Wetlands in the high country to wrap up Naturalist Nights | AspenTimes.com

Wetlands in the high country to wrap up Naturalist Nights

Ecologist Delia Malone will discuss the value of wetlands in the high country in the last two event's of this year's Naturalist Night series.
Courtesy ACES

In a parched environment, like much of the American West, how can we value water beyond its immediate utility to human society? Community members are set to gather to discuss that topic for the last night of the Naturalist Night series.         

The Wilderness Workshop will wrap up the series with two talks on the value of wetlands in the region and prompt discussion of the proposed dam site at the Homestake Reservoir in southern Eagle County. 

On Wednesday, the Naturalist Nights: “Ancient Wetlands — Their Essential Value and Threats in our Warming World” talk will be from 6-7 p.m. at the Third Street Center in Carbondale. On Thursday, the talk will take place at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies center at Hallam Lake from 6-7 p.m. GrassrootsTV will stream the talk, as well.

Delia Malone is an ecologist at the Colorado Natural Heritage Program, as well as the wildlife chair for the Colorado Chapter of the Sierra Club and vice chair of Roaring Fork Audubon. She studies wetlands in the region.

She will discuss her work in the wetlands with attendees and answer questions, plus advise community members on how to best get involved.

What is a wetland?

Wetlands are marked by their soil saturation. Many types of wetlands are in the mountain region, including wet meadows, marshes, and riparian zones. They can be identified by the flora there — cottonwood trees, willows, grass-like plants called sedges — because not all plants and trees can tolerate such saturated soils. 

They account for about 2% of the land in the country and in the arid West, though development cuts into wetland areas annually. 

Malone said she will spend a good portion of time discussing a unique type of wetlands present in high country: fens. To be a fen, a wetland must maintain its saturated soil through groundwater flow. 

“At high elevation, as the snow melts (and) flows through the saturated soils, it dissolves a lot of minerals,” she said. “And when it gets to a low spot on the landscape, say for instance, a depression that was made by a glacier, that water accumulates, bringing with it the minerals from surrounding soil and maintains a certain type of plant community. So that is a fen. They are mineral-rich.”

The eastern counterpart to a fen, a bog, does not boast such a mineral rich ecosystem because its water comes from precipitation, she said. 

Fens are found at high elevation, usually near headwaters, and attract a variety of animals as well as highly-water-tolerant plants. 

“At some point in life, 80% of our wildlife need wetlands,” she said. Birds need them for nesting. Our big megafauna like elk need them for calving and for the direct resource of water, and on and on. So if we value biological diversity, from songbirds to boreal toads and northern leopard frogs, and pollinators, we will maintain our wetlands because biological diversity relies on that those wetlands.”

Malone also pointed to the propensity of wetlands to accumulate peat, which is partially-decayed organic matter, but the decomposition is hindered by the lack of oxygen in its surrounding environment. Therefore, peatlands are responsible for storing much terrestrial carbon.  

“Although they comprise only about 2% of the landscape on the terrestrial part of the Earth, they store somewhere between 20% and 25% of our terrestrial carbon,” she said. “So they perform a really important function in storing carbon and preventing it from being released rapidly to the country and thereby contributing to a warming planet.”

Malone hopes the talks will impart a sense of urgency in protecting the wetlands in the region and encourage folks to attend community events to learn more about local wetlands through Wilderness Workshop events like a BioBlitz or next year’s Naturalist Night series.  

“It’s a really important community meeting place. It’s something we’ve heard feedback from folks that attend, that, ‘Hey, come every Wednesday night,’” said Wilderness Workshop Advocacy Director Erin Riccio. “They gather, we have tea, we have cookies, they can connect with neighbors and friends and then just get to really dive into fascinating topics.”

Wilderness Workshops is hosting a snowshoe trip through the Homestake Valley, starting in Red Cliff, on Saturday. Check their website for registration details.