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 2016. In partnership with its contractor Natural Aspen and landscape architects Bluegreen, IPF scraped the existing weed-infested berm to the north of the parking area and replaced it with a stacked rock wall using boulders from the surrounding slopes. The wall and berm, which will be planted next spring with native trees, grasses and shrubs, blocks the view into CDOT’s dump and staging area, delineates the parking area, and creates an attractive gateway to Independence Pass. IPF is currently raising funds to complete the project, which will include a kiosk for travel information, replacement of the existing, dilapidated closure gate with a sturdier, more attractive one, and repaving of the parking area.
Noxious Weed Eradication
in 2016, IPF stepped up its efforts to keep invasive weeds at bay by increasing its staff and volunteer hours spent hand-pulling species like oxeye daisies and scentless chamomile, and partnering with Pitkin County and the USFS to chemically treat certain particularly worrisome weeds, including yellow toadflax, a species that has taken over hundreds of acres of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness near Marble. Noxious weeds are plants that have been transported either accidentally or purposefully as ornamentals from places as far away as Europe, Asia or Africa. 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 at 12,000 feet on 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 leave the area. And because they can hitchhike on vehicles and like to establish themselves in disturbed sites like roadsides, the Independence Pass corridor is prime territory for invasive species to take hold. IPF has dedicated itself to protecting the beautiful native wildflowers, plants and wildlife that call Independence Pass home by controlling invasive weeds.
Fences, signs and toilets
Anyone who has spent time at the top of Independence Pass knows that wind and cold are constant companions there. The summit’s harsh conditions eventually take their toll on fences, signs and other man-made structures. In 2016 IPF removed numerous sections of dilapidated fencing along the summit trail and replaced it with attractive split rail. While no natural material will withstand the conditions at the summit long-term, IPF believes the fence, designed to keep visitors on the trail and off the fragile tundra, which despite the cold and wind is home to dozens of colorful alpine wildflowers, is sufficiently important to merit ongoing replacement.
In 2015, in a ceremony attended by District Rangers and other personnel from both the White River and Pike-San Isabel National Forests, IPF unveiled four new interpretive signs at the summit. These include a “peak finder” display that identifies the names and elevations of the surrounding mountains; a description of the early days of travel over the Pass; the ecology and native flora & fauna of the Pass; and information about water diversions and other projects that can be found in the Independence Pass corridor. The signs allow those stopping at the summit to deepen their experience, understanding and appreciation of the Pass as they travel over it.
In addition, IPF in 2016 installed its first summit “donor tube,” which allows visitors to make a donation to IPF to help pay for the toilets and other summit improvements that IPF undertakes with its partners for the benefit of the public.
In 2017, IPF plans to replace the weather-beaten, illegible “stay off the tundra” sign with a new, (hopefully more effective!) one, as well as continue its restoration & repair work at the summit.
Science at the Summit
Three studies were launched near the summit of Independence Pass in 2016. The Aspen Global Change Institute, in partnership with IPF, installed the last of seven soil moisture monitoring stations throughout the Roaring Fork Valley, its highest elevation station at over 12,100 feet. In addition to measuring soil moisture, a key component of the health and timing of native vegetation growth, the station will also measure air temperature and snow depth, and take photographs 365 days a year. This will give the public a chance to see what the summit looks like in the dead of winter and watch the emergence and growth of alpine plants through time-lapse photography.
At the same site, professor Delia Malone and students created a cover composition plot where the flora are identified, counted, and recorded every year on the same date in order to monitor change in floral composition over time.
Finally, a citizen science study was launched at the Lost Man Trail which will track the timing of species’ blooms throughout the summer. All of this work will add to our understanding of the biotic diversity and impacts of climate change on the flora of Independence Pass. Bob Lewis would have been proud!
