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Making the Elk Range Whole

Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory carries on the vision of Bob Lewis to expand the way we see our home mountains

Paul Andersen
For the Aspen Times Weekly
The West Maroon Creek valley with Pyramid Peak. (Paul Andersen)

The night that Aspen biologist and eco-visionary Bob Lewis died in 2005, he was riding home in a car through the mountain range he knew and loved. Bob had just cemented a relationship on the Crested Butte side of the Elk Range with Ian Billick, director of the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL) at Gothic.

Ian Billick, Director Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. (Courtesy photo)

That nascent collaboration was predicated on a long-held vision in which Lewis recognized the Elk Range holistically, as a bioregion, rather than as a bifurcated, subdivided, jurisdictional management area as it has long been ministered through two different U.S. Forest Service districts and two different counties. Lewis had for decades recognized the need to erase arbitrary boundaries and divisions and instead acknowledge the natural interconnections of the north and south sides of this uniquely situated east-to-west mountain range.

Now, 17 years after Lewis’s passing, Billick is creating collaborative partnerships with key land use partners in the Roaring Fork Valley that would have greatly pleased Lewis. Early this spring, Billick met with leaders of the White River National Forest, Wilderness Workshop, and the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES) aiming to create effective partnerships to identify common ecological values.



Billick sets out that holistic goal in an echo of the Lewis vision: “The Elk Mountains split the Aspen and Crested Butte communities culturally and geographically, but we share these mountains and the ecosystems they contain. Promoting a shared commitment to understanding and truly seeing the Elk Mountains will help maintain a shared conservation ethic, generate the knowledge we need to effectively steward these ecosystems, and provide a lens through which we can understand mountain communities across the world.”

Toward that expansive goal, Lewis was in the process of establishing the Aspen Biological Field Laboratory as a complement to RMBL’s long-standing scientific community based in the historic mining town of Gothic, eight miles north of Crested Butte and fifteen miles – as-the-crow-flies – south of Aspen. With biological research facilities collaborating on both sides of the Elk Range, Lewis envisioned a more informed and enlightened approach to managing the many resources and land use challenges extant within the Elk Range.




Lewis was not to realize that dream. On the way home to Aspen that fateful night from Gothic, Lewis was stricken with a fatal heart attack. Today, the notion of linking both sides of the Elks under the auspices of ecological unity has fallen to Billick, a scientist with deep roots in Gothic who was elected mayor of Crested Butte in November 2021.

Overview of the rugged spine of the Elk Range. (David Hiser)

BRIDGING THE ELKS WITH SCIENCE

Billick’s and RMBL’s interests in unifying both sides of the Elks through science has holistic overtones, but is also driven by its land holdings at West Maroon Pass, one of the most popular trailheads in the Elk Range. While RMBL’s Gothic facility is in Gunnison County and the Gunnison National Forest, the land it has acquired and manages at the Scofield Park trailhead lies in Pitkin County and the White River National Forest.

Hiking down through wildflower meadows on the west side of West Maroon Pass, raise your eyes and gaze across Scofield Park at the high ridge beyond. You are surveying part of the expansive domain of RMBL (the acronym is commonly pronounced “rumble”). Before your eyes is an outdoor laboratory where, for decades, researchers have been plotting the evolution of species, the mating rituals of butterflies, the ecology of salamanders, the impacts of acid rain, projections for climate change and much more. For that important, long-term work to continue, Billick is marshaling support on both sides of the range.

“RMBL depends upon the understanding and good graces of the communities that we work in,” said Billick, referring to Schofield Park, a stunningly beautiful montane valley at the headwaters of the Crystal River where RMBL scientists and students are carrying out studies on approximately 1,000 acres they own and manage. This represents only a portion of much larger study areas on public lands accessed by RMBL through a Forest Service special use permit.

Schofield Park near the West Maroon Pass trailhead. (John Fielder)

Billick explains that, while ongoing studies generate a vast store of data, there is another huge public benefit to research.

