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Leaf Litter Talks with Dr. Jill S. Baron

Ecosystems ecologist and editor of Rocky Mountain Futures, Dr. Jill Baron, shares her knowledge and insight.

By Amy Nelson

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As the editor of Rocky Mountain Futures: An ecological perspective (Island Press 2002), which documents the cumulative effects of human activity on Rocky Mountain ecosystems and presents a compelling case for re-envisioning the region’s future through an ecosystems-based lens, Dr. Baron offers valuable insight into the Southern Rocky Mountain Bioregion. Dr. Baron has garnered awards from the National Park Service, U.S. Geological Survey, and USDA Forest Service, including the Department of Interior Meritorious Service Award. She has been a member of the Governing Board of the Ecological Society of America, is Director of the John Wesley Powell Center for Analysis and Synthesis, and has given testimony to Congress on western acid rain and climate change issues. She also edited Biogeochemistry of a Subalpine Ecosystem (Springer- Verlag 1992), which summarized the first 10 years of long-term research to the Loch Vale Watershed in Rocky Mountain National Park, and she is currently an associate editor for Ecological Applications and Editor in Chief of Issues in Ecology, a publication of the Ecological Society of America that uses commonly-understood language to report the consensus of a panel of scientific experts on issues related to the environment. We were delighted to have the chance to speak with her about the past, present and future of the Southern Rocky Mountain Bioregion.

Of the many types of ecosystems found in the Southern Rocky Mountain bioregion, which do you think are the most unique and why?

There are ecosystems in the Southern Rockies that are not found anywhere else, such as alpine tundra and wetlands associated with mountain environments. Mountain streams are also unique with respect to aquatic ecosystems. Other unique Southern Rocky Mountain ecosystems include high elevation lakes and high elevation grasslands, which are called “parks” in Colorado. (Examples include South Park and Moraine Park.)

How about the most vulnerable?

What we found when we put together Rocky Mountain Futures is that they are all vulnerable in some way to different types of stresses. Land use change has definitely affected our high elevation grasslands, as well as the grasslands at the bottom of the mountain. Pretty much any flat land is vulnerable to development. Nearly all our waters have been manipulated by dams, diversion and extractions, so they, too, are vulnerable. Some of the high elevation areas are very sensitive to disturbance from climate change or atmospheric deposition. Disturbances we’re seeing related to climate change, such as pine bark beetle outbreaks, are having a huge influence right now.

How and why did you come to edit Rocky Mountain Futures?

My colleagues and I felt that there was this rapid change, primarily from land use, but also from other human activities, occurring across the Rockies. In the book, there is a wonderful quote (by economist Alfred E. Kahn) about the “tyranny of small decisions.” In the Rockies, [land and resource use] decisions have been made one area, one county, one city at a time. The book was an effort to see if we could synthesize across the entire chain and see if there were similarities, and if so, what it meant ecosystem-wide, now and into the future. I got funding through the U.S. Geological Survey to host a workshop [which included 32 leading ecologists, geographers, scientists and researchers]. It was one of the most exciting working groups I’ve ever been in because [prior to the workshop] people had not talked across disciplines and many of them did not talk across their own specific regions of study. At the workshop, they discovered many similarities and connections.

Has that group collaborated since?

No, we haven’t, and perhaps it’s time to.

Are there any schools using the book?

It was used as a text book at a number of universities when it first came out [2002], but I don’t know if that is still true.

In the conclusion of Rocky Mountain Futures, you note what seems to me as perhaps the key challenge to ecosystem protection and restoration in the SRMB. “Because the mountains themselves change little, we can delude ourselves into thinking that the Rocky Mountains are indeed the untouched wilderness we imagine them to be…To the ecologically ignorant…the Rockies look just fine.” If you had the chance to sit down to lunch with such a person, what would you say to help him or her be a better steward? Where would you begin?

It’s always important to try to make connections to things that people find important. Let’s assume this person likes large vistas of healthy looking forest. That would be a touch point to start telling him or her that forests are affected by fire suppression, pine bark beetle, etc.

