education, $15,200 grant to the Town of Pagosa Springs

    The Town of Pagosa Springs will use its GOCO funding to hire a camping crew from Southwest Conservation Corps to work on the Geothermal Greenhouse Partnership (GGP) public education facilities in Centennial Park for two weeks. Work will include building 140 feet of wildlife fencing, planting native species to promote pollinator and bird habitat, and planting seedlings of the federally-endangered Pagosa skyrocket.

    Restoration Plan for the Monument Corridor, $36,000 grant to Colorado West Land Trust (CWLT)

    With the help of the GOCO grant, CWLT will hire Western Colorado Conservation Corps for restoration work in Monument Corridor open space. Corps members will treat and remove invasive vegetation along the trail corridor, plant and seed native species, clear debris, and help plant a demonstration garden at Lunch Loop Trailhead. Construction of the nearby Lunch Loop Connector Trail recently disturbed the invasive species, presenting an opportunity to restore the area with native species. Treating and removing the invasive vegetation will ensure a better experience for trail users, protect nearby wetlands, and reduce wildfire risk.

    Riverside Park Open Space Restoration, $47,400 grant to the City of Evans

    With the help of GOCO funding, the City of Evans will hire crews from Weld County Youth Conservation Corps to restore areas of Riverside Park Open Space that were damaged during the 2013 floods. The entire park was closed for five years but reopened to the public in 2018 after significant restoration work. An eight-acre area at the west end of the park was not restored and is now significantly overgrown. Crews will work for eight weeks to cut and chip excess vegetation and prepare the area for public access.

    Russian Olive Removal Project, $34,000 grant to the City of Lakewood

    The City of Lakewood will employ Mile High Youth Corps to plant native trees and shrubs, remove invasive weeds, and seed native grass along the Bear Creek Greenbelt. The work marks a new phase of restoration efforts by the partners, which have worked to remove 100 percent of the invasive Russian olive tree species in the area since 2013. Additionally, crews will install fencing in restored areas and plant wetland vegetation to support species diversity and improve water quality.

    Russian Olive Tree Removal, $27,000 grant to Foothills Park and Recreation District (FHPRD)

    Over the last four years, FHPRD has hired Mile High Youth Corps (MHYC) to assist with the large-scale removal of Russian olive trees on various properties within the district. With its GOCO grant, FHPRD will partner again with MYHC to build on these eradication efforts and remove more than 1,000 Russian olive trees from 81 acres of wetland habitat on the Meadows Greenbelt and Dutch Creek Drainage property.

    Spring Creek Park Restoration Work, $15,200 grant to the Town of Brookside

    With the help of GOCO funding, Mile High Youth Corps will assist with clearing debris, including tree trunks, branches, and other vegetation that prevent mowing of the area and pose a potential fire threat. Corps members will also help rebuild and seal the perimeter fence, rebuild the pedestrian bridge and park benches, repaint the property’s shed and vault restroom, and perform trail restoration work.

    Steamboat Springs Trail Project, $35,000 grant to the City of Steamboat Springs

    With the help of GOCO funding, the City of Steamboat Springs will employ crews from Rocky Mountain Youth Corps (RMYC) for trail building and restoration work. At Spring Creek Pond Loop Trail, RMYC corps members will build and restore trail at the area’s upper pond. At Emerald Mountain, crews will reroute 1,500 feet of the Prayer Flag Trail, which was built 25 years ago and has become badly eroded. Just outside of downtown, RMYC crews will build the first official trail at Rita Valentine Park to discourage the creation and use of social trails.

    Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) invests a portion of Colorado Lottery proceeds to help preserve and enhance the state’s parks, trails, wildlife, rivers, and open spaces. GOCO’s independent board awards competitive grants to local governments and land trusts, and makes investments through Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Created when voters approved a Constitutional Amendment in 1992, GOCO has since funded more than 5,000 projects in all 64 counties of Colorado without any tax dollar support. Visit GOCO.org for more information.

    #2019: A Look at the Best Images from Above — @NOAA

    Click here to view a gallery of satellite photos from NOAA:

    As we look ahead to another year on this beautiful and fascinating planet, NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service would like to take a moment to review 2019 from a satellite’s perspective.

