Since 1984, we have been working with the U.S. Forest Service’s Aspen Ranger District in a unique, long-term, cooperative partnership: the Wilderness Monitoring Program. Originally established to monitor wilderness trail and campsite conditions, the program has expanded to gauge air and water quality and invasive weeds.
This program provides essential baseline data against which we can evaluate the environmental impacts of any new activity and the program provides feedback to the Forest Service to ensure that these wilderness areas are being managed in compliance with the Clean Air Act and standards set forth in the White River National Forest Management Plan.
The program has three components:
Air Quality Monitoring: Air pollution – particularly ozone – degrades visibility. Therefore, visibility can be used as a quantitative indicator of pollution when measured against baseline conditions. The Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness is a Class 1 Airshed, the highest designation under federal standards, which essentially equates to pure air. The Clean Air Act tolerates no degradation of visibility in Class 1 Airsheds. Our air sampling station atop Aspen Mountain samples the air three times a week, 52 weeks a year. Every week, our wilderness monitor collects filters from the site and ships them to an EPA lab in California for analysis.
Water Quality Monitoring: This program assesses changes in water quality through long-term monitoring of chemical parameters of sensitive high-elevation indicator lakes in our region. Long-term monitoring of the chemical parameters establishes a baseline dataset to alert us to changes in a lake’s pH and alkalinity levels as well as the presence of sulfate, nitrate, cadmium, and other heavy metals. Increased acidification and heavy metal presence may result from acid rain deposition, a direct result of the introduction of acid-forming chemicals into the air upwind.
Weed Monitoring: The Weed Monitoring Program provides an inventory of non-native, invasive weeds in wilderness areas. We record the weed type, location, size and intensity of the infestation in the Maroon Bells, Collegiate Peaks, and Hunter-Fryingpan wilderness areas. We inventory a half dozen or so trails each summer, with results showing that weed occurrences closely follow areas of highest use and disturbance, generally getting established at trailheads and working their way in. The weed monitoring program is the first line of defense in the effort to curtail potentially harmful non-native species invasion. It is designed as an “early warning system” to detect new weed occurrences while they are small and easily managed. Traveling light and fast, we record weed types and locations on maps that are then provided to the Forest Service so eradication crews can be dispatched.
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