“RMBL’s presence has catalyzed significant conservation in the area,” emphasized Billick, “including collaborating with The Nature Conservancy on their first project in Colorado to conserve the Mexican Cut, and with organizations like the Trust for Public Lands to ensure protection and public access through the High Elk Corridor Project. The area has supported the training of thousands of students, hundreds of scientific papers, and protection of our natural resources, including provisions to protect air in the western U.S. based upon science conducted at the Mexican Cut.”

JUMPING IN FRONT OF A BULLDOZER

The Mexican Cut is an historic mining area that spans 960 acres of linked ponds in glacially created shelves on the side of Galena Mountain. In the early 1960s, a RMBL researcher, Scottie Willey, discovered unlimited opportunities for aquatic research with the diversity of plants, animals, and amphibians living in and around these undisturbed wetlands.

She and her husband, Robert Willey, first came to RMBL in 1958 on the advice of faculty members from Harvard University, where both had just earned their PhD degrees. Eager to put their education to work, they found RMBL to be a scientific gold mine.

With the ponds being essential to Scottie’s research, she grew concerned about the need to protect the water in the ponds and the aquatic communities that depend on it. At the time, water rights were only granted to those who planned to consume water (consumptive use). Through Scottie’s and Robert’s efforts, and with help from a sympathetic attorney, they crafted the state’s first application for non-consumptive water rights, which were granted by the Colorado Water Conservation Board. The water in the ponds would remain where nature had intended.

RMBL’s colorful history has it that, just as the Willeys were celebrating a significant victory for aquatic biology, a friend rushed to their cabin in Gothic with the alarming news that a bulldozer was making its way up the trail to the Mexican Cut. Scottie jumped in their Volkswagen van and quickly made it to the scene. After parking behind the bulldozer, she scrambled up a steep bank, went through the woods to get past the bulldozer, and jumped down in front of it.

The dozer operator stopped and allowed Scottie to climb into the cab, where she breathlessly explained that the land was protected. The driver calmly turned around and headed down the mountain. To this day, Scottie wishes she had gotten the driver’s name so she could thank him for not contributing to the destruction of a pristine plot of land and its aquatic communities.

The Mexican Cut won necessary protection thanks to The Nature Conservancy, which purchased the land in 1966. Since then, the preserve has been leased to RMBL as a research area for $1 a year. The lab manages the land and has identified numerous species of plants and animals. Among them are tiger salamanders, which represent a rare population at 11,000 feet, and which use the area as a breeding ground. Also identified was a species of fern — the Steller’s cliff brake — which is found in only two other places in Colorado.

A recently discovered diatom, Encyonema willeyorum, was named for Scottie Willey. Diatoms are algae that are said to live in “houses made of glass.” They are the only organism on the planet with cell walls composed of transparent, opaline silica. Diatom cell walls are ornamented by intricate and striking patterns of silica, which are fabricated by nature’s design in the ponds on Galena Mountain.

“Work done at the Mexican Cut by John Harte,” stated Billick, “was used to include provisions in the revision of the Clean Air Act to protect air in the western U.S., and just north of there is North Pole Basin, which RMBL purchased from the Callaway Family, early owners of the Crested Butte ski resort. Bo Callaway was active with the Georgia Republican Party and part of the (1990s GOP legislative agenda) Contract for America was planned there in rustic mountain cabins.”

RMBL also co-owns about half of the Schofield Townsite, which is the old platted town in the valley bottom as you come out to the West Maroon Pass trailhead. These properties were privately-owned until about 20 years ago, when the Wilderness Land Trust purchased the property and traded it to the USFS as part of the High Elk Corridor project.

The West Maroon Pass approach from the Aspen side of the Elk Range. (Paul Andersen)

While no formal agreements have been inked between RMBL and entities in the Roaring Fork Valley, Billick reports that a consensus of shared values with ACES and Wilderness Workshop may provide the nascent collaboration of stewardship that Bob Lewis had long ago espoused.