    It was a year of record-breaking tropical cyclones—in both the Atlantic and Pacific. Many parts of the globe were ravaged by wildfires in 2019 while the wonders of our solar system were on full display. For NOAA personally, it was a year when we added another cutting-edge satellite to our fleet, as GOES-17 became operational.

    With their lofty view from space, NOAA satellites can see both the awe-inspiring beauty and the sobering destruction that Mother Nature creates across our dynamic blue planet. Below is our Top 10 list (in no particular order) of the most captivating images that Earth-observing satellites captured in 2019.

    Here comes the Moon

    NOAA’s GOES-16 satellite used its Solar Ultraviolet Imager to capture the Moon passing in front of the Sun on February 5, 2019. (Wait for the image to download.)

    Dolores approves 2020 budget — The Cortez Journal

    Dolores

    From The Cortez Journal (Jim Mimaga):

    The Dolores Town Board approved a $1.5 million budget for 2020 that funds a variety of services, and includes infrastructure upgrades and recreation projects…

    The budgeted expenditures are $618,572 for the General Fund, $378,066 for the Street Fund, $285,584 for the Water Fund, $199,526 for the Sewer Fund, and $41,500 for the Conservation Trust Fund. Capital improvements total $278,000 for 2020 for all departments…

    A major expense for 2020 is a $645,000 project to replace 50-year-old water lines beneath Colorado Highway 145. Nine deteriorating lines need to be replaced before the highway is repaved in 2021 by the Colorado Department of Transportation.

    To help pay for the project, the town is seeking a $322,000 grant from the Department of Local Affairs, and may consider taking out a low-interest loan.

    “Both water and wastewater treatment plants are in good condition, but repairs are necessary,” states the budget report…

    The Water Fund budget includes $58,000 for a new chlorinator treatment system required by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment…

    Dolores officials will be researching options for solar power in 2020 to offset electric costs, which represent nearly 6.5% of operations in all funds.

    Degrees of warming: Rising temperatures, shorter winters and a declining #snowpack are impacting #Aspen’s snow-dependent culture — @AspenJournalism

    A snowcat sits on grass just days before Snowmass Ski Area opened this winter. As temperatures warm, ski resorts could face shorter seasons, less snowpack and more challenges making artificial snow. This year, it snowed heavily just before SkiCo opened Aspen Mountain and Snowmass the weekend before Thanksgiving, 2019. Photo Credit: Elizabeth Stewart-Severy/Aspen Journalism

    From Aspen Journalism (Catharine Lutz):

    Approaching Labor Day weekend of 1961, many Aspenites who had plans to go camping or enjoy outdoor concerts watched in trepidation as monsoon rains didn’t let up for two days. Then, that Friday night, the damp chill turned rain to snow — large, wet snowflakes fell overnight and for the next two days, thoroughly coating the green, late-summer landscape. Tree limbs bent and snapped, the music tent started to rip under the weight of the snow, motorists were stranded when Independence Pass closed and the power went out in the city for two days.

    “It was a hell of a mess,” said lifelong Aspenite Jim Markalunas.

    The mayor called Markalunas and asked him to reboot the defunct hydroelectric plant he had previously run while the regional electric utility struggled to restore the downed lines.

    He managed to restore power to Aspen, and by the time residents woke up to a cold, sunny Labor Day morning, 27 inches of snow had fallen in town, a record that still stands, according to Markalunas, author of “An Aspen Weather Guide” and “Aspen Memories.”

    Now 89, Markalunas also has tales of being surrounded by massive snowbanks as a 6-year-old in the 1930s and worrying about roofs collapsing from the heavy-snow years of the 1980s.

    “Big snow years are oh-be-joyful for the (Aspen Skiing Company) and skiers but made for a lot of hard work for people maintaining the streets and intakes and such,” he recalled.

    One b/w photograph D.R.C. Brown standing at Aspen Mountain, which does not have much snow, 1976. Photo credit: Aspen Historical Society via Aspen Journalism

    Markalunas remembers lean years, too, most notably the winter of 1976-77. That ski season didn’t start until January and recorded just 86 inches of snow all winter. It also spurred massive investments in technologies to battle drought impacts, such as snowmaking and cloud-seeding.

