Back the Backcountry: Impacts
As the Backcountry Conservation & Education Fund gets ready to turn five years old at the end of the year, we want to share what we're doing with the generous support from our community and how expanding support will improve the Backcountry Wilderness Area.
Trailcam Tuesday is only the beginning of how funding from the Backcountry Wilderness Area's 501c3 nonprofit, the Backcountry Conservation & Education Fund, makes a direct impact on the property, the wildlife, and our community. When you see the wildlife catching up at our watercoolers each Tuesday, you're witnessing how a strategic plan of deliberate management policies, habitat improvement, fire mitigation, and water resources are in use to continuously improve this island of conservation in the middle of an expanding urban area. Beyond the "boots on the ground" conservation work, funding supports an array of environmental education programs to invite and engage people of all ages to learn to love wild places—it's truly a circular mission. Below is a quick look at how the support from our community is directly impacting the wellness of the Backcountry Wilderness Area.
Water Resources We currently have about 26 stock tank-style water reservoirs around the Backcountry Wilderness Area. The one part of "good" wildlife habitat that the Backcountry Wilderness Area naturally lacks is water. These tanks allow wildlife to find water all year especially in critical drought years like 2020. Backcountry Conservation & Education Fund Support Impact: In the five years, we've added 14 tanks which more than doubled the number of water resources in the Backcountry. The additional water resources allow wildlife to utilize more of the property, and to spread out over areas of the property that were previously not as usable due to lack of nearby water resources. For example, we have observed turkeys roosting in different areas, as well as elk grazing, bedding, and even calving in different areas. And, there are more deer. The nonprofit has given us the ability to add a part-time staff member who ensures that these tanks always have water in them as consistency is important. Fourteen of the 26 tanks are filled by using a 1,000-gallon water trailer to fill each one.
Fire Mitigation When forests are allowed to grow uncontrolled and natural wildfires are suppressed—for decades and decades—the undergrowth of vegetation points toward a wildfire that can lead to catastrophic habitat loss. And when there are homes and businesses that surround the forests, there can be a risk of damaging property and ultimately the loss of life. The Backcountry Wilderness Area purchased a forest masticator in 2019 to ramp up efforts of clearing brush in strategic areas that may allow firefighters to better fight a wildfire. Our clearing efforts also focus on clearing brush at the base of the Ponderosa pines to allow fire to burn at the base (which the trees can withstand) but not climb into the forest canopy and spread rapidly.
Brush clearing and mitigation is a never-ending project that will need continuous attention. However, each new treatment also improves habitat for elk, deer, turkey, birds, and more. Clearing brush creates a mosaic of age structures, stimulates the growth of grass and new pines, creates additional edge habitat, results in new shrub growth and shoots which seem to be favored for grazing, and increases the diversity of insects and other invertebrates.
In the photo above, taken in October 2020, you can see the line where our fire mitigation efforts in August 2020 stopped. The area to the left is void of rampant overgrowth, where the area to the right still contains ground growth too close to the base of the trees.
Backcountry Conservation & Education Fund Support Impact: Allows for more acres to receive fire mitigation treatment. Funds allow for more staff hours dedicated to running the forest masticator, trimming the forest ground growth with hand tools, and overall improved habitat on a larger scale.
Habitat Improvement Fire mitigation is a major factor in overall habitat improvement as it allows all levels of the forest to thrive by allowing sunshine down to the forest floor and allows preferred, nutrient-filled browse to grow plentifully. We also accomplish habitat improvement by treating non-native plants like cheatgrass which take over large swaths of land that could be home to wildlife food options.
Backcountry Conservation & Education Fund Support Impact:
With funds from the Backcountry Conservation & Education Fund, the noxious weed management/natural resource management budget has doubled and we’ve been able to treat more noxious weeds. Over the past 10 years, we’ve focused on the aggressive noxious weeds such as Knapweed, Leafy Spurge, Dalmation Toadflax, Harry Willow Herb, and various invasive thistles. With the extra funding over a period of time, we’ve nearly eliminated many of those aggressive weeds. And for the first time this year, we were able to focus on cheatgrass.
Just the fact that we can now focus on cheatgrass is a huge success. As we knock back cheatgrass, there will be a tremendous uptick in the quality of habitat in the Backcountry. Less cheatgrass means more food for deer and elk, more native nesting area for ground-nesting birds, and even more cover for rodents and small mammals. The entire ecosystem will be positively impacted. The battle against noxious weeds over the last decade, and the success we have had, is not noticeable to most, but it is probably the most critical and has provided the most benefit to habitat improvement overall. It is also an ongoing, never-ending necessity, like fire mitigation, but every year we make positive steps and those steps increase exponentially with each successful year we have.
Environmental Education If we want people to love wild places like the Backcountry Wilderness Area, first they must know it. Often the first encounter might be hiking or biking on our more than 26 miles of natural surface trails. When you get up to Highlands Point or find yourself tucked into the Wildcat Mountain trails, it easy to forget that you're just minutes away from a bustling community.
Backcountry Conservation & Education Fund Support Impact: Supports the Future Conservationists Initiative, a no-cost, in-school program for local second graders to get exposure to environmental science and develop a love for the outdoors. Additionally, adults can join our staff for a Wellness Walk or Happy Hikers hike (also no-cost) to experience parts of the Backcountry Wilderness Area reserved for wildlife. With increased funding, we hope to grow more no-cost and low-cost programming for all ages.
You can have an impact in the Backcountry Wilderness Area and our efforts! Become a Friend of the Backcountry with memberships starting at $20 a year at www.hrcaonline.org/backcountrydonate!
Lindsey McKissick is the Outreach Coordinator for the Backcountry Wilderness Area. She is Colorado-born, Chicago raised, and Wyoming educated. For Lindsey, there is nothing better than waking up in a warm tent on the side of a remote river with coffee preferably made by someone else. You'll find Lindsey on river rafting/SUPing, mountain biking, or camping with her husband and two pint-size, adventure-seeking daughters.
Mark Giebel is the Director of the Backcountry Wilderness Area. Mark was born and raised right here and is a HRHS (Go Falcons!) alum. He left Colorado for four years to attend Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas but came running back to Colorado as soon as possible. He is a life long lover of all things outdoors, married to the perfect adventure partner, and constantly striving for a healthy mind, body, and soul.