The Anatomy of Copper Mountain’s Wetlands |

The Anatomy of Copper Mountain’s Wetlands

ON A STUNNING SATURDAY morning in August, throngs of visitors were pouring off Copper’s American Eagle lift. With hiking boots in place of ski boots, they’d come to the high country to escape the heat. Across the country temperatures were intolerable for weeks on end. But here at about 11,300 feet, the morning sun had finally warmed the earth enough to stow away the fleece. Along the pathway to Solitude Station, everyone stopped in their tracks. It was sweet relief in the form of a cool mountain stream wandering its way across a lush sub-alpine meadow. Cameras clicked and packed lunches were eaten, all to the sound of cascading water. No one would forget this mountain stream. But few people could appreciate how it still flowed long after the last snow had melted.

Standing on a platform overlooking the much-admired meadow, a group of twelve visitors, assembled for a nature hike, was about to find out why.

“This is a very valuable piece of real estate, not just for us but for plants and animals” said Jennifer Walker, a naturalist with the US Forest Service. “What you see all around you are wetlands.” The group looked surprised. Without cattails or marshlands, the scene didn’t match popular images of a wetland. This high-country version was covered knee-deep in willows and thick blankets of grass. And though it didn’t look particularly wet, beneath the surface lurked more than enough water to soak the average hiking boots. “Most people wouldn’t think of wetlands in the mountains,” Walker conceded. “But they are abundant in the high country. And they perform just as important a function as they do in other places.”

Over the next hour, Walker’s audience received a crash course in alpine ecology. They learned about how bears and lions, moose and elk, porcupines, geese and marmots depend on wetlands for water, critical to their survival. Wetlands are best thought of as giant sponges, according to Walker. They soak up snowmelt in the spring, then slowly release it during the arid months of summer and fall when it is needed most. Disturb the wetlands and the whole system will be impacted, which means a sad goodbye to all the creatures dependent on the habitat.

The skiers and riders among us likely wondered how this busy trail intersection, buried much of the year under four feet of snow, could readily transform itself into a healthy, productive wetland? For that matter, how do wetlands and ski areas co-exist? Over the next several days, I went on a quest to find out.

The first thing I learned is that when it comes to managing wetlands, Copper has its hands full. Imagine running a ski area across 4,000 acres, that receives nearly one million skier visits a year, in a place where wetlands abound. Thanks to such factors as abundant snowfall, elevation, aspect, and sound management, wetlands comprise roughly 15 percent of the resort’s permit area. Many of the beginner runs are virtually one continuous wetland.

For Copper to even be in the business of managing wetlands, a monumental shift in public perceptions was required. Not long ago wetlands were largely seen as standing in the path of progress: a nuisance to be drained and filled. Millions of acres were plowed under and wildlife suffered accordingly. Since Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1977, numerous regulations were enacted and agencies mobilized on behalf of wetlands. These days, most people appreciate wetlands for the many benefits they provide. Political support for wetlands remains quite strong, especially for those on public lands.

Copper leases most of its land from the US Forest Service, which makes wetland management all the more complex. People care passionately about their public lands, so proposing a new project usually requires traversing a political minefield. Widen a trail, install a chair lift, or extend a road and they’re bound to run into a wetland. And run smack into opposition, from half a dozen government agencies and at least as many environmental groups.

To learn more about such efforts, I met with Mark Burnell. His title is “Managing Director of Planning and Projects.” Loosely speaking, Mark is a mountain planner. It’s his job to craft special projects and shepherd them through various planning forums, as Copper seeks approval to continue expanding and enhancing mountain operations. The latest project, for which an environmental impact statement (EIS) is currently being drafted, proposes an additional chair lift in Copper Bowl, a modest expansion in skiable terrain, and major expansions to snow-making capacities. As with any project, potential impacts to wetlands were a major concern. I found Mark in his office, pouring over voice and e-mail inquiries regarding the project. Though he claimed not to be a “techie,” technology shapes many aspects of his job. Strapped to his chest was a communications harness – including radio, cell phone, and palm pilot – everything he needed to conduct business on the fly, as he dashes between public meetings and site visits. Burnell is a veteran at Copper, having worked more years than he cares to admit. He’s as familiar with the mountain as his well-worn ski boots, knowledge that serves him daily.

