The State of the San Juans
Conference to investigate the health of the region

The San Juan Mountains, seen here bathed in evening light near Silverton, will be the subject of a three-day “State of the San Juans” conference this weekend hosted by Silverton’s Mountain Studies Institute. The annual event is designed to allow researchers to exchange information while engaging the general public in education about the area as well as discussion on ways to solve problems facing it./Photo by Jared Boyd

For the state of the San Juans to be a positive one, research, education and public awareness seem to be key. To that end, researchers, scientists, sociologists, land managers and others will congregate in the heart of the San Juan Mountains this weekend. They come together for the Mountain Studies Institute's “State of the San Juans” conference, “San Juan Mountains Science and Research: Linking Communities, Researchers and Practitioners.” Mountain Studies Institute (MSI), based in Silverton, will host the affair, which is designed to allow researchers of all fields to share information and discuss the well-being of the local mountain range.

“MSI's role is to collect, synthesize and disseminate information,” said Mountain Studies Director Ellen Stein. “There are gaps in information and data that researchers and land-managers utilize when making decisions about the region. The conference will allow clear dialogue as to what the data and research needs might be.”

The conference is not only about scientists, however. MSI and the researchers themselves are hopeful that community members also will attend the meeting, to learn not only hard facts but what is being done to promote the sustainable use of the San Juan's natural resources.

Essential to life

Bill Simon, coordinator of the Animas River Stakeholders Group, a group that focuses on reducing mineral contamination in the watershed, sees the conference as an opportunity to educate the community.

“The conference is not just about the state of scientific investigation,” he said. “It is also about the state of communities and how we are reacting to problems that are developing.”

Simon works in the trenches, so to speak. As a 34-year resident of the San Juans and a scientist working to improve water quality in an area riddled with old mines, he sees the repercussions of the contamination first hand. But he also sees

'Linking Communities, Researchers and Practioners'
Some of the West's finest researchers and scientists will present their findings at the State of the San Juans Conference this weekend, Sept. 24-26, in Silverton. The conference will be facilitated by the Mountain Studies Institute, and anyone interested in the science, history or sociology of the San Juans is welcome to attend. Colorado State Attorney General Ken Salazar will present this year's keynote address.

The conference kicks off Friday with six regional watershed groups showcasing their efforts. Other options for Friday include: Collaborative Community Based Natural Resource Protection and Conservation Partnerships; presentation of MSI's Scientific Research Database; as well as breakout discussion groups in several areas of interest.

Saturday's schedule will be highlighted by Salazar's discussion of Colorado water issues. Also on Saturday is Dr. Bill Baker's scientific opening address, “Science in the San Juans,” and “The ABC's of Seeking Funds,” presented by a panel of representatives from various funding organizations. Scientific presentations covers topics such as: riparian zones, watershed protection, rare and endemic plants of the San Juans, recent rock glacier investigations, ecological restoration, geologic hazard identification, to name a few.

Sunday is set aside for field trips to nearby areas including Senator Beck Basin, Chattanooga Fen, the Eureka Boarding House, and the Old Hundred Mine/Mayflower Mill. There also will be an Edible and Medicinal Plant Walking Tour.

– Shawna Bethell

possible solutions. The group has remediated about a dozen mine sites in the decade it's been in existence, and there are plans for the improvement of 67 more over the next several years. Since the initial projects, Simon has already noted improvement in the aquatic life in the waterways. These are all victories for conservation efforts. But problems do remain.

“The Animas River has the most severe loading to its streams,” said Simon. Loading is the deposition of heavy metals, such as copper, lead or zinc, in water via the drainage of acidic rock. Some loading is due to natural leeching but the problem 4 can be exacerbated by mining, grazing and road building. Considering that there have been 1,500 recognized mine sites in the Upper Animas Region, remediation is a huge undertaking. But there is also moderately strong public support for the stakeholders groups of which there are six regionally.

Although the Bush Administration has drastically cut funding for projects such as remediation efforts, Simon feels the general public understands that with the clean up, things are better than they were before.

“Water is essential to life,” he said. “That keeps the checks and balances in place. People will demand clean water, and it's more expensive to clean it at the tap than out here.”

Changes in the landscape

Water quality is not the only challenge in keeping the San Juans pristine. With the mining era at an end, much of that privately owned land is now up for sale. Most people don't realize that while the mining companies did devastate some of the land that they owned, much of it has remained untouched. In an effort to preserve some of those untouched parcels, organizations such as the Red Mountain Task Force are working with private land owners to keep vulnerable areas protected – either through purchase or easements – from commercial development while allowing public access to trails and four-wheel drive roads.

“We are making good progress,” said Ken Francis, of the Red Mountain Task Force, which has helped obtain 7,000 acres in the Red Mountain area between Silverton and Ouray.

“We have had tremendous support that crosses all political lines,” Francis said. “But it is all in light of the amount of pressure that has come about. Pressure to change the landscape.”

Francis explains a scenario that is happening with more and more frequency. Visitors come to the San Juans for the beauty, but they also become a threat. They want to purchase land then put up “no trespassing” signs in areas that, historically, the people have assumed was publicly owned.

“Local residents feel these lands represent our natural and cultural heritage. We are seeing a strong consensus to keep them pristine,” he added.

On the map

“The San Juans have been discovered,” said Denny Hogan, of the Forest Service's Columbine Ranger District. He and his colleagues have seen firsthand the pressure of that discovery on the San Juans. “Our greatest obstacle is educating the public in what they can and can't do on public lands.”

The Animas River, seen here as it winds its way from the mountains surrounding Silverton south to Durango, will be among the many subjects discussed this weekend at the Mountain Studies Institute’s “State of the San Juans” conference. The watershed is plagued by heavy metal contamination, both from natural and manmade sources./Photo by Jared Boyd

To facilitate the learning curve, the Forest Service has printed a “Forest Plan Map,” showing where visitors 4 can hike, bike or drive motor vehicles. Much of Forest Service employees' time is spent stopping people who may not have taken the time to familiarize themselves with the regulations and explaining to them what their responsibilities are.

“Often we don't ticket people,” said Hogan, “we just try to talk to them, but if it becomes a problem we will ticket them and the fines can be fairly substantial.”

A positive step in the direction of education has been the development of the San Juan Mountain Center. Located in Silverton, this collaboration of the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, Mountain Studies Institute and the San Juan Mountains Association is the first educational office of its type in the region. Still in its first year, it has been deemed a success by office personnel who assisted in fielding questions from 8,500 visitors over 18 weeks this summer.

Overall, Forest Service officials see an increase in motorized travel and unfortunately, if riders are not responsible in where they travel, the damage could be considerable to delicate areas of the tundra. That is why the Forest Plan Maps are so necessary, so people can enjoy their public lands without causing harm.

“We should be judged by our children as to the legacy we leave them,” said Hogan. “People should be able to recreate the way they want to but not destroy the landscape in the process. We have to educate them.”

Those on the front lines of science, research, public awareness and activism are making strides to keep the San Juans in a healthy state. Clearly, the burden now falls upon those of us who live and recreate in those same mountains.





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