Walking Mountains shows off its Sweetwater campus to donors | VailDaily.com

Walking Mountains shows off its Sweetwater campus to donors

Carolyn Pope
Special to the Daily

A few years ago, Vail Mountain School, at the suggestion of Ann Smead chair of the Board of Directors, approached Walking Mountains Science Center about a property it owned north of Dotsero, in a small area called Sweetwater.

The school had purchased the land with the intention of building a soccer field since the current location has limited playing time due to the long winter season in East Vail. What they hadn't realized fully was the nature of the climate; the plot of land is very arid and receives minimal rainfall, so maintaining a grassy area would be challenging. Smead felt that Walking Mountains would be an ideal owner as it could expand its field science and educational programs. Smead and Michael Byram made a lead gift, followed by major gifts from the Precourt Family, the George Family, and Kathy Borgen.

They all saw a vision for Sweetwater, and Smead stated it beautifully when she was honored at Walking Mountains' gala a few years ago: "Imagine kids from a trailer park who've never slept outside, sleeping under the stars at Sweetwater."

The logistics

From the lush, 10-acre area that currently houses Walking Mountains' Avon campus, the 224 acres at Sweetwater offer a very different experience. The acreage is located next to the old Anderson Camp, which is now a Boy Scout camp. Close to the Colorado River, the acreage is varying shades of browns and pale greens, ripe with juniper, sage brush and pinyon pines.

"This isn't more," said President Markian Feduschak, "It's different."

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Guests at the EdVenture event for donors last week were divided into groups and traipsed off with educators to learn what this area has to offer. Unlike the mountain ecosystem in Avon, a different variety of fauna and flora coexist; for example, the aspen, covered in shiny, broad green leaves release moisture; the plants in Sweetwater have thick waxy leaves that protect the plant from losing water and have tap roots that shoot straight down to reach moisture deep within the ground. There's also a co-evolution of animals and trees, such as the pinyon jays who consume the nutty product of the cones on a pinyon pine, which can only release it's seed by being cracked open, and, yes, pooped out from the jay. The geology is fascinating and spectacular; tectonic plates have shifted and collapsed into folds, creating a panorama of undulating waves in the mountains.

Walking in the right direction

Walking Mountains has a very aggressive vision of their expansion and are experts at multitasking. Although educational programs are the bedrock of their mission, over 2,000 locals benefited from energy audits they sponsored this last year. They have a climate action plan in which they are involving the government and local businesses. They offer zero-waste services for separating compost, recyclables and landfill items. They have a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the valley by 80 percent by 2050. Over 10 percent of the emissions come from the local landfill, which emphasizes why their zero-emission plan is critical.

Walking Mountains originated as Gore Range Natural Science School with a budget of $450,000. The organization has now grown to a budget of $3,500,000, but, as Feduschak says, "the numbers matter less than the people we serve."

And, when it comes to people, they serve well. The organization's total reach per year is an amazing 127,000 individuals. Over 4,500 in 23 public and private schools located throughout the Eagle Valley experience science in the field. The public school population served looks a great deal like many inner cities, with 52 percent Hispanic, 42 percent eligible for free and reduced lunch, and 35 percent classified as English Language Learners. Expansion is necessary, though; in one year, over 1,000 children were on the wait list for their programs outside of school. No doubt, Walking Mountains is a significant educational institution, not just here, but throughout the state and beyond.

Although the summer will be morphing into fall soon, there are still many programs on the calendar, including backcountry hikes, fall color hikes, hiking through history with the Eagle County Historical Society and the science behind winemaking.

For more information on the programs offered by Walking Mountains or to learn how you can make an environmental impact in our county, please visit their website at walking mountains.org.