“We do a lot of good things on behalf of the environment,” Burnell stated. To support his belief, he booted up his computer and, with a few clicks of the mouse, pulled down the latest version of the wetlands map, stored on the consultant’s web site. “You can see where all the green shading is, those are all wetlands that were identified and delineated during our ’98 inventory,” said Burnell. The effort was costly and time consuming, he explained. Every acre of wetlands was walked and delineated using global positioning satellites. But the results were impressive. From his desk Burnell can make informed decisions, accurate to within a meter. He pointed out several places where, using these electronic maps, lines of the proposed snowmaking system were rerouted to avoid wetlands.

Throughout our discussion one word kept coming up: “Avoidance.” It’s the main paradigm of wetland management. Avoid causing impacts to wetlands and everyone will be happy. So what happens if wetland impacts can’t be avoided? To answer this question, Mark took me to the thirteenth hole of Copper Creek golf course. On the edge of the cart path, covering a small patch of land, was a mitigation site. A trickle of water filtered into the corner. Spindly plugs of willows struggled to take hold. Some imagination was needed to envision what the two acre site might become. The project was required by the Army Corp of Engineers, the federal agency responsible for approving all impacts to wetlands. The Corps’ policy is straightforward. If wetland impacts cannot be avoided, then new wetlands must be created, acre for an acre, to replace the old. This site mitigated roughly one acre of wetlands that was impacted during the construction of Copper Bowl. Mitigation is very expensive and success is by no way guaranteed. Only time would tell. Up to 40 percent of mitigation sites fail to take hold, according to Sonja Chavez, wetlands specialist for Summit County. `The best form of mitigation is avoidance.’ I heard it said many times and now I understood why.

Having glimpsed into special projects, it was time to roll up my pants and wade into the realm of ski area operations. We parked the king sized pick-up on the broad side of a switchback and headed into the woods. For this field trip, my guide was Brian Amundson, a 14 year veteran of mountain operations. Brian is a slope maintenance supervisor. Everyone knows him as “Smoothy,” it would seem for his laid-back nature. We took a shortcut to the job site, descending a treacherous gully, fording a stream, and assaulting a headwall to emerge at Sawmill Flats, a place near Eagle Lift where three runs merge into one. For years the area posed a danger to skiers, providing no clear view of oncoming traffic. The work plan called for widening the trail by trimming back a tree island and grading the camelback hump so skiers and riders wouldn’t catch blind air into oncoming traffic. It was a straight-forward job, except for the presence of a wetland. To the layperson it looked like a thick patch of grass that sloped off toward the trees, where a small creek trickled. But the area had been flagged as a wetland during the ’98 inventory and, thus, was being treated with all due respect. As we surveyed the scene, Smoothy’s crew arrived with tools and heavy machinery – a backhoe and dozer, a couple dozen hay bales, and few hundred feet of rolled-up “sed fence,” short for sediment fencing. This nylon mesh material is erected whenever soil is disturbed to prevent erosion from entering a stream or wetland. It’s a standard tool of the trade.

Working in the silence of familiar routine, the crew unfurled and erected sed fence along the wetland’s perimeter, then began the heavy work of excavation. Smoothy pointed out all the steps that were taken to protect the environment. Trees were felled in the springtime and dragged across the snow to prevent vegetation damage. Top soils were separated from mineral soils to assist in re-vegetation efforts. Bales of certified weed-free hay were used to protect the fence from rolling rocks and later broken up and spread across the site as mulch.