Snow fence removal
By 2020, IPF’s goal is to remove all of the rebar, metal cable, wire and other debris from the mammoth Continental Divide snow fence experiment, which was abandoned midway through construction in the 1960s. This goal is audacious because there remain several TONS of material in the Mountain Boy area, all of which is designated wilderness. This means that debris can be carried out only by hand or mule (no helicopters, ATVs, or mechanized vehicles of any kind are allowed). Audacious also because there are no trails in most of this wild but wonderful place that is deserving of restoration.
The effort began in earnest in 2016 with the help of students from the Aspen Community School and YouthZone. Both groups did the hard work of pulling rebar out of the ground and hauling it off the 12,500-foot summit by hand. In addition, the Buena Vista work crew removed an old weather station that had finally succumbed to the elements and was strewn across the tundra, visible to the naked eye from the summit of the Pass. The work crew accomplished this daunting task by breaking down the fiberglass walls and roof into sections which they stacked, turned into makeshift “sleds,” and pulled down the mountain by hand.
Relying on the strength and stamina of the Buena Vista inmate work crew, in 2016 IPF replaced a failed bridge on the upper Lost Man Trail, a bridge that in the early summer is critical to crossing the headwaters of the Roaring Fork River and proceeding to Independence Lake and the pass to Lost Man Lake. IPF also partnered with Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers and Wilderness Workshop on a weekend-long trail restoration project attended by over twenty volunteers. Participants built steps and water bars on the steep north side of the pass where the trail had become deeply rutted, forcing hikers off trail and resulting in braiding and scarring of the alpine tundra. After the main trail was fixed, braided trails were closed off and revegetated. Volunteers also trimmed overgrown willows at the midway point of the Lost Man loop. With its abundant snowpack and streams, the Lost Man Trail supports a rich array of alpine flowers and is the most popular trail on the Pass.
And in 2016, for the second year in a row, IPF partnered with RFOV, the Ute Mountaineer, Jaywalker Lodge and local climbing guides and enthusiasts to restore the badly eroding and hazardously steep entrance to the popular Outrageous Overhangs climbing area. Over two days these hearty volunteers worked under difficult physical conditions to reroute the entryway and close off unsafe routes, allowing the steep hillside to recover and revegetate.
Continuing its decades-long relationship with the Aspen School District, every fall IPF and almost 100 children from the Aspen Middle School, Aspen Country Day School, and the Aspen Community School, as well as volunteers from Plant Trees 4 Life and the Buena Vista work crew, plant hundreds of Engelmann spruce, lodgepole pine, Douglas fir and Colorado blue spruce trees throughout the Independence Pass corridor. In addition to offsetting carbon emissions, providing habitat & food for native fauna, and beautifying the corridor, the trees also stabilize slopes de-vegetated by road building and human activity, and discourage illegal camping and parking in roadside areas.
In 2015 IPF submitted formal comments with the Pike-San Isabel National Forest on the proposed Eureka Mine gold mine operation at the North Fork Lake Creek trailhead area. IPF spent many hours in conversation with both the owner/operator and the Forest Service to ensure the operation will be carried out in as environmentally sensitive a way as possible, in light of its proximity to the pristine waters of Lake Creek, the Mount Massive Wilderness, the popular North Fork Lake Creek trail, and the Scenic Byway corridor enjoyed by thousands of travelers.
IPF also worked in 2015 with the press, the Roaring Fork Conservancy and other river steward volunteers to monitor the Roaring Fork River following the Grizzly Reservoir flush and the effects of mine tailings from Ruby Mine on upper Lincoln Creek.
In 2016 IPF teamed with The Wilderness Land Trust to purchase two 19-acre mining claims in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness. These inholdings, which sit above the ghost town of Independence along a popular hiking trail, posed a significant threat to Wilderness values as they were accessible by car.
The acquisition and transfer of this land will further unify the federal ownership of the Colligate Peaks wilderness and remove the threat of a cabin development and road construction into the designated wilderness; preserve for the public the existing view plane from the preserved historic ghost town of Independence and from State Highway 82; and preserve and unify the habitat for elk and other species that traverse and find refuge on the ridges throughout the property.