‘More than a pretty garden’ in Vail | VailDaily.com

‘More than a pretty garden’ in Vail

Stephen Lloyd Wood
Daily Correspondent
Vail, CO Colorado

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Ironically, if there’s one notion Nicola Ripley would like to change, or enhance, it would be that Betty Ford Alpine Gardens is a wonderful place to enjoy beautiful flowers.

Sure, at 8,250 feet above sea level, the Gardens is the highest botanical garden in the United States, and perhaps the world, where an estimated 100,000 people visit annually – many of them just to see those beautiful flowers. The setting, in Vail’s Ford Park, is so inspiring it’s become a popular place not only for local people to relax amid the floral splendor, but for artists to create, even for couples to get married.

“But, it’s far more than a pretty garden,” says Ripley, an Eagle resident who oversees plant collection and research projects as director of horticulture there. “Betty Ford Alpine Gardens also is a unique research center, a botanical laboratory of sorts for one of the most vulnerable ecosystems in the world.”

“We’re seeing great change due to unprecedented climate change, and plants that live only on some high mountaintops in Colorado are in serious danger,” adds Ripley, whose greater role is beginning to resemble that of actor Bruce Dern’s botanical-Noah-like character in the movie “Silent Running.” “I’m trying to help answer the question: What are we going to do about that?”

With a master’s degree in ecology from University College of North Wales, Ripley has worked for some of the giants in the field, including the Nature Conservancy Council and the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology, in England. For five years, before joining the Gardens, she was co-owner and director of Montane Environmental Solutions Ltd, an environmental consulting company based in Eagle County that conducted rare plant studies, environmental-impact analyses and wetland surveys for private and governmental clients.

In 2008, Ripley was named president of the North America’s top professional gardening organization, the American Public Gardens Association – a role that’s allowed her to share tables with some of the world’s other leaders in conservation. It’s work that serves her passion; but it also builds upon Betty Ford Alpine Gardens’ credibility, and, in turn, brings worldwide attention to Vail.

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What are some local and/or regional programs with which the Gardens is involved?

NR: Since 2002, the Gardens has been working closely with the Bureau of Land Management and the Colorado Natural Areas Program to study plant life on the Roan Plateau, a mountainous area about 100 miles west of here. It’s prized not only for its remote backcountry, but also for its rich energy reserves.

Of particular interest are two rare plant species, the Parachute penstemon, Penstemon debilis, and the Debeque milkvetch, Astragalus debequaeus. Last year, we began a reintroduction program up there; and while we’re still waiting for results, I’d say, all in all, that program’s been a success.

We also work with the Adopt-a-Rare-Plant program, in which we check up on sites throughout Eagle County to make sure certain plants are doing OK. Sometimes, records are old, or there’s been significant human interaction since the past visit. It’s all part of the Colorado Natural Heritage Program, which assesses the rarity of plants on an ongoing basis.

How do these local and/or regional programs figure into national conservation efforts?

NR: Nationally, we’ve joined with the U.S. Forest Service to write the North American Strategy for Alpine Plant Conservation, which aims to guide conservation efforts in this time of unprecedented climate change. Some of the most vulnerable areas, like those above the tree line, could be in real danger. Our targets include conserving 60 percent of the threatened species in their native habitat, as well as in areas accessible to the public. In most cases, that will mean saving and protecting seeds. But if we don’t know how to grow the seeds, then what good is that? We need botanical gardens to develop protocols for how to succeed in growing these plants. This is a big part of what we do at Betty Ford Alpine Gardens, yes. But it’s all part of not only a national strategy, but a global strategy.

So, the work you do here in Vail has global implications, as well?

NR: Certainly. For example, I was in Dublin, Ireland, last month for the Global Botanical Garden Congress with 400 other delegates from botanical gardens around the world, including China and South America. We identified a need for a new initiative looking at ocean island flora, which, like high alpine plants, are particularly vulnerable to climate change.

Plants in danger of going extinct sometimes can be reintroduced within a botanical garden’s collection, however, and that information needs to be available for further research. Another initiative aims to get data from all the world’s botanical gardens, including Betty Ford Alpine Gardens, in one place, under one roof, so to speak.

What’s an example of the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens directly contributing to research of global importance?

NR: Due to all this international collaboration, our database here at the Gardens has been shared with other botanical gardens, and I get calls from all over the world from researchers looking to conserve plants in their areas. Last year, for example, I got a call from The Netherlands from someone researching Himalayan irises. I cut small samples of several specimens we had growing here at the Gardens and sent them to her, saving her a trip to the Himalaya.

What does all this mean for you and the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens?

NR: It’s all very rewarding, personally. But, mainly, I do this for the love of it.

Being president of the American Public Gardens Association, however, has put me in some very important seats at tables with leaders of organizations that are very influential in conservation worldwide, as well as the BLM and the Forest Service. It’s good to have people at high levels hear what I have to say as president of the APGA. But I also represent Betty Ford Alpine Gardens. So, with me the Gardens is at the table, too.

And what does all this mean for Vail?

NR: Vail is sitting on something of inherent value worldwide. While our work here depends on private donations – and that sometimes presents enormous challenges in funding – we push on toward some very important goals.

It’s interesting, and it’s all fun. But it’s on the cutting edge, and Vail is definitely an important place on the global conservation map.

Stephen Lloyd Wood is media liaison for Betty Ford Alpine Gardens. For more information, call 970-476-0103, ext. 3, or visit http://www.bettyfordalpinegardens.org.