EAGLE COUNTY — Get Dave Neely involved in an animated conversation about public lands, and he doesn’t need a second cup of coffee that day.
Neely, the district ranger for the U.S. Forest Service’s Eagle and Holy Cross ranger districts, is excited about what a large donation from the National Forest Foundation will help accomplish on local public lands this year.
This year’s to-do list includes a sagebrush habitat project on the north side of Interstate 70, as well as a habitat-protection project at the top of Red Dirt Creek that will benefit both grazing cattle and greenback cutthroat trout, one of the few trout species native to the state.
Those projects aren’t highly visible, and neither sounds particularly exciting — unless you’re Neely — but they’re important. Work in the sagebrush north of Singletree will help reduce wildfire danger near a populated area and will provide improved habitat for bugs that pollinate plants, as well as animals that eat the plants and bugs. Those projects, along with more than a dozen others in the White River National Forest, involve the Forest Service and a large group of nonprofit and government agencies, including the Walking Mountains Science School and Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
Neely said the only federal money going into the projects is to pay existing employees for their time. The rest comes from donations.
Those donations — more than $3 million since 2007 — come from the Ski Conservation Fund. Money comes into the fund from donations by people buying ski passes and lodging from resort companies.
Vail Resorts owns all but two of the resorts in Summit and Eagle counties, and, as you’d expect, contributes the lion’s share of the donations. Nicky DeFord, the company’s director of charitable contributions, said the Ski Conservation Fund has been so successful during the years that a couple of grant programs have been established — for both competitive and non-competitive grants.
Those grants go to organizations including the Walking Mountains Science Center, the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative and the Student Conservation Association. Those groups are able to provide the manpower to go with the money. During the past six summers, more than 87,000 volunteer hours have been dedicated to projects.
The foundation funding has also provided paychecks for thousands of summer jobs.
This summer, Colorado Fourteeners is working on trail and campsite maintenance at several tall peaks in the White River National Forest, including Mount of the Holy Cross. A restoration project is also planned for the Booth Creek trail in Vail.
Projects like those are more noticeable than habitat-enhancement where cattle graze. But, Neely said, the profile of projects doesn’t really enter into how priorities are set.
“Whether the public recognizes it or not,” important projects need to be done, Neely said. And, with volunteers and part-time people doing much of the work, the projects will help those people understand the value of, say, thinning junipers out of sagebrush stands.
And, with the public using public land at places such as Vail Mountain, Neely sees an opportunity to educate even more people about the value of public lands. When the resort company creates the educational part of its planned summer recreation center, Neely believes people will come to ride the “Forest Flyer” around the mountain, and they might just learn a little bit about Red Dirt Creek.
“It’s a fantastic portal to public lands,” Neely said. “And it’s a way to tell stories we struggle to tell.”
Beyond the work, Neely said getting the public engaged with forest and other public lands is a goal in and of itself. And, he said, if the public learns more about its lands, and then uses them, then communities around the forests will benefit.
It works out well for everyone, Neely said.
“I love it when you can reduce the fire hazard (near Singletree), improve the habitat and get kids out on the ground,” he said.
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2939 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.