Joe Lavorini of the Rocky Mountain Field Institute turns over soil in Black Forest Regional Park.
Joe Lavorini of the Rocky Mountain Field Institute turns over soil in Black Forest Regional Park.
Joe Lavorini of the Rocky Mountain Field Institute turns over soil in Black Forest Regional Park.
Joe Lavorini of the Rocky Mountain Field Institute turns over soil in Black Forest Regional Park.

Mark Hesse would be proud of his legacy. The founder of the American Mountain Foundation died early this year in an indoor climbing accident in Boulder. His organization, however, which started as a climbing advocacy program 30 years ago, has since morphed into the Rocky Mountain Field Institute, an organization focused on environmental stewardship that has affected thousands of lives in the Pikes Peak region.

“Hesse saw these climbing areas were being loved to death,” said Joe Lavorini, program coordinator for the Colorado Springs-based 501(c)3. “It was awesome that climbing was exploding in popularity, but there wasn’t the infrastructure to sustain the increased use. He saw a need to basically take care of these areas.”

According to its website, “RMFI is committed to protecting and enhancing the ecological health of land and water resources by completing projects focused on watershed restoration, forest health and sustainable recreation areas.

“By prioritizing the involvement of community volunteers and youth, RMFI envisions a world where our work fosters vibrant and healthy natural systems that are respected and cared for by the public,” it reads.

The institute, which at its inception focused primarily on the world of climbing and its participants, now draws from a pool of local volunteers to participate in the heavy lifting required to maintain some of Colorado’s most favored outdoor destinations. That goal has since spread to getting the state back on its feet following two catastrophic summers in a row.

“It’s evolved now that there’s more of a need for us locally,” Lavorini said. “We’ve seen an increased workload, particularly with the burn areas after the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires.”

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Lavorini said RMFI’s staff includes a restoration ecologist who has expertise in post-fire restoration.

“We employ a professional field staff, which makes us different from some of the other groups in town,” Lavorini said. “The field staff is able to provide more supervision and that means more technical projects.”

He explained that restoration projects existing prior to the fires also remain a priority. One such project includes trail improvements in Garden of the Gods. 

“We’re in Garden of the Gods pretty much every weekend, and every weekend it’s a different group of volunteers,” Lavorini said. “It could be a school group or a corporation or a family. But we get about 30 volunteers on average each trip.”

Lavorini added that some projects have been decades in the making, including 20 years of work on Shelf Road outside of Cañon City and Indian Creek in Utah. This year RMFI will begin a multi-year project creating a new summit trail to the top of the 14,170-foot-tall Kit Carson Peak in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

The $140,000 project is fully funded through a Great Outdoors Colorado grant, using a portion of state lottery proceeds set aside for the enhancement of state parks, trails, wildlife and open spaces, Lavorini said.

“That’s something we definitely specialize in,” he said. “We do very technical trail work, particularly in backcountry settings.”

Lavorini said, though, that RMFI’s true strength is its ability to mobilize volunteers.

“We rarely do projects without volunteers,” Lavorini said. “They do the majority of the work and our staff provides the supervision. Our big thing [in burn areas] is minimizing erosion and reducing flooding, particularly in Waldo Canyon. We’re high up in the canyons supporting hill slopes to allow vegetation to grow. That means spreading lots of seeds and putting down log erosion barriers.

“People think, after a fire, plant trees, plant trees, plant trees. That comes maybe five, 10 years down the line,” he said. “The first thing is get seed in and create some root structure in the slope to keep everything in place.”

A place to learn

RMFI also offers opportunities for university students to volunteer and earn school credit at the same time.

“For six weeks, Earth Corps brings 10 college students from all over the country to do this sort of work,” Lavorini said. “We try to incorporate education into every work day, and during the college programs, the volunteers get upper-division college credits from UCCS in geography and environmental studies.” 

The students are responsible for paying about one-third of the program’s costs and fundraising done by RMFI covers the rest.

Asking for help

Lavorini said RMFI has not, in the past, focused heavily on volunteer recruitment because there was always enough supply to meet the demand, but that strategy is starting to change.

“We’ve just hired our first volunteer coordinator,” he said. “It’s amazing we’ve been operating without one. People knew we were here mostly because of word-of-mouth. … But now there’s more of a concerted effort in determining what groups we want to reach out to and get involved with. Schools work with us on a yearly basis, including Fountain Valley and the Colorado Springs School.

“We haven’t done a ton of volunteer recruitment,” he added. “That’s a great thing about this community. People are [proud] here and want to give back to the community. Especially parks and open spaces.”

Lavorini said, despite little outreach to attract volunteers, interest has skyrocketed in the past two years.

“Volunteers are up 50 percent since the Waldo Canyon fire,” he said. “People want to come out and give back.”

Lavorini also pointed to the flooding in Manitou Springs last summer.

“The day after the flooding, the city of Manitou contacted RMFI, and RMFI called our volunteers. Hundreds showed up,” he said.

“People are chomping at the bit to come out. Our volunteer numbers are up, our budget is up and our exposure is up. It’s amazing seeing how this community has reacted to natural disaster, and how our organization has grown from it.”

Paying the bills

According to Lavorini, each project is funded differently depending on the site. Garden of the Gods and Black Forest restorations are funded through foundation money, he said, adding RMFI will determine a project and then strategize funding based on which individuals or groups are most likely to benefit from that project’s completion.

“Land agencies can’t provide much money and counties have provided some,” Lavorini said. “But the city [of Colorado Springs] is broke, so it hasn’t provided much for the Garden of the Gods improvements.

“The Forest Service is in a similar situation, so we’re funded primarily through grants and foundations. … We work on public lands, no private lands, and bureaucracies are cash-strapped. The Forest Service used to invest in trails, and that’s all going to fighting fires now.”

Lavorini said events, including a fashion show sponsored by Veda Salon that generated $30,000 for RMFI last year, as well as the Waldo Waldo 5K Charity Walk and Run, help keep the coffers full.

In addition, the institute’s good works have attracted some volunteers and funding from big corporate names, which encourage employee volunteerism.

“FedEx makes it out twice a year,” Lavorini said. “There are a handful of others. Starbucks is a pretty big one for us. The military is huge. They make up a big portion of our volunteers, maybe 20 percent.”

Randy Smith, IT manager of quality assurance at FedEx’s Northgate Boulevard office, has coordinated employee volunteer events between FedEx and RMFI for the past three years, including work at Garden of the Gods and Blodgett Peak.

Smith said, through funding from FedEx’s Earth Smart Program, RMFI receives financial support distributed via the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

“We’ve just fallen in love with RMFI,” Smith said. “It’s surprising though that the Colorado Springs area does not have more nonprofits step up and do the requests. The first year we [provided grants] was three years ago and we got in touch with at least seven [nonprofits] and only received two requests [for grants]. It could be grant-writing skills. Some of the nonprofits don’t have those skills and don’t realize how easy it is.

“RMFI needs more exposure to corporations and businesses in the community because what they’re offering is huge,” Smith said.

“They’re not struggling or anything, but you can look and tell how small they are. For as much work as they do, it’s like, ‘How are you doing this?’ ”

Smith said the grant-writing and organizational efforts are well worth the rewards, as the effects of volunteering on employee morale are evident.

“There’s a noticeable difference,” Smith said. “They’re happier at work. They smile more. They really try to get the rest of the employees involved. … Everyone who comes out to do this is a happier person.”