I do a lot of work with public land managers who, in some cases, are very well-educated and wise, but in other cases have less expertise. So we talk a lot about the resources that they are charged with protecting and how they’re changing with respect to different types of disturbances.

There was a great county-by-county GIS study done by researchers here at Colorado State University which looked at areas that were obligate habitat for specific species, such as elk, and overlaid that on top of land use – both current and planned development patterns. Where there was overlap, they went to the county managers and said, “If you value this population of “X” species, you don’t want to put a development on this land because they need it.” In many ways, that was an effective tool for getting managers and planners to realize that they needed to rethink the notion that just because land is private and flat, they can develop it.

Of the more historical, human-induced impacts (from mining, agriculture, grazing, logging and even tourism), what do you think has been the most damaging to these ecosystems?

It depends on which systems you’re looking at. Back [in 2002] when we wrote [Rocky Mountain Futures] it really looked like land use change was going to be the major disturbing factor that was swallowing Western private lands. That may still be true, but with our economy in a slump, a lot of development has been put on hold, which may give land managers some breathing time to think about what they really want.

Can you give us a few specific examples of historical human impacts that have been particularly damaging to specific ecosystems?

There were waves of development. The first occurred when trappers came in. Before the trappers, mountain streams looked very different than they do today. They had stair-stepped pools stopped up by beaver ponds. You’d have rapids and then a pool; rapids and another pool, etc. Today, they’re big kayaking magnets. People come from all over the world to kayak these rivers, which perhaps would not have been free flowing before trappers came in and took out millions of beavers. That was a big change on the landscape.

The next big disturbance in the West was mining. In Colorado. Something like 25% of our mountain streams have been altered by acid mine drainage. An enormous area of the state was disturbed by mining. There were no environmental protection laws from the 1860s through the early 1900s. Placer deposits, which are large piles of waste, are remnants of instream dredging. There was also a huge amount of logging that went on at that time to build railroad tracks going into the mines and to shore up the mines themselves. The loggers would denude entire hillslopes and stack up the logs to overwinter. Logs were floated downstream during snowmelt. Check dams were used to build up the volume of water, then breached to create a wave of water to float the logs. A common practice was to dynamite out large boulders and curves in the streams to straighten them out so the logs could move faster downstream.

Around the turn of the century, someone – I believe it was [Frederick Law] Olmsted – remarked to Teddy Roosevelt that the West was being transformed, right before his very eyes, into bare slopes, mining debris and tremendous waste. This conversation led to the establishment of protected public conservation areas and development of the U.S. Forest Service.

What about the threats of more recent decades (resorts, population growth and sprawl, water diversion, invasive species, fire suppression, etc.)?

With the affluence, mobility and road systems that have come in the past 50 years, people have penetrated further into wildlands than they have before. The migration of people out of cities into more rural areas – exurbanization – has become very prevalent in the Southern Rockies. Everyone wants their own little piece of wilderness, and that creates all kinds of problems.

Even if people are living in wilderness, they like to recreate their own environment, so they plant ornamental shrubs and grass, and they bring their household pets. Pets are very destructive to native species. You can think of cats, for example, as an invasive species. They do away with native birds, squirrels and small ground dwelling animals. Studies have shown that even if human density is not very high, local animal populations can be decimated when people bring in their pets and let them roam.

When people move into forested areas, they don’t necessarily protect themselves against fires. Western forests are fire prone ecosystems. Fire is obligate to their maintenance at elevations below 9,000 feet or so. Montane forests include ponderosa pine and lodgepole pine. Ponderosa has a very frequent fire return interval which creates an open savanna landscape by burning groundcover but not the trees. Lodgepole has a much longer fire return interval. When it burns, the entire forest is consumed. People move into these areas and build their houses and then are surprised when these fires come through.

Fire suppression has been an important human disturbance in parts of the Rockies. The whole Smokey Bear phenomenon of the past century was promulgated on the idea that fire was a bad thing. Only in the past 30- 40 years have people begun to realize that fire is integral to most of our Western systems. Suppression only postpones the inevitable. People moving into fire-prone areas have become much more vulnerable to large fires. Climate change interferes here because the propensity for fires is almost directly related to temperature. If you have warm years, you get fires.