The benefits of these budding relationships will depend on the future management and guiding principles the Forest Service imposes on this richly endowed bioregion. Under a holistic vision, the serpentine boundary atop the jagged ridgeline between the White River National Forest and the Gunnison National Forest may blur in the interest of biological sustainability, species protections, visitation guidelines and the overall health of a highly diverse and complex mountain range that provides unparalleled recreational opportunities that underwrite the economies of several Elk Range communities.

A 10th MOUNTAIN TROOPER EMBRACES GAIA

Bob Lewis arrived at his holistic vision after his arrival in Aspen following World War II, during which he served in the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division, which trained near Leadville. Lewis first saw Aspen on a three-day leave from Camp Hale in 1942, the year Camp Hale was established for training elite mountain troops. After the war, Lewis found his lifelong mission as a teacher, educating students at Aspen High School where he taught biology with a unique hands-on approach that inspired many of his students.

During field trips up Independence Pass starting in the 1950s, Lewis recognized the plight of the Roaring Fork River due to siltation from the erosion of crude road cuts originating from when the Pass was realigned for automobile use in the 1920s. Lewis realized that siltation was damaging the riparian ecosystem of the river at its headwaters and therefore threatened the flora and fauna downstream.

Lewis liked to quote Aldo Leopold, America’s first conservation biologist, on the crucial role he assumed to heal those road cuts: “If you want to save something, you must love it, and in order to love it, you must know and understand it.”

Such was the motivation for Lewis’s field classrooms, where he took students up the Pass to show them the vitality and fragility of mountain ecosystems. The Pass became the microcosm for Lewis’s macrocosmic view of the natural world, and so led to his holistic notions of science. Part of his inspiration came from studying zoology under Starker Leopold, Aldo Leopold’s son and a noted conservationist, at the University of California at Berkeley in 1946 under the GI Bill.

Bob Lewis, Aspen biologist. (Paul Andersen)

Lewis found reinforcement for his ideology in the Gaia Hypothesis professed by James Lovelock in 1972, suggesting that “living organisms on the planet interact with their surrounding inorganic environment to form a synergetic and self-regulating system that created, and now maintains, the climate and biochemical conditions that make life on Earth possible.” The idea of global concord moved Lewis to relate the same all-encompassing notion to an Elk Range overlay that erased human borders like counties and National Forests and blurred the distinctions of traditional management by watersheds.

Lewis insisted that elk, deer, bighorn sheep and mountain goats have been marking high trails across the range for millennia. Eagles, hawks, ravens, ospreys, geese, cranes and hundreds of bird varieties flock over the range uninhibited by lines on maps. Seeds and spores are conveyed over the range, mostly unseen, with the power to proliferate plant species in appropriate niches without regard for watersheds. Storms sweep back and forth across the range in weather patterns that determine moisture, temperature, winds and pollutants, all of which affect flora and fauna throughout aspects and elevations in all the life zones and ecosystems of the range, all without relying on human intervention.

“The Roaring Fork Biological Field Lab is possibly my last project in the world – in this world,” Lewis said during a series of interviews I conducted with him in the last year of his life. “There is so much we don’t know about the north side of the Elk Range, so I want to bring the best biologists to Aspen and engage them in a program of field research which has never been done in Pitkin County.

“I want experts on trees and noxious weeds. I want experts on whirling disease in trout and wasting disease in deer. There are a lot of problems out there, but the biggest one is the spruce beetle – that’s going to be a tough one. We’ve got to be able to prevent another outbreak of spruce beetles. They have destroyed the forests around Colorado, and there has to be a way of preventing that here.

“The lab will be dedicated to applied biology, which is very important considering the major problems that exist in this Eden of Aspen. It will be a mini-Los Alamos, but instead of building a bomb, we will discover more about nature and about our own nature as human beings.”

RMBL-INGS ACROSS THE RANGE

Lewis based his vision for a biological lab on RMBL’s long-term success and worldwide acclaim as a fount of scientific research due to its location amid an “unusual variety of elevations and habitats.” Founded in 1928 in a scattering of rustic mining structures at the historic town of Gothic, “RMBL has become a vital resource for discovering nature’s fundamental environmental processes…where some of the world’s most respected scientists return year after year to conduct long-term field studies and continue the work of generations of impassioned researchers and students,” to quote a RMBL brochure.

