Phenology studies under way at Independence Pass—by Emily Downing

Snowmelt, sunshine, and mineral dust are the key components of Independence Pass’s beautiful alpine flowers. There’s a changing ingredient in this recipe, though, and it’s that ingredient that is the focus of one of the Independence Pass Foundation’s (IPF) summer studies. Time is also important in high alpine flower growth: cataloging when flowers bloom and how long they bloom for is just as important to document as the types of flowers that color the mountain sides in the summer.

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Phenology is the study of plant and animal life cycle events in relation to season and climate. Studying the timing of plant growth, especially in a place like the high alpine where there’s a short seasonal window for that growth, can reveal quite a bit about the relationship between Earth’s climate and the biosphere. Gothic’s Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL) has been recording the phenology of the alpine plants on the south side of the Elk Mountains since the 1970’s. In doing so, scientists have discovered much about the effects of a changing climate on high mountain ecosystems.

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This is the third  summer in which IPF has carried out phenology studies to look at what the plants are doing on the northeast side of the Elk Mountains. In 2017, Executive Director Karin Teague and local ecologist Dawn Barton established four plots in the Lower Lost Man drainage and four plots in the Upper Lost Man drainage to record flower species and when they begin to bloom. After receiving some valuable feedback from RMBL biologist Dr. David Inouye, this year’s study adjusted plot locations to optimize data collection. Now, eight plots in the Upper Lost Man drainage and on top of the Pass are allowing IPF to look at when flowers are blooming and for how long. Plots are varied in type to represent different alpine ecosystems, from open meadow to rock garden to wetland.

We visit each of the eight plots two times every week. Plant species that are in bloom are identified, counted, and recorded. Plants that have buds that are not yet open are not counted, as we want to ensure we are counting only the species that are “open for business,” or able to be visited by pollinators. For instance, if there are three mountain bluebells in the plot but the buds of one are still closed tightly, we’d only record two of the Mertensia lanceolata. We are also pairing this data with weather data from the Aspen Global Change Institute’s Interactive Roaring Fork Observation Network (iRON) station on the Pass.

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The heavy snow load this winter meant our high-elevation (all above 11,000 feet) plots took longer to melt out this summer. As a result, we were unable to record the season’s first blooms until the first week of July. Since then, however, the flowers seem like they are trying to make up for lost time. High temperatures have sent the summer into full swing on Independence Pass, and monitoring our plots is soon going to mean identifying many different species in each one.




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2018 vs. 2019 snowpack

What a difference a year makes! Here are photos taken by our summit monitoring station’s phenocam, the top photo from early June of last year, 2018, and the bottom photo from this June, 2019.

2018 snowpack early June

2018 snowpack early June

2019 snowpack early June

2019 snowpack early June

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Wildflowers of the Week

from may through august 2018

Golden smoke (Corydalis aurea) May 21, 2018, Winter Gate

Golden smoke (Corydalis aurea) May 21, 2018, Winter Gate

Marsh marigold (Caltha leptosepala) May 31, 2018, Top Cut

Marsh marigold (Caltha leptosepala) May 31, 2018, Top Cut

Red columbine (Aquilegia elegantula) June 7, 2018, Highway 82 near Lincoln Creek

Red columbine (Aquilegia elegantula) June 7, 2018, Highway 82 near Lincoln Creek

Rocky Mountain penstemon (Penstemon strictus) June 14, 2018, Weller curve

Rocky Mountain penstemon (Penstemon strictus) June 14, 2018, Weller curve

Alpine laurel (Kalmia microphylla) June 20, 2018, upper Lost Man Trail

Alpine laurel (Kalmia microphylla) June 20, 2018, upper Lost Man Trail

Old Man of the Mountain (Tetraneuris grandiflora) June 27, 2018, above Sioux Lake

Old Man of the Mountain (Tetraneuris grandiflora) June 27, 2018, above Sioux Lake

