Continuing its decades-long relationship with the Aspen School District, IPF worked with over 100 children from Aspen Middle School and Aspen Country Day School planting Engelmann spruce, lodgepole pine, and Douglas fir saplings throughout the Independence Pass corridor.
Planting trees offsets carbon emissions, provides habitat and food for native birds and critters, stabilizes slopes de-vegetated by road building and other human activity, and beautifies the corridor. Of equal importance, IPF believes that getting kids outside to dig in the dirt in a service activity that is challenging but fun and produces tangible results is one of the best ways to cultivate young stewards.
Every time kids who have planted trees on the Pass drive to Denver or hike, climb, or swim on the Pass, they will look for “their” tree, watch it grow over the years, and feel a sense of pride in their contribution. And maybe they’ll show a six-foot tree to their own children one day.
IPF is often asked about the telephone poles lining the Highway 82 corridor: What are they for? Did they once serve the mining town of Independence? Perhaps they were telegraph lines? And since many sections of wire are missing or sagging along the ground, and are therefore no longer functional, why haven’t they been cleaned up?
In fact, the first telephone line on the Pass was installed in 1895. It went up and over the summit along the old toll road and connected Leadville to Aspen, serving Independence along the way. This line was dismantled in its entirety in 1939. The current line was put in decades after the original to serve the caretakers at Grizzly Reservoir, who live there year-round maintaining the water diversion system. When more reliable satellite phone technology became available in 2000, the telephone line was abandoned and fell into disrepair.
It has been a long-held goal of the Forest Service to, at a minimum, remove the low-hanging wires, as they present a hazard to wildlife and humans. Another goal is to remove the lines and poles that cross over Green Mountain to Grizzly through the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness, since the poles are neither historic nor in keeping with Wilderness values.
In 2017, under the leadership of citizen volunteer Tim Hall and with the critical participation of the Jaywalker Lodge, IPF took on the daunting task of removing over ten miles of wire from below Weller to Independence. In the process we removed hundreds of yards of steel wire embedded in the Roaring Fork River and thousands of pound of metal from the forests and meadows along the corridor.
As for the poles, while some people view the poles as aesthetic blights along an otherwise pristine corridor, others enjoy their appearance and appreciate their historical reference. The fate of the poles will be determined by the US Forest Service, not IPF. For now, we are delighted to have many miles of abandoned, hazardous steel wire out of the Independence Pass landscape, and we are enormously grateful to the volunteers who put untold hours into this difficult project.
Mountain Boy restoration
IPF once again partnered with middle and high school students from the Aspen Community School and YouthZone to remove rebar, metal cable, steel wire, and other debris from the Mountain Boy region of the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness.
The debris represents the remains of the mammoth Continental Divide snow fence experiment, the aim of which was to capture and hold snow, allowing for a more gradual runoff throughout the summer. The project was abandoned midway through construction in the 1960s when scientists determined it wouldn’t work. While IPF was able to remove those portions of the snow fence that ran along the summit of Independence Pass by helicopter, the debris in Mountain Boy, because it is in designated wilderness, can be carried out only by hand or pack animals.
To accomplish this, the ACS and YouthZone crews first hiked up to 12,500 feet, most of it off trail. They then pulled the deeply-buried rebar out of the tundra by wrenching, cranking, and when all else failed, sledgehammering it. Finally, they loaded the heavy metal into backpacks and hauled it out for recycling. This multi-year, physically demanding project has turned out to be a hugely popular and satisfying one for our community’s incredible kids.
In 2017, IPF teamed with The Wilderness Land Trust to purchase two mining claims, the seventeen-acre Grandview and Spotted Tail lodes, in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness. Because these inholdings above the ghost town of Independence carried the right to build a home and be accessed by car, they posed a significant threat to wilderness values.
The Wilderness Land Trust is now working with the US Forest Service to make the inholdings part of the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness. This will ensure the property remains free from development and open to the public for all time. It will preserve the existing view plane from the ghost town and from Highway 82. And it will protect migration corridors and habitat for elk and other species, including the rare Colorado plant, Altai cottongrass.
This fall, IPF and The Wilderness Land Trust celebrated this win for wilderness with a joint gathering at the site and a talk by local author, historian, and environmental champion, Paul Andersen.