So people are becoming more vulnerable, but at the same time, they are becoming more aware that fires are beneficial. Is there still a lot of fire suppression occurring?

Yes. The conundrum that public land managers have is that they feel they need to protect human life and property and they have people living in these increasingly fire prone areas.

Speaking of climate change, tell me about what has been observed and the effects on high-elevation ecosystems.

Throughout much of the West, there are trends of earlier snow melt. As temperatures warm, you get above freezing earlier in the spring than before. Parts of Colorado are definitely seeing this phenomenon. The longer growing season is very tightly correlated with fire frequency, intensity, and duration across the western U.S.

Earlier snowmelt has a big effect on downstream water supply. Our reservoirs were designed to capture snowmelt, but they were designed to rely on snow being its own reservoir, holding water for a period of the year. If winter snowpack melts sooner, reservoirs fill up earlier and water managers have to let some water run downstream. That may be a good thing for downstream ecosystems because they get water they hadn’t gotten before, but it’s a bad thing for water supply and the human need for water.

Climate change is altering phenology, or the timing of biological events. Some animals are emerging or arriving earlier than they had been before, which may be a problem because their food sources may not be synchronous. Glaciers and rock glaciers are melting throughout the Southern Rockies. In the long run there will be less late summer water and an icon of the West will disappear.

Unfortunately climate change is superimposed on the other disturbances and stresses we have already caused to the Rockies from mining, damming, climate change, habitat fragmentation, and invasive species.

I was surprised to learn about the amount of excess nitrogen in the air at high elevations in remote, protected areas such as Rocky Mountain National Park. Tell me about your work monitoring nitrate deposition in the Loch Vale watershed of Rocky Mountain National Park and what it has revealed.

Back in the early 1980s, Congress funded the National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program. The program funded government agencies to find answers to the questions. “Is there acid rain? How bad is the problem? Where is it occurring and what are the effects?”

I was very fortunate to get in on this and came to Colorado to answer these questions for Rocky Mountain National Park. We established a long-term watershed study to measure what goes in, in terms of chemistry, precipitation and weather; what comes out, in terms of chemistry and water; and what goes on in between. Loch Vale watershed ranges from about 13,500 feet at the top about 10,000 feet at the bottom. It has alpine tundra, alpine lakes, glaciers, subalpine forests and subalpine lakes.

Using monitoring, research, modeling and paleo-techniques to go back in time, my colleagues, students, and I have been trying to find out what is going on. We don’t have year-round acid rain. There is summertime acid rain, however, and it is due to nitrogen deposition not sulfuric acid, the product of coal-fired power plants in much of the eastern U.S. In Rocky Mountain National Park, these nitrogen species seemed to be coming from the east. There are many sources: conventional and irrigated agriculture, confined animal feeding operations, cars, construction vehicles and energy producing power plants. All of those sources emit nitrogen that can be transported to Rocky Mountain National Park. We found that atmospheric nitrogen deposition has been affecting all aspects of high elevation mountains.

Nitrogen is a fertilizer. High mountain ecosystems have historically had a very harsh, nutrient poor environment. When nitrogen is added you increase their productivity. In protected areas, this is not necessarily a good thing because these areas are supposed to be representative of species that are native to those systems. We saw changes due to nitrogen in alpine tundra, in soils, in forest vegetation, in lakes and lake sediment…basically everywhere we looked.

What’s an example of how that fertilization affects an ecosystem?

Alpine tundra is made up of very low growing plants. Our collective vision of tundra includes carpets of colorful miniature wildflowers. Fertilizer gives some plants, such as grasses and sedges, an advantage over others. Grasses and sedges outcompete smaller wildflowers that are so special to alpine tundra. Nitrogen deposition will decrease biodiversity in the long run.

Did anything change (policies, action) as a result of this research?