    Markalunas likes to say that Aspen’s weather is “consistently inconsistent.” But he started noticing a difference in patterns in the 1980s — in particular, less-frequent below-zero temperatures.

    “The trend is we just don’t have the super-cold weather we used to have,” he said, pointing to weather data he has compiled from water department records showing that Aspen has hit a low of less than minus 20 just once since 1997.

    “It seems as though the weather pendulum swings more extremely than in years of old,” Markalunas writes in “An Aspen Weather Guide.” “Storms are more violent but less frequent. The weather appears to be more volatile than in past years. … Unless we act to decrease carbon dioxide emissions, ski racks on SUVs might become useless accessories here.”

    Markalunas’ observations are supported by other data, analyses and studies that paint a picture of a changing local climate. Pitkin County is warming, the number of frost-free days is increasing and snowpack is declining — all of which have myriad impacts on recreation, the ecosystem, wildlife, streamflow, water availability, droughts and wildfires. One of the most notable impacts is on the underpinning of modern Aspen’s economy: snow and skiing.

    Officials at Aspen Skiing Company, or SkiCo, have been aware of changing temperatures and snowfall for some time. Like others, the biggest change that Rich Burkley, SkiCo’s senior vice president of strategy and business development, has seen in his 30-year career is more variability.

    “It’s a feast of riches or famine, and you have to deal with that,” he said.

    The start of this ski season has been a feast, with above average snowpack across the state.

    It’s getting warmer

    Pitkin County’s average temperature has been rising at a rate of 0.4 degrees per decade since 1950, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In 2018, the average temperature throughout the year in Pitkin County was 39.5 degrees — 2.9 degrees warmer than the mean temperature during the baseline period of 1950-75.

    Pitkin County’s average temperature each year since 1950 has risen, at a rate of .4 degrees Fahrenheit per decade, compared to the mean (gray line) temperature during the 1950-1975 baseline period. The Climate at a Glance tool, from NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, can be used to plot historical temperature or precipitation data in a time series from a global to a city level. Credit: NOAA via Aspen Journalism

    More-dramatic changes are happening in the cold-season months. Temperatures are rising almost half a degree per decade between November and April, compared with about one-quarter of a degree the other half of the year.

    March is by far the fastest-warming month, heating up at a rate of 1 degree per decade since the 1950s. The average temperature of 34.4 degrees in March 2017, when Aspen hosted the World Cup ski racing finals, was a record 9.4 degrees higher than the 1950-75 baseline temperature.

    The race venue on the lower half of the mountain lost several inches of snow surface per day, Burkley said. The only reason there was enough snow to race on was extra early-season snowmaking that at the time was considered excessive.

    Markalunas’ theory of fewer really cold days shows in this data as well. Average annual low temperatures have risen in Pitkin County and appear to be accelerating — average minimum temperatures were more than 5 degrees higher than the baseline during three of the past five winters.

    Low temperatures in the winter months in Pitkin County are rising faster than average yearly temperature — at a rate of .5 degrees per decade. The average low from November through April was 12.4 degrees from 1950-1975; it reached a record high of 18.1 degrees in the winter of 2016-17. Credit: NOAA via Aspen Journalism

    “Even since 1980, there has been a pretty sharp annual average temperature increase over time,” said Elise Osenga, research and education coordinator for the nonprofit Aspen Global Change Institute, or AGCI. “Even just a couple degrees difference is a notable difference in annual average temperatures — especially if you are a seasonal-sensitive plant or animal.”

    A 2014 report by AGCI notes that rising low temperatures, particularly in early winter, can affect the ability to make snow on the ski mountains, an activity typically limited to November and December. This hasn’t impacted SkiCo much yet, according to Burkley. Snowmaking now is about twice as efficient as it was two decades ago, thanks to automation and improved technology.

    SkiCo also has plans to expand snowmaking to the top of Aspen Mountain next season, which Burkley said will be key to Thanksgiving openings as the upper part of the mountain often doesn’t have enough natural snow in November.

    Zooming out, a recent Washington Post feature found that Pitkin County and much of the Colorado Rockies are warming faster than other places. Pitkin County’s average temperatures have risen 2.34 degrees since 1895, at the height of the Industrial Revolution; the average across the United States is 1.8 degrees. In fact, western Colorado and eastern Utah comprise a large “hot spot” that warns of greater climate shifts to come.

