Ranchers partner on soil study initiative to preserve the lower Blue River Valley

Environmental scientist Chris Adkison takes a soil sample at Pass Creek Ranch on June 15. Samples will be analyzed to provide ranchers with information on how to keep their land climate resilient.
Eliza Noe/Summit Daily News

It was early in the morning when scientists, environmentalists and local leaders gathered Wednesday, June 15, at Pass Creek Ranch north of Silverthorne to continue the first phase of Friends of the Lower Blue River’s Climate Resiliency Initiative. The aim is to establish baseline data and recommend improvements on how the land can adapt to climate change.

Over the course of last week, Geosyntec — the consulting firm on the project — collected soil samples at four different ranches: Blue Tree Ranch, Pass Creek Ranch, Blue Valley Ranch and Otter Creek Ranch. Eight soil samples were taken from each ranch for testing. Several samples were taken at each site because one portion of the ground may be more compact, yet the soil could be much softer just 15 feet away.

In the time leading up to taking soil samples, the Geosyntec team created maps using aerial imaging to get an idea of what types of habitats exist on each ranch. The properties have various kinds of habitats, including forest, sage brush, agricultural, riparian and wetland.

“Being a botanist, I like to be able to see the different vegetation communities, and each one occurs in different habitat types. And they serve specific functions for the ecosystem,” Alexander Mathes, project ecologist, said. “This is a good opportunity for me to get an understanding of what’s happening out here. Ultimately, that’s going to be just a baseline study. That’s going to be what conditions they need to manage, the practices, what to prescribe for the landowner and ultimately help build climate resiliency.”

Environmental scientist Chris Adkison, left, and project ecologist Alexander Mathes, right, take a soil sample at Pass Creek Ranch on June 15, 2022. Samples will be analyzed to provide ranchers with information on how to keep their land resilient to climate change.
Eliza Noe/Summit Daily News

By looking at each habitat, Mathes said he will analyze assessment points, which includes the dominant vegetation species, hydrology and surface soils. Soil samples will be sent to the Cornell Soil Health Laboratory, and once the analysis is complete, scientists will look at the results to see what can be done to improve soil health across all of the ranches.   

Chris Adkison, an environmental scientist with Geosyntec, focused on taking those soil samples. He said that there are three general areas when looking at soil health. There are biological parameters, such as the microbial activity underground, the physical structure of the soil, or how well it binds itself together, and the chemical health, which includes nutrients and water retention. The laboratory analysis takes about six weeks, and there’s 12 tests that need to be run on each individual sample.

“Friends of the Lower Blue River was interested in a holistic approach to climate resiliency. (Mathes’) approach was from the habitat perspective, looking at plant communities and carbon stocks for the different ranches, as well,” Adkison said. “But there’s the whole below-ground aspect of the ranches — so the soil (and) what’s going on underneath with microbial activity. To understand the types of prescriptions to the landowners and the directions that these ranches may go, we need to understand just the baseline chemical, physical and biological health of the soil.”

Jonathan Knopf, executive director of Friends of the Lower Blue River, said that the group will hopefully be able to share its findings of the first phase by August. Once the data does come back, Knopf added that all of it will be accessible to anyone who wants to see, and he hopes that the project will take off to other private landowners and eventually public lands. 

“They’re going to tell us what they found, and then we’ll sit down and brainstorm what are the potential recommendations we can provide for these ranchers to help them improve their property, improve their ability to capture more carbon and pull more greenhouse gases out of the air,” Knopf said. “That’s kind of the overall simplified version.” 

He added that the goal of the entire Climate Resiliency Initiative is to preserve the landscape of the lower Blue River Valley for future generations, and the soil study is the first step of doing that. 

“We have to do something because if we don’t, in the next 20 years, this beautiful valley may not be here,” he said.

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