Noxious weed eradication
IPF continued its efforts to keep invasive weeds at bay by hand pulling species like oxeye daisies and knapweed throughout the summer. It also chemically spot treated yellow toadflax, a species that cannot be controlled by pulling and that has taken over hundreds of acres in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.
Noxious weeds are plants that have been transported either accidentally or purposefully as ornamentals from overseas. They have an advantage in their new environment because the insects, diseases, and animals that would normally control them are not found here. And as the toadflax seen near the summit of the Pass demonstrates, they are able to adapt to a wide variety of climatic and environmental conditions. As a result, invasive weeds can displace native plants at an alarming rate.
When the native plants that wildlife use for food, shelter, or nesting are gone, wildlife leaves the area. And because these weeds’ seeds can hitchhike on vehicles and like to establish themselves in disturbed sites such as roadsides, the Independence Pass corridor is prime territory for invasive species to take hold. By controlling their spread, IPF has committed to protecting the beautiful native wildflowers, plants, and wildlife that call Independence Pass home.
Winter Gate restoration
The winter closure area five miles east of Aspen, a popular jumping-off point for skiing, snowshoeing, and dog walking when the Pass is closed to cars, got a big facelift in 2017. Specifically, IPF removed the weed-infested berm to the north of the parking area and replaced it with a locally-sourced rock wall and berm. The berm was planted this fall with native shrubs, grasses, and wildflowers, which will block the view into the Colorado Department of Transportation dumping area to the north.
IPF also removed the jersey barriers that served as a winter loading dock and replaced them with an attractive board-form concrete wall. We installed an information kiosk with a map of the Pass for first-time travelers.
In addition, we fabricated a new winter closure gate to replace the existing ramshackle one. The new gate will be installed this year when the road closes for the winter. These improvements have helped reclaim the natural appearance of the area and have created a more inviting gateway to the Pass.
Also, IPF’s work at the site has allowed CDOT and Pitkin County to utilize the winter gate area as a safe turnaround point for trucks and trailers over 35 feet in length. This is a change that will reduce safety hazards on the narrow, winding Independence Pass corridor.
Wildflower walks and summit studies
IPF hosted its first “Wildflower Walks” along the upper Lost Man Trail with ecologists Delia Malone and Dawn Barton. There we discussed all things wildflowers, including the phenology (timing of bloom) and vegetation cover composition studies launched in 2016 by Colorado Mountain College, the Aspen Global Change Institute, and IPF. To review and download the 2016 and 2017 cover composition data and the 2017 Lost Man Phenology data, click the buttons below.
On the walks, participants learned the names and unique characteristics of the diverse alpine flora of the Pass; how and why the flowers grow where they do; how they fit into the larger Pass ecology; and why IPF is dedicated to protecting them. IPF works to protect our native wildflowers through its noxious weed eradication efforts (see above), its trail and signage work (to encourage people to stay on the trail and off the fragile tundra flowers), and its citizen science work (to involve the public and enrich their understanding and appreciation of our native plants).
As part of its ongoing studies, IPF has partnered with the Aspen Global Change Institute to study soil moisture near the summit of the Pass on Pitkin County land. Soil moisture is important in helping to determine what plants can live in an ecosystem, and studying it over time can offer clues to how climate change may impact the plants IPF finds in its studies.
PF also got its first look at photographs taken at the summit by its newly-installed “phenocam,” a time-lapse camera that takes photographs four times a day, 365 days a year. Stitched together, the images will create a movie portraying the ever-changing conditions at the summit, including the rising and falling snowpack, the emergence of alpine plants in the spring, and the tundra’s changing color from green to gold in the fall. Look for the movie on IPF’s website in 2018.
Bear box installation
In a huge win for wildlife and humans, IPF helped the Forest Service install 21 bear-proof boxes—300-pound metal containers designed for food storage—in the dispersed campsites that line Lincoln Creek Road. The campsites are popular for their easy access, proximity to excellent hiking trails, and the beautiful geology of the Lincoln Creek corridor.
In 2016, the campsites were closed for over half the summer due to the persistent presence of bears that were breaking into tents and creating the conditions for conflict. After installation of the boxes this summer, NO bears were reported in the campsites. This is a trend we hope continues in the future.