Moss campion (Silene acaulis) July 1, 2018, Twining Peak

Moss campion (Silene acaulis) July 1, 2018, Twining Peak

Mountain bluebells (Mertensia ciliata) July 8, 2018, Scott Lake

Mountain bluebells (Mertensia ciliata) July 8, 2018, Scott Lake

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Wildflowers of the Week (continued)

Alpine fireweed (Chamerion latifolium), July 26, 208, New York Trail

Alpine fireweed (Chamerion latifolium), July 26, 208, New York Trail

Fringed grass-of-parnassus (Parnassia fimbriata), August 2, 2018, Discovery Trail

Fringed grass-of-parnassus (Parnassia fimbriata), August 2, 2018, Discovery Trail

Monkey flower (Mimulus tillingii), August 10, 2018, Roaring Fork River

Monkey flower (Mimulus tillingii), August 10, 2018, Roaring Fork River

Arctic gentian (Gentiana algida), August 20, 2018, Midway Trail

Arctic gentian (Gentiana algida), August 20, 2018, Midway Trail

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The year 2017 in pictures & numbers

January:  Collegiate Peaks Wilderness boundary, 9,250’

 

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February:  Mount Shimer, 12,340’

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March:  Summit, 12,095’

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April:  Top Cut, 11,600’

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May:  Winter Gate, 8,650’

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June:  Top Cut, 11,600’

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July:  Green Mountain, 12,700’

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August:  Grottos, 9,500

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September:  Corridor east side, 11,000’

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October:  Geissler Mountain, 11,800’

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November:  Williams Mountains, 11,800’

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December:  Corridor west side, 9,500’

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More Trees, Fewer Weeds

Nothing makes the board and staff of the Independence Pass Foundation happier than to see native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers thriving along the Independence Pass corridor.  They stabilize the soil on steep slopes, keeping the road clear of slides. They provide forage and habitat for local birds and mammals.  And they make the drive one of the prettiest in the world!  

Native roadside wildflowers

Native roadside wildflowers

For almost three decades the Independence Pass Foundation has been planting trees on the Pass with the help of our local schools.  Prime areas include places along the corridor where road building, road maintenance, and natural events like landslides have stripped the landscape of plants.

Aspen Middle School tree planters

Aspen Middle School tree planters

Aspen Middle Schoolers taking a well-earned lunch break

Aspen Middle Schoolers taking a well-earned lunch break

This fall, students from the Aspen Middle School and Aspen Country Day School partnered with IPF to plant Engelmann spruce and lodgepole pine in four different spots along the corridor.  The Pass would quite literally look like a different place without these kids’ efforts—our best estimate is that over 7,000 trees have been planted to date! 

Aspen Country Day tree planters

Aspen Country Day tree planters

Aspen Country Day third graders watering their newly-planted tree

Aspen Country Day third graders watering their newly-planted tree

The Pass would also look different if IPF wasn’t vigilant in its efforts to keep noxious weeds at bay.  Cautionary tales abound throughout our valley concerning the vast swaths of wild lands that yellow toadflax, Canada thistle, and other invasive species have taken over to the exclusion of native plants.  IPF’s board and staff spend countless hours every summer and fall beating back invasives and making sure the Pass retains its unparalleled diversity and abundance of native plants.  To join in the mission of restoring and protecting the ecological, historical, and aesthetic integrity of Independence Pass, please consider making a donation here.

Board and staff battling oxeye daisies

Board and staff battling oxeye daisies

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Celebrating Permanent Protection

We can’t help but celebrate! The Independence Pass Foundation moved into new territory in 2017 when it partnered with the Wilderness Land Trust to purchase and permanently protect 17 acres of prime wilderness above the ghost town of Independence, effectively fulfilling our mission to protect the ecological, historical, and aesthetic integrity of Independence Pass. 

The view from the Grandview mining claim.

The view from the Grandview mining claim.