    Freezing? Not so much

    One critical trend related to rising temperatures — in particular, rising low temperatures — is an increase in the number of frost-free days, which AGCI counts as consecutive days of above-freezing temperatures from the last freeze of spring to the first time it dips below 32 degrees after that. Like temperature, the number of frost-free days has risen sharply in recent decades.

    Since the 1980s, there’s now an additional month each year without freezing temperatures in Aspen, according to AGCI’s analysis. The actual number of days above freezing varies widely from year to year, but there is a clear upward trajectory, as seen in the Forest Health Index, which is produced by the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies with help from AGCI.

    Higher temperatures mean less snow

    Changes are, of course, also being felt beyond ski-area boundaries. In the summer of 1994, big-mountain skier Chris Davenport first skied 14,092-foot Snowmass Mountain, named for the massive snowfield that historically stretched across a wide bowl below its summit.

    “In the next decade or so, it seemed like that permanent summer snow was getting smaller and smaller, until one summer in the mid-2000s, it was totally gone,” said Davenport. “It’s a direct effect of warming — even if it’s a few degrees, that snowfield couldn’t hang on.”

    Winter snow might still linger into the summer months on Snowmass, Davenport said, but most years, the formerly year-round snowfield is gone by mid-July.

    A skier hikes toward the 12,392-foot summit of Aspen Highlands in December 2017, during a low-snow winter. The ridge leading to Highland Bowl is usually covered with snow, even early in the winter. Photo credit: Catharine Lutz via Aspen Journalism

    The waning snowfield on Snowmass Mountain is representative of a larger trend. Summer snow covering the Northern Hemisphere receded from 10.28 million square miles at its peak in 1979 to a low of 3.69 million miles in 2013, according to Climate Central’s website WXshift.com. Not only does that impact water supplies, but less snow cover means more sunlight absorbed by Earth, driving a feedback loop of further temperature increases.

    Snowfall has also decreased in many parts of the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, although no significant trends in precipitation have been found in the Aspen area or Colorado in general. Some climate models predict more precipitation in the future, but rising temperatures could mean that precipitation comes more often as rain rather than snow.

    In Pitkin County, as in the American West and other mountain drainages around the world, snowpack is arguably the most consequential climate-change indicator. Mountain snowpack not only determines availability of snow for recreation but also how much water will be available for all manner of natural and human uses. In Colorado, including the Roaring Fork River valley, snowpack — usually measured by the amount of water in the snow, known as snow water equivalent, or SWE — is generally variable and can range widely from year to year. But this, too, has become more extreme in recent years.

    “We’ve observed these huge year-to-year shifts,” said Karl Wetlaufer, a hydrologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Colorado Snow Survey, which collects and manages snowpack data. “So that does feel like a trend: Over the last 15 years, things seem to be much more erratic, with more extreme years on both high and low ends.”

    The scientific community considers the April 1 snowpack the peak of the water year. Only once since 2010 has the Roaring Fork basin’s snowpack on April 1 been measured between 85% and 115% of normal, said Wetlaufer. That range was more common in earlier periods.

    Hydrologist Karl Wetlaufer noted recent large swings in Roaring Fork basin snowpack data from the USDA’s National Water & Climate Center. The past 10 years show higher peaks and valleys than the longer-term record. Credi: Karl Wetlaufer/NRCS via Aspen Journalism

    The last two winters feature some of the wildest snowpack swings — and the most extreme weather events. From October 2017 to September 2018, snowpack peaked at 72% of normal; the following snow season, it peaked at 144%.

    The low-snow season resulted in such tinder-dry conditions that the Lake Christine fire, the most threatening fire in recent valley history, burned for months in the summer of 2018. That was followed by a winter capped off with an unprecedented avalanche cycle, the result of a steady buildup of the snowpack on a weak base layer, ultimately unleashed by a massive storm cycle that was fueled by warm atmospheric rivers from the Pacific Ocean.

    Besides more variability, some recent scientific analyses, including this map produced by the EPA and AGCI’s 2014 report, have found that Colorado’s snowpack is decreasing. A study published by Peter Goble and Nolan Doesken of Colorado State University’s Colorado Climate Center found that central Colorado’s snowpack is diminishing by an average of .49 inches of SWE per decade, which was the most of the four regions studied. This calculation includes measurements taken at a station near Independence Pass.

