Local wetlands worth a long trip | AspenTimes.com

Local wetlands worth a long trip

Tim Mutrie

“I feel the mountains and environment in Aspen are like Tibet – very much like Tibet.”

That was the awe-inspired comment from Tsierinwango, a biologist from the Tibetan Plateau Ecological Institute, while soaring high above the upper Roaring Fork Valley yesterday afternoon in single-engine Cessna.

Tsierinwango and Dawa, another Tibetan biologist from the Lhasa City Science and Technology Commission, have been living at the 115-acre Rock Bottom Ranch near Emma and working with biologists from the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies for the last five weeks.

The two scientists are among 10 Tibetans studying wetlands education and enhancement programs this summer in the United States. The experience will help them develop similar programs within the new 1,500-acre Greater Lhasa Wetlands Project back home.

Lhasa, the capital of the Chinese province of Tibet, lies in the foothills north of the Great Himalaya Range.

“Essentially, they are here to learn from ACES about our environmental education, interpretation and enhancement programs,” said Emily Lubchenco, caretaker of ACES’ Rock Bottom Ranch. “They want to have similar programs for their wetlands, so they’ve been working closely with us.

“They’re the most patient and intelligent people I’ve met in a long time,” Lubchenco continued. “And they work very hard.”

Last October, ACES acquired the Rock Bottom Ranch, which boasts a number of key ecological and open space attributes, including four distinct great blue heron rookeries, which make it the largest heron breeding area in the Roaring Fork Valley.

The ranch also contains important wetlands and habitat for numerous species of waterfowl, as well as elk, deer, bald eagles and wild turkeys. The property also offers access to the Crown – 10,000 acres of BLM scrub land adjoining the Mt. Sopris area, plus river frontage and numerous trout ponds.

“Good view,” commented Dawa, immediately after setting foot on the tarmac following yesterday’s flight. “Aspen is beautiful.”

When Lighthawk pilot and ACES board member Bruce Gordon heard two Tibetans were in the valley – and hoping to get a bird’s eye view of the Rock Bottom Ranch preserve – the seasoned Himalayan climber was happy to oblige. The two guests also got view from the air of ACES’ ongoing peat bog restoration project around Warren Lakes, atop Smuggler Mountain, and ACES’ Hallam Lake preserve in Aspen.

Lighthawk, an international nonprofit, operates with volunteer pilots and donated aircraft, “to champion environmental protection through the unique perspective of flight,” Gordon explained.

“I used to do a lot of climbing in the Himalaya, and I gained a real affinity for the people there, and the Buddhist way of life,” Gordon said prior to yesterday’s takeoff. “Everybody is so tuned into the Earth and the people they’re involved with.”

Gordon admitted though, that he thought he was going to be carrying two Tibetan monks on the flight; instead he guided the two Buddhist scientists.

So with Gordon at the helm, and Lubchenco, Dawa, Tsierinwango and two journalists aboard, the group took to the skies aboard a cozy six-seater for an aerial view of wetlands areas in the upper valley.

“The Rock Bottom Ranch has a great deal of unspoiled land at the foot of the Crown, coming off of Mount Sopris,” Gordon noted while circling high above the ranch. “We’ve got to protect that corridor leading all the way down from the Elk Range.”

As the plane flew above the Warren Lakes area, Lubchenco pointed out how the peat bogs serve as a natural filtration system for water in the upper valley.

“You can see the gullies where the water pours down from the peat bogs, which took millions of years to form, and then drops into the Northstar Preserve,” she said. “It’s an interesting model for the Lhasa wetlands project, in order to recognize the importance of natural filtration systems.”

While the flight was a touch bumpy, and unsettling to a few passengers, Dawa and Tsierinwango expressed sincere gratitude for the opportunity to size up the valley from above, despite difficulties speaking and understanding English.

“They both speak Tibetan and Chinese,” Lubchenco noted. “And they’re making progress with their English. They study every day to try and get it down.”

Dawa and Tsierinwango plan to live and study at the Rock Bottom Ranch for another five weeks before returning to home.

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