The founding community of Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, 1929. (Courtesy RMBL)

RMBL has influenced environmental policy on the quality of water and air, on acid rain and the acidification of high mountain lakes, on species of plants, animals and microorganisms, on the building blocks of life and the climate conditions and habitats they require. As global temperatures rise, climate change figures more and more prominently in studies of species populations.

RMBL describes its unique setting as “a place that hosts one of the longest continuously studied ecosystems in the world…a place whose ecosystem can be a model for understanding life across the planet…a place that inspires not just discovery but collaboration…a place that will make vital insights about life understandable to everyday humans…a place with the power and the vision to change the world.”

For example, a study of the yellow-bellied marmot launched in 1962 has since been followed by 225 researchers and new studies.

A comprehensive biological vision is what took Lewis to Gothic that final day of his life to link with RMBL and initiate a collaboration that would give meaning to everything he had done as a scientist and conservationist. This inspiration originated in the 1960s and ‘70s when he and Aspenite Bob Craig ran a summer institute in the Roaring Fork Valley for high school teachers.

“At that time, the National Science Foundation was funding programs all over the country,” recalled Lewis, “and ours was a field biology program. We would provide hands-on experience in the summertime led by some of the finest professors in the country on ecology. In the morning, you might have an ornithologist and a mammologist. In the afternoon, you might have an entomologist and botanist. We rotated those professors through four groups of high school teachers, the best we could find.

“For eight weeks, every day, they would spend time in the field. Saturdays they would work on their own individual projects, and Sundays we would have a picnic. We had eight groups over eight years.”

“What if there was a place that had the power to affect every other place on Earth?” – Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory brochure

Field outings ranged from the lower elevations to the highest, as Lewis described: “After we would finish with the piñon/juniper, we moved up to the aspen groves and studied them for a week. Then we moved to the ponds for a week, and then a week in the streams, then a week in the spruce-fir forest, and finally a week on the tundra. Working with those professors, as the field director, I was able to be on every trip. And it made me realize how badly I wanted to go back to school. And that was the outgrowth of the Roaring Fork Biological Lab.”

Lewis envisioned a laboratory built east of Aspen near North Star Nature Preserve where he lived in a compound he built with several small, intimate, Japanese-style apartments, one with aspen trees growing through its roof. Visiting researchers would be housed throughout Aspen much the way music students used to spend summers in community homes with local hosts. The agenda would be to learn more about the Elk Range as a complement to RMBL.

“Our vision,” a RMBL brochure states in a close parallel, “is to create a model ecosystem to spawn scientific breakthroughs in our knowledge of the natural world – notably the processes that affect our food, water, air and health.”

The final approach to West Maroon Pass on the Aspen side of the Elk Range. (Paul Andersen)

While Lewis never saw his idea come to fruition, he advanced his agenda locally by creating the Independence Pass Foundation, a nonprofit that has made great strides in stabilizing the eyesore of ecologically damaging road cuts. Lewis founded and designed the Wildwood School, oversaw construction of the Braille and Discovery Trails, and formed the Environmental Research Group (ERG), an ad hoc entity that addressed pressing ecological issues.

(Lewis went on to co-found ERG Press with Michael Stranahan, David Hiser, Curt Carpenter and me. ERG has published three educational books about the Elk Range that I authored: “East of Aspen” (1999); “Aspen’s Rugged Splendor” (2007); and “The High Road to Aspen” (2014), which won a gold medal from the Colorado Book Awards.)

Expanding environmental awareness to the entire Elk Range became for Lewis a messianic calling to which he actively enlisted dozens of ecologically committed apostles right up to the eve of his passing. His final act was partnering with Billick and engaging with RMBL.

“True conservation,” said Lewis, “is not done by one person. When an ecosystem is threatened, preservation has to be done by a group, an organization.”

As Lewis proved, and as Billick affirms today, it all begins with an individual and an ambitious, holistic vision of the Elk Mountain Range we call home.