Breckenridge eyes Cucumber Gulch nature center
BRECKENRIDGE – Despite the new snow in Cucumber Gulch, the first signs of spring are slowly but surely appearing, as red-winged blackbirds trill in the bare willows, wing patches glittering like rubies among the drab brown branches.”They’re really the guardians of the willow groves,” said Peg Alig, Breckenridge Nature Series coordinator, going on to describe the sights and sounds of the season’s first Breckenridge Nature Series hike in the Gulch, timed to coincide with the vernal equinox.March’s hike in Cucumber Gulch was the first in this year’s series, a two-year-old, quickly-growing program. The second takes place this Saturday.In 2003, 625 people participated in 18 programs. Last year, 1,150 people joined in a total of 28 events ranging from astronomy nights at the golf course to the popular wildflower hikes.With the popularity proven, town officials are starting to look at the possibility of building a nature center (to be used in conjunction with Nordic Center operations) as a base for interpretive activities – as well as for scientific research.
The town put $145,000 in this year’s budget for planning and design of the new nature center and open space and trails planner Heide Andersen’s work has begun.”We want the building to be built green as a model for sustainable development,” Andersen said, explaining that the nature series and center could be an anchor point for spurring the growth of ecofriendly nature tourism in Breckenridge. As an example of a successful facility, Andersen describes a sea life interpretive center she has visited in Seward, Alaska.While Breckenridge is known primarily for its recreational amenities, Andersen says the nature series could become an ecodestination in itself.”We have some unique natural resources here,” she said.She said a wildlife rehabilitation center is being discussed as a possible component of the nature center.
Andersen also wants to see the nature center and Cucumber Gulch serve as a research area for cutting-edge science.Planned for this summer is an intensive boreal-toad research program. If the funding comes through – Andersen said Vail Resorts has promised its support and hopes are high for a Colorado Division of Wildlife grant – researchers will try to track down some of the rare toads and use tiny radio collars to track their seasonal movements. Toads will also be examined for signs of a fungus that has decimated some populations. If boreal toads in Cucumber Gulch are found to be free of the fungus, the area could serve as a potential reintroduction site, Andersen said.Even before a nature center is built, Cucumber Gulch has started to serve as an important Colorado research location, said Christy Carello, a professor at Metro State College in Denver who specializes in ecology and conservation biology. Carello has been monitoring conditions in the gulch for two years, and said she plans to step up research efforts this summer.
She said the gulch is one of the state’s best examples of an alpine forested wetlands complex, including rare and slow-forming fens – organic, spongy swamps with important wildlife habitat values. Along with serving as a potential breeding site for vanishing boreal toads, Cucumber Gulch also provides important habitat for migratory songbirds, including Wilson’s Warblers and fox sparrows, Carello said.Much of her current work she describes as basic conservation monitoring – looking at species diversity and abundance, and keeping a close eye on the vegetation. “The vegetation is one of the first things to change when an ecosystem is under stress,” Carello said. Bob Berwyn can be contacted at (970) 668-3998, ext. 228, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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