In 2016, two former mining claims, the Grandview and Spotted Tail lodes, which sit within the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness, were listed for sale.  They carried with them the right to build a small home AND access the properties via automobile along the popular Green Mountain trail, a former wagon road that was determined to provide legal access to the properties.  Needless to say, the idea of development and cars in in this wild landscape was hugely concerning to IPF.

In a perfect example of non-profit collaboration at its best, the Wilderness Land Trust negotiated a deal with the seller and IPF helped secure funding for the purchase. The next step, now in process, is for the Wilderness Land Trust to transfer the properties to the U.S. Forest Service for inclusion in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness, thus protecting them from development and road use for all time. 

The Independence Pass Foundation and the Wilderness Land Trust hosted a joint celebration at the site this fall.

The Independence Pass Foundation and the Wilderness Land Trust hosted a joint celebration at the site this fall.

On September 30 of this year, IPF and WLT held a joint celebration at the properties with their boards and staff.  Paul Andersen gave a thoroughly engaging talk on the Pass, including stories of the hearty souls who founded the town of Independence in the 1880s and the continuing importance of wilderness in our lives.

Participants also enjoyed seeing the rare Colorado plant, Altai cottongrass, which grows adjacent to the newly-protected properties.  Thanks to all involved in this huge win for wilderness and Independence Pass!

The elusive Colorado plant, Altai cottongrass: just one more reason to preserve and protect this special place.

The elusive Colorado plant, Altai cottongrass: just one more reason to preserve and protect this special place.

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Volunteering = Love

Since 1989 the Independence Pass Foundation has relied on the passion of people who love Independence Pass as much as we do to volunteer their time to help us maintain and enhance the ecology, beauty, and recreational opportunities available in our magnificent backyard.

 

Volunteer Tim Hall hiking Independence Pass

Volunteer Tim Hall hiking Independence Pass

This week one of those volunteers, Tim Hall, spent two days with Independence Pass Foundation scouring the corridor for trash, hauling out site poles mangled by avalanches and automobiles, and removing telephone wire dangling from long-abandoned poles along the corridor.

 

Tim removing old telephone wires from the Independence Pass Corridor

Tim removing old telephone wires from the Independence Pass Corridor

Tim removing site poles

Tim removing site poles

Of his experience, Tim reflects: “Helping pick up trash and other debris on Independence Pass was not only a pleasure, it was an honor. Like IPF, I love the Pass with all my heart. That beautiful landscape has provided me with a great deal of joy and inspiration over the years, so thank you for the opportunity to show the Pass a little of my love and appreciation. It’s the least I could do… so let’s do more!”

The fruit of the labor: Two days of work removing old telephone wires and site-poles

The fruit of the labor: Two days of work removing old telephone wires and site-poles

If you would like to show the Pass a little love by volunteering your time or helping to sponsor a restoration project, please reach out to our Director, Karin Teague, by emailing director@independencepass.org.

 

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Raising the Bar

At the Independence Pass Foundation, we take pride in our mission to protect the ecological, historical, and aesthetic integrity of the Independence Pass corridor and to encourage stewardship, safety, and appreciation of the Pass. All summer and fall, we facilitate the process of restoration, stabilization, and revegetation of this beautiful land that surrounds us.

The heavy haul.

This week, we had the honor of working with 13 sixth graders from the Aspen Community School. We found ourselves atop Mountain Boy basin at 12,500’, and the hike was just the beginning.

The hike up.

All day long, we pulled and pushed and sledge-hammered rebar out of the tundra — the consequence of a failed 1960s snow fence experiment — and hauled it out by hand for recycling; hopefully to be used in a more appropriate place than the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness! These 11-12 year olds left no question: Our kids are going to change the world for the better!

Happy rebar extractor.

The hard work of this group will protect wildlife, skiers, and hikers for years to come, and help return this pristine place to its natural beauty.  Thank you, Aspen Community School!

Truck after-party.

Truck after-party.

            

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