Colorado’s Fourteeners — mountain peaks with altitudes of at least 14,000 feet — draw more than 500,000 hikers and climbers each year.
While those numbers are great for tourist dollars and local economies, it’s not always great on the wilderness itself and for all the well-informed, conscientious hikers, there are those who either willfully or unknowingly ignore leave-no-trace and low-impact practices.
This can be particularly hard on the alpine tundra ecosystems, which exist above the tree lines on the peaks.
Although the plants there are able to withstand extreme temperatures and climate conditions, a trampling human foot can do a lot of damage, which is not as noticeable as ecological damage to forested areas.
In order to halt and even reverse such damage, the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative (CFI) has created various projects throughout the state to care for the alpine tundra while still allowing hikers access to the coveted 14er peaks.
This weekend, CFI will partner with Xcel Energy and CBS4 for Xcel Energy’s Day of Service. For the third consecutive year, Xcel Energy employees have gathered to volunteer for one day with various parks and recreation projects throughout the state. This year employees chose from a list of nine projects, including the trail restoration on Quandary Peak with CFI.
“One of the important things is that we understand we live, work and play in the very communities that we operate in,” said Jerome Davis, regional vice president, public service company of Colorado, Xcel Energy.
While the Day of Service pertains to Xcel Energy employees, anyone is welcome to join in the Quandary Peak restoration project.
“We tell folks come on, join the fun, you’ll feel good and you’re going to help us in creating a positive effect throughout Colorado,” Davis said. “Just (a few) hours that we can get out here can produce such tremendous energy — no pun intended — in terms of uplifting a community, in terms of things that are important to them.”
The work on Quandary Peak will focus on trail restoration and improvement, erosion reversal and re-vegetation.
Throughout the past two decades, traffic on the mountain peaks has increased, which has had an impact on the mountain ecosystems, said CIF executive director Lloyd Athearn.
“In the mid-90s, there was a growing awareness among land managers and groups engaged in outdoor recreation that there are a lot more people on the mountains and a lot more impact. Most of the impact stemmed from the fact that the way people got from trailhead to summit on the Fourteeners was never planned.”
When intrepid climbers passed tree line and the trail petered out, they struck out on their own, often climbing in the most direct route, straight up toward the summit. This meant trampling on the alpine tundra plants, something that the delicate ecosystem did not handle well.
“There’s kind of a naïve assumption that the tundra is a robust and hardy ecosystem,” said Coby Gierke, field programs manager for CFI. “In ways it certainly is, it’s one of the most extreme ecosystems in the U.S., it sees the harshest weather conditions and growing conditions, (but) it’s certainly not adapted to human impact.”
In order to restore areas that have been trampled, volunteers will re-plant tundra plants by either transplanting them from undamaged areas, or spreading seeds taken from nearby plants.
“We’re helping the natural process, because these plants are very, very slow growing. Some of the scientific literature would say they’re 10 to 1,000 times slower at growing than plants you’d find below timberline,” Athearn said. “Left to its own devices, nature will re-take these areas, but it will happen at a very glacial pace, and if we can assist in that process, things will happen much faster.”
The trail will also be improved, shored up by retaining walls and rock steps. This will not only make the climb easier and more pleasant for hikers, but also protect the surrounding area.
Saturday’s volunteers will help with digging, moving rocks and replanting. While volunteers should be physically fit, they don’t need to be weight lifters to help out, Athearn said.
“We’re not necessarily looking for power lifters, people like that. If you have the physical fitness to hike and climb a 14er, to spend six to eight hours exercising at altitude, you’ve probably got the fitness to work on a project with us.”
Athearn referred it is as “extreme gardening,” and said that anyone who loves being outdoors and in nature would enjoy the project.
CFI also works on the educational aspect of peak maintenance, putting up kiosks and informational boards at trailheads and along the path. By informing hikers of the fragility of the ecosystem and giving tips for leave-no-trace practices, Athearn hopes that ecological damage can be avoided.
“With these ecosystems being very fragile, it’s a situation where a small number of people not following good leave-no-trace practice can end up doing a huge amount of damage,” Athearn said, “and conversely, a lot of people who are staying on the trail and are informed about their potential impact can recreate causing minimal damage.”
In addition to helping maintain and restore a popular recreation area, Athearn, Davis and the others assert that volunteers should also have fun.
“We want this to be a good experience for everyone,” Athearn said. “When people experience how much fun it is to be up there with likeminded people giving back, even over a short one-day project, you can really see what people can do to improve the trail and also help with re-vegetation efforts.”