The National Park Service is mandated not to allow ecosystems to be damaged from air pollution. About four or five years ago, they agreed that the body of evidence we had produced was sufficient that they needed to do something. They are not a regulatory agency, so they went to the State of Colorado and the EPA and convinced them that there had been change due to atmospheric deposition and that this change was not in the best interest of protecting Rocky Mountain National Park. The state very wisely set up a long-term nitrogen deposition reduction plan. They hope to reduce nitrogen emissions, mostly from the area to the east of us, over the next 30-some years, to a point that would be low enough to protect our most sensitive indicators: algae.

What are some of the strategies they are employing to try to achieve that?

The initial strategy was to hope that changes in the automobile fleet would reduce the amount of nitrogen oxides coming out of tailpipes. The catalytic converters in newer cars reduce the amount of nitrogen oxide produced. We have seen a slight decline in the amount of nitrogen oxide emitted and deposited over time. The other voluntary actions from ranchers and managers of confined animal feeding operations could reduce ammonia loss. There’s no regulatory hook to go after them, so they are relying on ranchers’ good will. Some are actively searching for solutions.

Let’s talk about projections. One chapter of your book includes a prediction that land development at exurban densities (one dwelling unit per 10-40 acres) will increase from 8.9 million acres in 2000 to 19.7 million acres by 2050. 5280 Magazine predicts 1.5 million new residents to the Denver area by 2035. Do you think these projections are accurate?

I think they are accurate. American population is increasing, the Southern Rockies are a highly attractive place to live, and it’s no longer a secret (if it ever was). I do think we are expecting a great number of people to move in. What we do with them is the question.

What would you say is one of the most important things that need to happen to protect ecosystem functions in the prairies, foothills, and mountains around the City of Denver as the population increases?

I would love to see greater density inside the urban areas as a way of absorbing newcomers.

The conclusion of Rocky Mountain Futures forecasts a simplification of food webs and processes and increased catastrophic disturbances to natural and human habitats if things continue the way they have. This set the stage for your very compelling call to action to “define a goal for Rocky Mountain ecosystems and chart a path that will get us there.” The book was published in 2002. Has anyone heeded this call?

Both the National Park Service and the National Forest service have – not necessarily in response to the book but in response to climate change and the need to figure out how to adapt to climate change. Rocky Mountain National Park has held several meetings to discuss how to manage their natural resources into the future. Soon after the book was published, Rocky Mountain National Park held a regional workshop. They brought in the Forest Service, cities, counties and NGOs and said, “Let’s collectively come up with a vision of where we want to be and where we don’t want to be, and let’s start working toward those goals.”

There has been a very active discussion about how to protect natural resources. The incentive is that because climate change will occur on top of all of the other disturbances we highlight in the book – land use changes, habitat fragmentation, increased fire, etc. – we have to address them all in a regional manner.

Has that workshop or those discussions resulted in any products or documents that can be reviewed by the public?

There was a document that was put out by Rocky Mountain National Park a few years ago that was specifically related to climate change. They prioritized. They said, for example, climate change is going to affect pikas, these cute mammals that live at tree line and are very temperature sensitive. As the temperature warms, they’re likely to disappear. The document is a beginning blueprint to go forward into a regional planning program that hopes for a shared vision for managing some natural resources across national park, national forest, and other lands. We’re trying to get people to think across boundaries.

The Great Lakes have many non-profit organizations and governmental bodies such as the EPA’s Great Lakes National Program Office, the International Joint Commission and others, all working towards their protection and restoration. Do the Rocky Mountains – as a collective region – have this kind of support?

We are fortunate that much of western mountain lands and waters are managed by either the Department of the Interior and Department of Agriculture. By talking with them, you can accumulate a lot of momentum for a large amount of land. There is also a non-governmental organization, the Southern Rocky Mountains Wildlands Network. It’s a coalition of private land owners, non-profits like The Nature Conservancy and the Colorado Department of Transportation The organization is trying to protect corridors for wildlife. They are working to get land owners to agree to support wildlife migration.