    Credit: Colorado Water

    A half-inch of SWE can equate to 7.5 to 10 inches of snowfall, Goble said, which over 100 years could mean 75 to 100 fewer inches of snow — about one-third of the roughly 300 inches that fall on average on the Aspen Snowmass slopes.

    “Considering that loss may accelerate, those numbers look a little threatening to the local lifestyle,” said Goble.

    Recent research also accounts for factors such as dust on snow, likely to be more frequent in the future given the increasing aridity of areas west of Colorado and more human disruption of those areas. Dust on snow, similar to rain on snow, melts the snowpack more quickly.

    Scientists agree that the main factor contributing to a declining snowpack is not less snowfall but warmer temperatures due to increased greenhouse-gas emissions. And because temperatures are expected to continue to rise — the amount depends on how much emissions are curbed — snowpack around Aspen and elsewhere will continue to decline.

    Still, Goble is hopeful.

    “When you look at the projections and how winters might change, it’s not a totally hopeless situation,” he said. “We still have control over our future. If this is a problem humans take seriously and we see a lot of action on a large scale over the next couple decades, it will make the outlook for the back half of the century a lot brighter than if it was business as usual.”

    AGCI’s 2006 report for the city of Aspen, on the other hand, painted a dire scenario for future skiers (as well as downstream water users) with continued warming, including the potential for shorter ski seasons and substantially reduced snow cover.

    Aspen Mountain will still be skiable in 2030 under all emissions scenarios, the report concluded, but “by 2100 the base area of Aspen Mountain has essentially lost a skiable snowpack, with the exception of the lowest greenhouse-gas concentrations.”

    Graph from ACGI 2006 report: ‘Climate Change and Aspen’ via Aspen Journalism.

    In all future emissions scenarios, the AGCI report found that Aspen Mountain’s base snowpack will start to accumulate later in the fall and melt earlier in the spring due to warming temperatures. Snow depths at all elevations are projected to be reduced throughout the season. In the worst-case scenario, the ski season will be 10 weeks shorter by 2100 and “snow depth goes to near zero for the entire lower two-thirds of the mountain.” That’s everything below the base of the Ajax Express chair.

    “Under these scenarios, some of our seasons are shortened and our terrain could be reduced,” Burkley said. “We would be in download situations more frequently. We would build and concentrate snowmaking at higher elevations. We might have more hike-to or hike-out terrain. We would build lifts to access areas that have more consistent snowpack.”

    Burkley said with existing infrastructure, SkiCo can offer lift-served, high-elevation skiing on three mountains. The proposed 180-acre Pandora expansion on top of Aspen Mountain also would expand into terrain that “will probably have the best snow in the future.”

    A snowmaking gun in action, shooting water into the air to make snow. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    Even as SkiCo relies more on snowmaking, Burkley acknowledges minimum streamflow requirements could be an additional challenge. There could be a time when natural snowpack declines to the point that there won’t be enough water in local streams to make all the snow it needs, in which case the company might have to decide to shut down one or more of its four mountains and focus efforts on what remains open.

    SkiCo is also increasing its focus on summer operations, including Snowmass Bike Park. For now, this helps ensure a return on expensive infrastructure; later, it could help make up for shorter winters.

    Ironically, the Aspen Snowmass ski areas could actually benefit in the short term from climate change. They’re situated at higher elevations with colder temperatures than many other resorts, especially those outside of Colorado, and could see increased visitation as lower-elevation ski areas become less viable.

    Clearly, Aspen isn’t the only ski resort facing an existential crisis. Ski areas across the country are recognizing the challenges that climate change poses to their viability, and that’s provoking a shift in industry thinking.

    “In recent memory, climate was an uncomfortable conversation. Resorts said it was politicized science,” said big-mountain skier Davenport, who is now a climate activist and board member of the advocacy group Protect Our Winters, or POW. “Now everyone’s on board.”

