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Managing Mother Nature

Naomi Havlen

If you could design the environment surrounding your home, what would it be like?You’d probably make sure everything looked nice – maybe straight out of an issue of Sunset magazine. The sort of place where you could take advantage of winter and summer in the Roaring Fork Valley.What else? Would you take into consideration how much water your plants need, and try to grow things that don’t need much? Would you consider planting fruit trees for their beauty, shade and edible offerings, or would the thought of attracting bears stop you in your tracks?When it comes right down to it, no matter how much money you have to create the perfect environment around your home or elsewhere in the Roaring Fork Valley, Mother Nature is going to have the final say.This is where things recently got a little easier. The Aspen Center for Environmental Studies has initiated a new program that uses the center’s expertise in the natural world to help residents make the most of their property.As program manager Sarah Shaw explains, ACES’ new environmental design consulting program is about the interface between the natural world and the human world. Shaw, a landscape architect, helps valley residents handle conflicts they might encounter in the natural world, as well as helping people understand how to enhance the land they have.And it’s all with an eye to what’s appropriate in the Rocky Mountains.”Our job is to assist people in a positive way, to help them work with what they have,” Shaw said. “We’re not trying to create environments that aren’t indigenous to this area.”Turning a duty into a jobAt ACES, answering questions about how to handle the valley’s wild side has always been part of the job.Director Tom Cardamone said ever since he’s been at ACES, people have approached him and other staff members for advice on managing their properties. And there’s no shortage of issues they’ve helped people tackle.”People call and ask, ‘What do I do about the beavers that are cutting down my trees – I don’t want to get rid of them, but I don’t want to lose my trees, either,'” Cardamone said. “Or, ‘I have a pond next to my house that’s full of algae and my fish are all dying – how do I deal with that?'”Many of the conflicts are between people and wildlife – how to effectively attract birds and create a friendly environment for them, how to keep elk from chewing up the tulips, and how to keep bears from knocking down the crab apple trees. ACES is an education-based nonprofit offering a wide array of programs designed to teach people – especially local children – about the natural world. Answering questions from the general public about weeds, wildlife and water efficiency is something ACES had always done, Cardamone said.It wasn’t until ACES hired Sarah Shaw that the idea of a specialized program for environmental design consulting began. Before joining ACES, Shaw worked as an associate with Design Workshop, an internationally known landscape architecture and urban planning firm in Aspen. She has a master’s degree in landscape architecture from Cornell University, and instead of letting that knowledge slip through their fingers, Cardamone and Shaw began talking about environmental design.The program, with Shaw at the helm and Cardamone helping out, officially got under way in January. A fee is charged for the expert advice, and ideally the program will become self-sufficient. Any extra income will go toward other education programs.”Someone has said to me that it’s great that ACES is doing this kind of work because people respect ACES, and its commitment to the environment is true,” Shaw said. “I think this program was born out of ACES’ desire to educate. This is just education on a different level.”Scientists and problem solversShaw currently has several projects under her wing. For example, the homeowners’ association of the Meadowood subdivision, next to Prince of Peace Chapel in Aspen, has hired ACES to help it create a minimal maintenance program for a 40-acre common open space.Meadowood residents would like to use natural products for weed control, pesticides and fertilizer applications, and would also like to know what high-altitude grass and wildflower mixes are appropriate for any reseeding work.In downtown Basalt, a property owner is using ACES to come up with an environment that is attractive to birds, available for children’s activities, colorful throughout the year and requires minimal water and maintenance. These may be tall orders to fill, but that’s where ACES’ role as environmental scientists comes into play.Of course, not all conflicts are no-brainers, even for the experts. Cardamone is experiencing this firsthand in Emma, where he and his family are building a home. Energy rules require that the west side of the home be shaded so it doesn’t overheat, but fire rules require that you clear-cut 100 feet around your home, he said.”If you read regulations, you find a contradiction for every rule. You’re left thinking, ‘How am I supposed to deal with this?'” Cardamone said. “With our background, we’ll help people thread that somewhat confusing maze of regulations.””All consultants are asked to solve problems. They may not know the answer, but they’re sure as heck going to come up with something innovative to solve the problem, one way or another,” Shaw added.And better yet, if doing nothing at all to a piece of property is the best advice, Shaw and Cardamone aren’t afraid to say so. They plan on staying out of the political approval process for landowners, but they’ll be the first to warn against planting the wrong ecotype on your property. Some of this knowledge is even based on ACES’ own successes and failures with plants and animals at its Hallam Lake and Rock Bottom Ranch nature preserve.”Our goal is to balance people’s desires with the natural history that they may not always understand,” Cardamone said. Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is nhavlen@aspentimes.com


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