In the conclusion of Rocky Mountain Futures, you point out that failure to optimize natural processes and “consider the broad ecosystem consequences of narrow management” results in that “tyranny of small decisions” you discussed earlier. Have you had the chance to discuss this issue with any state policy makers?

I have not. That would be really interesting to do.

If you had a chance to sit down with Governor Ritter, what would you pick as the 3 top issues you’d like to see him address to help protect the Southern Rockies and adjoining ecosystems?

You’d have to capture his attention, which these days is on energy and climate change. I would veer away from the book itself and talk about ways energy development and actions to mitigate and adapt to climate change could be harmoniously blended with the values the state is so famous for.

Can you elaborate?

I read an interesting article in yesterday’s Denver Post. It’s about the San Luis Valley, in the southern part of the state. Large areas – hundreds of acres – of the valley are having solar panel arrays built on them. The solar panels themselves take up a lot of land. But the electrical grid that will be necessary to connect the energy source to places that need it is creating anxiety among people who live in the valley. Sources of energy, and renewables like solar are definitely preferable to fossil fuels. But even solar energy does not solve all problems. It’s not like there are simple ways of solving the problem of land use change and protecting ecosystems at the same time. There will be trade-offs. A broad-scale systems approach is the only way to go at it. What do you lose and what do you gain by doing one or the other?

What is the most satisfying feedback (or outcomes) you have received from Rocky Mountain Futures?

The book has been very favorably received among public land managers. A lot of public land managers read the book and said, “OK, I have to act on this.”

Rocky Mountain Futures was published in 2002. If you were to do it again today, or if you had the chance to do a second edition, how would you change it?

It would be very interesting to try to bring this group back together and use their expertise to say, “Did your projections pan out? Are these priorities still the main priorities? What has changed?

I speculated [earlier in this interview] that we might have been able to put the brakes on rampant exurban development, but I don’t know if that’s true, or if it will ramp back up again as soon as our economy improves.

Climate change has become much more prominent in the public discourse out here. Several cities and counties in the Southern Rockies are taking a much more serious view about how they are contributing to climate change and how they may reduce the impact. That will change the way development occurs through transportation networks and energy usage. I think what we’d see if we brought this group back together would be an increased emphasis on the interactions of climate change with all the other drivers that we spoke about.

Are there some examples of successful ecological restoration projects that you have seen in the Southern Rocky Mountains that you’d like to highlight?

I’m a big fan of restoration because ecosystems are very resilient. If you give them the opportunity to come back to something you value, and if you do it thoughtfully, you can be successful. There was a plutonium processing plant on the base of the foothills right outside of Denver that is now a national Wildlife Refuge called Rocky Flats. There is also a former chemical weapon manufacturing site called the Rocky Mountain Arsenal that is also being transformed into a wildlife refuge. They have cleaned up quite a bit of the radioactive material and the wildlife has come back in droves. Rocky Flats and the Rocky Mountain Arsenal.

I think a lot of areas can be reclaimed, but the trick is to do it with respect to services and processes and not just something that looks like a natural landscape.

What are you working on now?

I am working in two directions and they converge. One is related to atmospheric nitrogen deposition and how it is affecting pristine systems – high elevation alpine lakes- worldwide. We looked at three regions in Colorado: an area along the Front Range, an area in the San Juan mountains in the southern part of the state, and an area around the center of the state. We then added in large data sets from the entire countries of Norway and Sweden. We produced a paper that just came out, which has a very simple message: very small increases in nitrogen have a profound effect on pristine high elevation lakes. It causes eutrophication.

There is a lot of work going on with respect to how climate change is affecting ecosystems, specifically high elevation headwaters. We are also looking at what will happen ecologically as the highest elevations as our glaciers melt.

I also spend a great deal of time talking with public land managers (from the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management) about how to think about adapting to climate change. We had a paper that just came out in the Journal of Environmental Management that which gives guideline on how to think about climate change so you can act on it in the most thoughtful way. Research is wonderful and rewarding, but implementing action based on findings is the important thing.

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