EDWARDS — High above Edwards on the Berry Creek dirt road, Vail Resorts and the National Forest Foundation celebrated the achievements of the Ski Conservation Fund on Tuesday.
The Ski Conservation Fund is supported through micro-donations from guests from lodging and lift tickets, and those donations are pulled together and matched in part by the forest foundation and funneled out to nonprofits that work in the White River National Forest.
“It’s a great program that engages everyone and gets a lot of work done,” said Marcus Selig, the National Forest Foundation Colorado program director. “We started the Ski Conservation in 2006, and in just that short time we’ve collected and invested over 3 million in the White River National Forest. That’s coming from $1 and $2 donations from individuals.”
Since then, the Ski Conservation Fund has given grants to 19 different nonprofits across the forest — more than 50 grants that have accomplished more than 75 projects in the forest.
Since 2006, more than 12,000 volunteers have coordinated on Ski Conservation Fund projects, contributing more than 130,000 volunteer hours. More than 3,400 of those employed or engaged were youth.
“That, to me, is the mission of the Forest Foundation,” Selig said. “Conservation on the ground, stewardship on the ground and engagement. And there’s no better way to engage than through volunteerism.”
Sagebrush, soil and fire
The Forest Foundation and Vail Resorts chose the Berry Creek location to celebrate due to the impact the Ski Conservation Fund’s Sagebrush Enhancement project has had in that area, which abuts residential neighborhoods.
“We have concerns about the degree to which pinyon and juniper trees encroach into these communities, and the loss of those open sagebrush areas,” said Dave Neely, Forest Service district ranger. “Everything from pollinators, all the way through important bird species and up to deer and elk, the way they can be affected if these sagebrush landscapes convert over to pinyon-juniper woodlands.”
Neely said changing soil is a factor, but one of the main concerns with that type of conversion is fire.
“If fire does move through [pinyon-juniper woodlands], it’s much more likely to be a fast paced, damaging and scary crown fire.”
Lara Duran, a biologist with the Forest Service, said the sagebrush project is unique to our area.
“We’re somewhat treading new ground,” she said. “A lot of this science has already been well documented, well researched and implemented in places like the Great Basin, but not so much in the Colorado Rockies. So we’re sort of treading new ground as far as growing new, young sagebrush, growing grasses and forbs in this area, and getting rid of juniper.”
But in uncharted territory the need for new information is essential, and Duran said that’s what they’re encountering with the sagebrush enhancement project.
“Of course that means that we have to do lots of intensive monitoring, so we have to make sure that we’re doing the right thing in the right place and we’re having the intended effects with out having negative unintended effects,” she said.
Some of that monitoring is coming from youth in our area, said Peter Wadden, a field research educator with Walking Mountains Science Center in Avon.
“The monitoring that Lara said was so integral to this project, a portion of it is being done by local high school students on a paid internship,” he said. “I think it’s really unique that interns 15 to 18 years old get an opportunity to do science that has real ramifications, especially in their home ecosystem.
Markian Feduschak, the executive director of the Walking Mountains Science Center, said they were able to start the internship as a result of the funding they received from the Ski Conservation Fund.
“We had a student speak at one of our fundraisers recently,” Feduschak said. “He said ‘I grew up in this valley and I used to think that the sagebrush ecosystem was just a desert. And now I know it, and I love it, and I understand it, and it really matters to me.’”
Through donations from Vail Resorts, the National Forest Foundation is able to issue those noncompetitive grants which fund efforts like the sage enhancement project.
“We wouldn’t be able to do that kind of work with a direct grant program or an operational program of our own,” said Nicky DeFord, with Vail Resorts. “Hand-in-hand, the partnerships are so important ... Forest health, to us, is integral to our business. We want all of our employees, and all of our different lines of business to engage in some way with the forests that are around them.”