ASPEN - Scott Snelson doesn't fit the stereotype of an environmentalist. He chews tobacco instead of granola. His full beard and stocky frame make him look more like a lumberjack than an activist.
Yet he is one of the few people with intimate knowledge of how climate change is affecting the Roaring Fork Valley and how its impacts can be eased. In three years as Aspen-Sopris District ranger for the U.S. Forest Service, Snelson has learned more about the White River National Forest than most people learn in decades.
While other observers see rolling hillsides, magnificent peaks, lush forests and gurgling streams, Snelson sees signs of a mountain ecosystem damaged for more than 130 years by intensive mining, logging, cattle grazing and industrial-scale recreation. It's a forest susceptible to bark beetles attacking and killing spruce trees. It's a forest at risk of degraded water quality and depleted water quantity because of drought. And it's a forest stressed to provide quality habitat for wildlife.
"It's just been a heavily impacted landscape," Snelson said. "We can do better."
Climate change is at the core of the issues facing the forest, Snelson said. The warming planet is creating drier conditions, which, in turn, stress spruce trees and make them susceptible to beetles. Tinder-dry forests with more dead trees can go up in flames. Denuded lands can't hold water as well.
"We're staring down the barrel of a gun, and it's cocked and loaded," Snelson said.
So the ranger, a fish biologist and hydrologist by education, has launched a handful of special projects during his tenure designed to retain more moisture in the ground while stopping soil erosion and degradation of streams.
In Coal Basin, the Forest Service is working with the nonprofit Roaring Fork Conservancy and North Thompson Cattlemen's Association on a pilot project. Cattle were fenced in on a test plot where a coal producer dumped tens of thousands of tons of waste rock years ago. No vegetation grows on those waste piles. Rain and melting snow erode the soil and fill nearby Coal Creek with sediment. Coal Creek dumps into the Crystal River and fouls the fishery for a 20-plus-mile stretch.
The cattle break up the soil, and their waste provides fertilizer. After the cattle are released, the Forest Service seeds the plot with grasses and covered it with straw. If vegetation sprouts from the plot next spring, the erosion will be eased and the ground will retain more moisture, Snelson said.
A similar project occurred at the site of the Hope Mine, in Castle Creek Valley southwest of Aspen. The old mine dump was barren for 70 years and was releasing hazardous materials such as arsenic and lead into the surrounding environment. In 2010, the Forest Service teamed with For the Forest (since folded into the Aspen Center For Environmental Studies) and Carbondale-based Flux Farm Foundation on a reclamation project. The former silver mine site was covered with biochar - a carbon-rich soil amendment created when wood and other biomass is heated in a closed container with limited air.
Snelson sees biochar as a valuable tool in the battle against climate change. In addition to boosting the fertility of soils when mixed with compost, it sequesters carbon to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that is leading to the warming of the planet.
Both test projects will be monitored this year to see if soil moisture really is higher. If so, as Snelson suspects, he sees the projects as a blueprint for improving health on a large landscape scale in the mountains surrounding Aspen.
Tons of dead and decaying trees and other vegetation in the White River National Forest can be turned into compost and, under the right conditions, biochar. The mixture could be applied to thousands of acres of forest lands outside designated wilderness areas, Snelson said.
Looking at a 50-acre hillside across the Fryingpan River from his home on the outskirts of Basalt, Snelson said a covering of biochar and compost would transform that hillside into a reservoir. Water would be retained longer, creating more healthy vegetation and reducing fire hazard.
Producing and applying the biochar-compost mix would create jobs and a vibrant industry, improving forest health. Snelson believes climate change has altered forests to the point where more active management is necessary. Nature cannot heal itself due to mankind's production of carbon emissions, he said. Climate change is already taking effect.
"It's not like it's some place in the future. It's now," Snelson said. "We're 10 years late."
He won't be around to see if the pilot projects at Hope Mine and Coal Basin are a success. He's transferring to another district ranger post.
But Snelson has set an effort in motion. The Independence Pass Foundation will use biochar in a reclamation project east of Aspen this summer. Pitkin County Open Space and Trails is considering a biochar application for a revegetation project at Sky Mountain Park in the Brush Creek Valley.
If they prove successful, Snelson is confident that organizations focused on forest health in the Roaring Fork Valley can team with the Forest Service on a broader application.
"We've got some great stuff going on," Snelson said. "The Roaring Fork Valley could be a leader in water conservation and in (fighting) climate change."
Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Scott Snelson is leaving the post after three years to transfer within the agency to Minnesota.
Snelson and his staff of 14 full-time workers oversaw the 600,000 acres of the Aspen-Sopris District of the White River National Forest, which were combined into one about a decade ago. During his tenure, Snelson initiated projects designed to retain soil moisture and stop erosion. He believes the pilot projects can be applied on a broader scale to offset the ecological damage to forests from climate change.
Snelson's last day on the job was Wednesday. David Francomb, deputy district ranger, will be the acting ranger.
Snelson accepted a new job as Laurentian District ranger in the Superior National Forest in Minnesota. He said he will work about one hour north of Duluth, in the upper reaches of the state.
Snelson came to Aspen from the Tongass National Forest, where he worked out of Sitka, Alaska, on resource protection and restoration in the 17 million-acre temperate rain forest.