Eagle River Watershed Council: The amazing fens of the Homestake Valley

Rose Sandell
The Current
Wetlands in the Homestake Valley.
Todd Winslow Pierce | Eagle Valley Wild

Tucked off of Highway 24 at the southern edge of Eagle County and sitting in the shadows of Mount of the Holy Cross and Homestake Peak is the Homestake Valley. Homestake Creek meanders along its length and it teems with amazing wildlife, stunning hiking opportunities and diverse plant life. Little-known to many who visit this valley, however, are the impressive wetlands that have existed in Homestake Valley for thousands of years.

In Colorado, wetlands cover only 3% of the state’s surface area, but they create critical habitat for more species than any other type of landscape in the state. Wetlands are defined as areas where water at least partially covers soil and plants, and they can be found where the groundwater table is at or close to the surface.

Imagine a sponge filled with water. The soils and types of plant life that exist in wetland areas create an environment very similar to a sponge. Wetlands can hold incredible amounts of water and form unique ecosystems due to the consistent presence of that water. One indicating factor for wetland identification is if they are peatland. Not every wetland is a peatland, but every peatland is a wetland. 

Peatlands contain a layer of partially decomposed organic material, or peat soil. Peat soil forms under special conditions when this material decomposes. There must be plenty of water present, there must be low pH, there must be low amounts of oxygen and there must be low nutrient content. These conditions create peatland, but more specifically these conditions create a fen, not always a bog.

As opposed to bogs, which receive most of their water and nutrients from the atmosphere, fens receive most of their water and nutrients from the ground. They are found in high-elevation and dry climates. One of the (many) reasons we believe the Eagle River Watershed is so special is that there are fens here — they’re found in the Homestake Valley, located at more than 9,000 feet in elevation, and are some of the only fens in Colorado.

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Mind-blowingly, these fens, including those in Homestake Valley, take thousands of years — up to 10,000 — to develop. Think of this peat like a mat made up of decaying vegetation. With every growing season, another mat is laid atop the last. The short growing seasons at the high altitude where fens are found mean that the peats take a long time to form. In fact, it takes an average of 2,000 years to form 8 inches of peat in fens, and most fens are deeper than 8 inches.

Fens, unlike many types of ecosystems, have the ability to absorb carbon from the atmosphere. They are home to vascular plants, or “tube plants,” that move water and nutrients as they grow upward. These plants often have impressive root systems which capture carbon, making them carbon sinks.

The fens in our watershed are located near the headwaters of the Eagle River. In 2011, the Colorado Natural Heritage Program conducted research on fens, which included a survey on the Homestake Valley. This research project found that the fens in Homestake are mostly untouched and have no invasive species present within them. Some of the plants identified included tufted hair grass, beaked sedge and fen peatmoss. All of these species are native to the Homestake Valley.

While the Homestake Valley offers many great hikes to sparkling high-alpine lakes, as well as opportunities to see local wildlife, its most unique characteristic is its presence of fens. The fens are a wonder that creates habitat for plants and animals and are valuable carbon sinks.

To find out more about fens and see for yourself what makes the Homestake Valley so unique, join Eagle River Watershed Council, Wilderness Workshop and Walking Mountains for a hands-on Community Science Day on Aug. 14 from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Registration for this event is required and is nearly full. Visit to learn more and to register.

Rose Sandell is the education and outreach coordinator for Eagle River Watershed Council. The Watershed Council has a mission to advocate for the health of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education and projects. Contact the Watershed Council at (970) 827-5406 or visit

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