    The scale of action is bigger than resorts switching to renewable energy or lobbying for climate-friendly policies in Washington, D.C., as SkiCo has been doing for years. Three of the largest industry groups — Outdoor Industry Association, Snowsports Industries America and National Ski Areas Association — recently formed the Outdoor Business Climate Partnership to provide leadership and inspire action on climate change. Using POW’s playbook, SIA launched United by Winter, a climate-advocacy platform for its members. And POW is now on the radar of elected officials in every state where the outdoor industry has a presence.

    “It used to be inconvenient for outdoor companies to talk about climate change, but now the opposite is true: If you’re not having that conversation, consumers aren’t buying from you,” Davenport said. “Look how we’ve changed the conversation.”

    Anger and disappointment as #YampaRiver ranchers ordered to measure water — @WaterEdCO

    A lovely curve on the Bear River, which is really the headwaters of the Yampa River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    From Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith):

    Steamboat Springs: Hundreds of ranchers in the scenic Yampa Valley have ignored a state request to begin measuring the water they use, putting them on a collision course with regulators that will land many of them in court this summer if they don’t relent.

    Division Engineer Erin Light, the top water chief in the region, said roughly 70 percent of irrigators in this remote part of northwestern Colorado have not installed measuring devices, meaning that millions of gallons of water are being consumed without oversight, something that is routine on other river systems.

    “I sent out a notice in March saying, ‘I’m going to issue an order if you don’t install them now,’” she said. “It was a friendly gesture.”

    No one responded.

    “We have not been impressed with the response,” Light said.

    On Sept. 30, she issued a formal order to 550 ranchers, which, if ignored, could result in fines of up to $500 a day and court action.

    Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia. Ranchers and farmers in the valley have largely ignored Division Engineer Erin Light’s order to install measuring devices as of December, 2019.

    The deadline to respond this time was Nov. 30. Few did so, Light said.

    Under the terms of the order, ranchers who don’t install measuring flumes or other devices to track diversion rates from the river into their irrigation systems will be cut off if they try to irrigate in the spring. They will also likely face prosecution, Light said.

    “We’ll be working with the attorney general’s office to begin court proceedings,” she said.

    The issue reflects an end to a gentleman’s agreement that dates back to the late 1800s, a consensus that said these tough, resourceful ranchers could manage their own water, that the state did not need to issue a direct order, and that the hay meadows, and cattle and sheep operations, could continue diverting their irrigation water as they always had.

    And that’s largely because of the Yampa River’s amazing flows. Unlike almost any other place in Colorado and the West, water here was once so abundant that there was almost always plenty to go around. Measurements weren’t needed, and the state rarely had to step in to resolve disputes among water users, allowing Mother Nature free rein.

    But chronic drought, climate change, and population demands have begun eroding the Yampa’s once bountiful supplies. For the first time ever, in the desperately dry summer of 2018, Light was forced to step in, cutting off some irrigators because more senior water rights holders weren’t getting their legal share of water. That sent a shock across the valley but triggered little action.

    These days the Yampa River has the distinction of being the only one of Colorado’s eight major river basins that remains largely unmeasured and unregulated.

    But Light said the issue has become too critical, and water too scarce, to allow that to continue.

    Mike Camblin, whose family has been ranching here for more than 100 years, said he will comply with the order. But he and many of his colleagues feel the state has been too heavy handed in its approach.

    “What I don’t like about the order is that it’s forcing people to install those or they are going to get fined $500 a day to run water even if it’s a free river,” he said. The term free river means that there is enough water in the stream to satisfy all water rights, and under normal circumstances people can divert as much of the excess as they want.

    Not anymore.

    “I’m very disappointed,” said Dave Seely, a long-time rancher who has 11 different irrigation ditches that span Moffat and Routt counties.

    Many of his ditches already have measuring devices, but the order means he will have to install at least five new ones at a total cost of more than $10,000, he estimates.

    Light is aware of the anger in the ranching community and said she understands the financial burden the order will place on many irrigators.

    “I’ve been trying to encourage my water users to understand that there is a value to them in measuring how much water they divert. Water is often a rancher’s most valuable asset. But many don’t want to hear that,” she said.

    Seely plans to comply with the order so that he can divert in the spring. But there is a lingering resentment and sense of loss for an era that is ending.

    “Historically there was never a call on the river, but now there is,” Seely said. “Now we’re under the jurisdiction of the state engineer forever.”

    Hay fields in the upper Yampa River valley, northwest Colorado. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism