ACES unveils vision for Rock Bottom Ranch | AspenTimes.com

ACES unveils vision for Rock Bottom Ranch

Courtesy of Aspen Center for Environmental StudiesThe vision for Rock Bottom Ranch education center in the midvalley includes restoring the wetlands and riparian areas and then educating people about why natural ecosystems are important.

BASALT – The Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES) believes the sky is the limit for Rock Bottom Ranch.

ACES unveiled plans last week for a major restoration of the ranch’s ecosystem and an increased emphasis on agricultural sustainability. The result will be an model property that shows how farming and ranching can be integrated with wildlands.

“We’re going to show that you can farm without destroying habitat,” said Chris Lane, ACES’ new executive director. “It’s one thing to be green. It’s another to show the world how to do it.”

ACES obtained the 135-acre Rock Bottom Ranch in 1999 and immediately turned it into a natural education center. Rock Bottom Ranch is a former potato farm and ranch homesteaded in the early 1900s. It’s on Hooks Spur Road in the Emma area, outside of Basalt.

To this day, it remains a laid-back, rural cousin to ACES’ flagship center at Hallam Lake in Aspen. The pedestrian path fades into the pastures and riparian areas not far from the Roaring Fork River. There are ponds and bogs to wander around. An old-style barnyard hems in chickens and goats. Vegetables and flowers spill over wooden frames of the plots at a community garden.

Rock bottom Ranch staff has delivered a lot of environmental and agricultural education in 13 years, Lane said, but he believes the center is just scratching its potential.

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“There’s a hundred kids per day through here,” Lane said. ACES wants to expose the kids who are already stopping by to more science-based education.

There also are thousands of cyclists whizzing by Rock Bottom Ranch on Rio Grande Trail each summer. Lane said the ranch needs to be more inviting to them and educating a whole different constituency.

To accomplish those goals, the plan is to restore wetlands that traditionally dominated the property. That will be accomplished by leveling off land with heavy equipment and through volunteer efforts at tasks such as planting trees.

A grass-choked stream that wanders lazily through the property will be invigorated with more water. A cottonwood gallery will be restored so that it regenerates itself again. Wetlands and riparian ecosystems will be replenished.

“We have amazing water rights, but we’re not using it ecologically appropriately,” Lane said.

The goal is to have the water move into the property, provide its ecological benefits and then flow out. The intent isn’t to use a bunch of water for crop production.

Restoration makes up roughly 70 percent of ACES’ plan, Lane said, while enhancing agricultural production makes up another 30 percent. Once the restoration is complete, more pedestrian trails will be constructed, some allowing bicycles. The trails will feature interpretative signs that offer viewers tidbits about the habitats and why they are important.

As part of the restoration effort, ACES will document plant and animal species on the property before the work and then document how it changes after the work. That presents an education opportunity on natural ecosystems.

Lane said ACES wants to ramp up the yield of crops it grows and livestock it raises – not to feed the Roaring Fork Valley, but demonstrate how it can be done.

“The production is just another tool for education,” he said.

He wants visitors to learn how to plant crops, how to milk a goat and make cheese, how to raise chickens for meat and eggs and how to raise pigs without confinement pens.

“We want people to come from all over the country,” Lane said.

Rock Bottom Ranch currently raises 20 to 40 hogs per year. That will be ramped up to about 80. It has 60 laying hens. That will double. Chickens raised for meat will be scaled back, but roughly 600 birds will be offered for sale live to consumers.

The plan is estimated to cost $1.7 million to implement. ACES already is pursuing grants – a process that will take a couple of years to play out. Matching funds will be raised locally. A ranch director will be hired to implement the vision. At least part of the restoration will take place as soon as possible as a pilot project.

The plan was unveiled to educators, neighbors and conservationists on Thursday.

“We’re getting this groundswell of support,” Lane said. “We’re smelling it and want to (tap) it.”

scondon@aspentimes.com