Such methods fall under the category of “best management practices,” low impact techniques that continually evolve over time, as people find better ways to do their job and protect the resource. Another example of this evolution is Copper’s effort to `daylight’ creeks. Creeks flowing across ski runs cause early season snow to slump, creating treacherous trenches for skiers. The old remedy entailed straddling old logs across the creek, a practice that’s unsightly and unfriendly to wildlife. Copper is phasing out these log decks in favor of plastic culverts. Cut in half, they act as bridges and are light enough to install by hand. They’re placed before the snow flies and removed in the summer months, providing access to wildlife and aesthetic enjoyment for recreationists.

Sue Miller, the US Forest Service snow ranger who is responsible for administering Copper’s permit, said this evolution in management is a by-product of people who care about the resource. “They want to be light on the land. They’re very good about that. Practices once commonplace are now considered a thing of the past,” said Miller. “Everybody is much more aware of wetlands and their importance. We’re just a lot more sensitive these days.” As Smoothy and I left the job site, I asked him about this idea. He agreed, citing Copper’s extraordinary efforts to avoid wetlands during construction of the mountain bike trail and disc golf course. “Everybody on our crew is up to speed on erosion and wetlands issues,” he said. Awareness he attributed to age and experience. Nearly everyone has worked at Copper for ten years or longer, more than enough time to connect with the place. “None of us want to mess anything up. It’s our home. We all live here in the area and care about the environment,” Smoothy said.

As I made my way back through the village, the last recreationists of the day were descending by bike, chair lift, and toss of the disc. Copper is definitely more parkland than wilderness, to be sure. But its wetlands remain largely intact, enough so that elk and fox and bear can still share the place with skiers and other recreationists. Their future at Copper seemed to depend more on people who care about the mountain, than on laws and regulatory agencies. I remembered Mark Burnell’s parting words. “It’s the best asset we have. Why would we ever consider defacing it?” I drove away knowing that Copper’s wetlands were in good hands.

Anatomy of a Wetland

Think you know a wetland when you see one? According to Summit County’s wetland specialist Sonya Chavez, identifying a wetland can be rather tricky, especially up here in the high country. Following are three attributes a wetland must possess:

Hydrology: A wetland is usually wet, but it needn’t be all the time. A wetland should have water present during at least five percent of the growing season. Scant time here in the high country!

Hydric Soils: Maybe water isn’t showing, but its likely just beneath the surface. Wetlands will have soils that are squishy and saturated. It may appear safe for walking, but stroll across and suddenly you’re standing ankle deep in water.

Hydrophytic Vegetation: A wetland, will generally be occupied by water-loving vegetation. Up here in the high country, cattails are generally out. Willows are in, with over 100 species, as are sedges and rushes, not to mention the far more glamorous wild iris and marsh marigold.

Types of Wetlands

In this wetlands delineation map, different types of wetlands are shown through use of different patterning and coloration. Wetlands at Copper were primarily classified based on hydrologic source. However, wetland plant communities are easily observed across the landscape. Dominant wetland plant communities and typical species encountered at Copper are presented below.

Emergent Wetlands include wet meadows, hillside seeps and fens. Typical vegetation includes blue joint grass, water sedge, marsh marigold, globe flower, blue bells, forget-me-not and monkshood.

Scrub Wetlands consist of woody vegetation less than 20 feet tall.

Shrub Wetlands are dominated by wolf willow. Other common species here are plain leaf willow, coyote willow, montane willow, speckled alder and red stem dogwood.

Fens, noted for their organic soil, are dominated by herbaceous or woody species. Typical plants include blue joint grass, water sedge, elephant head flower, plain leaf and wolf willow and mosses.

Forested Wetlands are dominated by spruce/fir forest, quaking aspen and/or both. Typical plants includes monkshood, bitter cress, marsh marigold, globe flower and blue bells.

Riverine are wetland habitats contained within a defined bed and bank (channel). Water is usually flowing (not always) in this system.

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