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Rocky Mountain Field Institute's work is all around you, just look down

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RMFI volunteers don't mind get their hands dirty. - JUSTIN PETERSON
  • Justin Peterson
  • RMFI volunteers don't mind get their hands dirty.

Chances are, you've run all over the Rocky Mountain Field Institute's work.

If you've hiked Garden of the Gods, gone trail running or mountain biking or scaled a Fourteener; if you've hit the Barr Trail, climbed the Manitou Incline, or found peace by a Colorado Springs-area stream, RMFI probably had a hand in it.

"A lot of it is invisible — we're not working in places that are high traffic areas, so we're sort of behind the scenes," said RMFI executive director Jennifer Peterson.

"But everyone who finds out about what we're doing thanks us tremendously for all the hard work and sweat equity of protecting and preserving our public lands."

Colorado Springs-based RMFI leads major restoration initiatives around southern Colorado, builds and maintains trails and parks, and focuses on ecosystem protection, watershed rehabilitation and recreation impacts.

RMFI makes conserving and enhancing open spaces and water resources a community effort, bringing together volunteers, youth crews and conservation corps for wide-ranging trail and restoration projects.

The group is working with the Forest Service on a sustainable route to the top of Kit Carson Peak, an iconic Fourteener, as well as rehabilitating several miles of the Barr Trail. They've done trail and restoration work in Garden of the Gods for decades.

"Garden of the Gods is one of our longest-standing project sites," Peterson said. "It has 2 million visitors a year, and that's only going to keep rising. They've seen historic visitor numbers and tremendous use, so there'll always be work."

For three months each summer, RMFI sets up a back-country base camp at Kit Carson and rotates volunteers, RMFI crews and youth conservation crews through the site to complete "tremendously complex" work, Peterson said.

Research and education are also vital parts of the group's mission. RMFI runs an intensive, college-accredited, 30-day field studies course in the back country, where students help build the trail by day and study public lands management, ecology, botany and hydrology with lecturers who hike in at night.

The group has ongoing partnerships with Mile High Youth Corps and Southwest Conservation Corps, providing young adults 18 to 24 with real-world environmental leadership experience.

The work isn't just about creating and maintaining recreational spaces; RMFI is heavily involved in projects that center on preserving life and safety.

For years, RMFI has been restoring lands damaged by fire and floods on the Black Forest and Waldo Canyon burn scars, working on emergency stabilization of hill slopes, building erosion control structures, minimizing sedimentation to protect downstream water resources, and revegetating severely burned landscapes with native plant species.

A recent triumph saw RMFI volunteers plant 1,000 willows in an area of Waldo Canyon that had not responded to traditional revegetation efforts. It was a huge task: 300 willow cuttings were made and overnighted to a federal nursery in Nebraska to be potted and reproduced. Four months later, RMFI trucked the willows back to Waldo Canyon, where volunteers carried them through tough terrain and planted every last one. They are now thriving.

"It's exciting to move away from emergency site stabilization to a more long-term resilient approach to burn recovery," Peterson said.

The summer after the fire, Manitou Springs felt the brunt of the post-burn flooding and run-off that forced closure of Highway 24 about a dozen times, she said. "That's been happening less and less because of all the work that RMFI and our partners have done to keep soil in place, plant native vegetation, stabilize those hill slopes. It takes a long time, but all downstream life and safety will be protected because of this work."

Peterson points to another success — breakthrough work in the protection of the critically endangered greenback cutthroat trout. Designated as Colorado's state fish and once thought to be extinct, the greenback cutthroat trout was found in 2014 to exist solely in a single four-mile stretch of Bear Creek.

Since 2009, RMFI has been working with land owners, recreational users, nonprofit and advocacy groups, the Forest Service, and land management entities to figure out how to protect the fish while preserving recreational use of the land.

"It's exciting because the work has such tremendous meaning, to protect a threatened species that's in our backyard," Peterson said. "It's an incredible project in terms of the complexity and the number of stakeholders at the table, and now we're seeing all the meetings and work and studies come to fruition."

RMFI volunteers are building new trails, as well as closing and restoring the old trails in the watershed, to minimize the excess sedimentation that damages the fish's habitat.

A goal for 2017 is to complete Cheyenne Mountain State Park's new Dixon Trail, reaching the top of Cheyenne Mountain.

"That's going to open up the top of the park and give the most phenomenal views of the Front Range," Peterson said. "There's an old plane crash site from the '50s up there, there's an area up there called Robber's Roost — all kinds of colorful history. We can give the public yet another option for outstanding recreation here in the Pikes Peak region. Give! will help with that for sure."

Protecting humans and nature where they meet is heavy work — and endless. RMFI has a long list of projects to tackle. "It would be ideal if RMFI and our volunteers could have a presence in every single one of our parks, trails, open spaces, national forests, and we don't have the funding to do that," Peterson said.

RMFI saw an explosion in volunteer numbers after the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires, and in the past year has seen 120 percent growth in staffing and project numbers.

"The interest and demand in the community of coming out, getting dirty and giving back has continued, which is exciting," Peterson said.

She said RMFI's work would enable Colorado's public spaces to withstand both increasing recreational use and growing environmental pressures.

"We think of each and every person who goes out and hikes, runs, rides, volunteered just one day of their time protecting and taking care of those places — or just gave five dollars — there's no telling all the things we could accomplish."

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