Rocky Mountain Field Institute has mountains to climb — and trees to plant and fish to save and trails to repair — and they look to the Give! Campaign to help them keep up the pace.
Executive Director Jennifer Peterson describes RMFI as the “boots-on-the-ground organization” taking care of southern Colorado’s parks, trails and open spaces. The nonprofit tackles complex ecosystem protection projects and major restoration initiatives, and runs research and education programs.
This is the eighth year RMFI has participated in Give!, Peterson said, and the $45,000 it received as a result of last year’s campaign (the figure includes matching grants) supported a range of critical projects.
Peterson pointed to RMFI’s success this year with a project designed to protect the rare and endangered greenback cutthroat trout — which exists only in a single four-mile stretch of Bear Creek — without cutting off recreational use of the surrounding land.
“Just last week we wrapped up our work in the Bear Creek watershed,” she said. “Last year we focused on building a new trail in that watershed to allow access for the public, and this year our big focus was on closing and restoring the old trail that parallels Bear Creek that was still contributing sediment and harming the habitat of the fish.”
RMFI spent nine weeks restoring more than 5 miles of trail in the area.
Funds from last year’s Give! Campaign were also used to “boost the qualifications of our staff, which in turn results in better quality work on the ground,” Peterson said. “We sent several staff to chainsaw certification and wilderness first aid and first-responder classes, as well as other training.”
RMFI’s staff has grown since 2016, with nearly 20 people employed at the height of this year’s field season — and by October the number of volunteers had already surpassed last year’s total.
RMFI brings those volunteers together with conservation corps and youth crews for a range of trail and restoration projects, including rehabilitating the Barr Trail and the Manitou Incline, creating a sustainable route to the top of Kit Carson Peak in partnership with the Forest Service, and undertaking long-term trail and restoration work in the Garden of the Gods.
This year, one of RMFI’s projects took a detour: The long-awaited Dixon Trail, which should finally connect Cheyenne Mountain State Park with the summit of Cheyenne Mountain and the mountain trail network, has met an impasse.
The proposed trail route crosses a parcel of private property on the mountain, Peterson said, and the park supervisor has been working with the landowner for several years to secure a public easement so the trail can be built.
“Unfortunately that hit a snag with the family estate and we were not able to get that easement finalized prior to the start of the field season,” Peterson said, “so we built that trail up to where the private property line starts. The goal is to finish that trail next year, but that hinges on the easement across the private property being resolved. As we speak, we’re having those conversations … to figure out what the plans are and how we can get that trail across.”
Peterson hopes the impasse is temporary.
“[The Dixon Trail] will open up about 8 miles of brand new multi-use trails, and open up this area to public access that’s been closed forever,” she said.
There’s an acute need for more trails and open spaces as landmarks like Garden of the Gods and Red Rock Canyon Open Space overflow with visitors during the height of the tourist season, Peterson said. And RMFI is facing greater demands as more people get active in southern Colorado’s great outdoors.
“In the instance of Garden of the Gods, they’re anticipating visitor numbers in the 4 million range this year — and it’s only a 1,300-acre park,” Peterson said. “So you’ve got to devote time, energy and resources to maintaining our public lands and trails and open spaces so they can withstand this increased use. And it’s not just increased use — we also have environmental conditions that impact the health of those public lands, whether it’s fire, flood, rains or drought.”
Peterson said Give! is important to the way RMFI tackles its work, especially when essential projects face funding shortfalls.
“We want to make sure we have the most qualified staff on hand to complete the work, and we also use Give! to buy a lot of much-needed project supplies and materials — new tools or hardhats, gloves, GPS units — things that give us the flexibility to do the work,” she said. “Some of our project funding comes with a lot of restrictions on what we can use it for, so Give! is great in that they really say, ‘The community has raised this money for you because they believe in your mission — now go do good with it.’ And we really get the freedom to spend that money in the way that we need it most.”