High on Science: Land&People

Almost an hour before dawn on the summer solstice, Johannes Foufopoulos is scurrying around his cabin at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory-a 245-acre mountain field station at nearly 9,500-feet elevation in the central Colorado Rockies. Foufopoulos, a University of Michigan natural resources professor, gulps a few cups of coffee and some bread with vegetable spread. Out the door at 5 a.m., he is soon hiking along a slope of rock scree, willows, and rivulets of meltwater at the foot of Gothic Mountain.

With Foufopoulos are Courtney Murdock, a doctoral student he advises, and Morgan Graham, a summer research assistant-each carrying two nine-foot-long rods of metal rebar. Where there’s a break in the willows, Foufopoulos works a rod into the rocky earth, and Murdock and Graham produce a loosely rolled black nylon mist net.

When unfurled and fastened between the rods, the net will appear as fine as mist to birds, which will then be trapped in flight. The furled nets, say the researchers, resemble the slick, jet-black moustache of Hall of Fame baseball pitcher Rollie Fingers, leading them to name all their field sites after famous major leaguers-Babe Ruth, Catfish Hunter, and this site, which they call Andre Dawson, after Murdock’s favorite Cub player from her youth in Chicago.

These researchers are interested in the diseases of birds, such as avian malaria and West Nile virus, which can be passed to humans. Such research could cast light on the spread of virulent “bird” flu to human beings and the emergence of global bird-flu pandemics.

“We want to try to understand which factors determine disease presence,” says Foufopoulos, “and predict how habitat change-from global warming, for example-is going to affect prevalence over the landscape.”

“The Most Productive Lab in North America”

The Rocky Mountain Biological Lab (RMBL, pronounced “rumble” by locals) is uniquely suited to such experiments. The lab is headquartered at a former mining camp called Gothic, on a steep dirt road between the ski towns of Aspen and Crested Butte, which are separated by Schofield Pass. Encompassing and surrounding the field campus is a nearly pristine region of wildflower meadows, towering peaks, waterfalls, and mountainside forests known as the High Elk Corridor, because herds of elk pass through this part of the Elk Mountains between the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness to the north and the Raggeds Wilderness to the south.

“It’s one of the most beautiful places in the county, and it’s an area people are using more and more for recreation these days,” says Jim Starr, an attorney and Gunnison County commissioner, who also sits on the board of the Crested Butte Land Trust. Each year thousands of tourists and nature lovers drive up from Crested Butte or Aspen to check out waist-high wildflowers, marmots and hummingbirds, waterfalls and peaks; to backpack into one of the adjacent national forest wilderness areas; to photograph the old mill at the historic town of Crystal (one of the West’s most photographed spots); or to ride mountain bikes on the corridor’s many miles of trail.

But the corridor is susceptible to development because scattered amid its public land are thousands of acres of privately owned mining claims. Because of these private lands, the development of new trophy homes, cabins, and roads threatens the corridor’s value for recreation and environmental protection-not to mention its status as one of the nation’s preeminent outdoor laboratories.

RMBL was founded in 1928 as an independent, nonprofit research station. In the years since, its scientists have published over 1,000 papers, and the lab has gained a reputation as one of the finest places on earth to conduct long-term environmental experiments. Noted scientists who have worked here include Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, and Michael Soul?, a founder of the discipline of conservation biology.

One big reason for this is the wide range of elevations within easy reach of the lab. Four different ecological biomes converge within the High Elk Corridor. “You have access to so many habitats,” says Foufopoulos, whose own study sites range between 7,000 and 14,000 feet.

Because of its relatively pristine environment and 75 years of research records, RMBL is also the perfect place for studying how humans have changed and are changing the planet, says Ian Billick, the lab’s director. Arriving first in 1988 to take a field ecology course, Billick went on to do his own research, complete a Ph.D., and eventually teach the same ecology class he once took as a student. He became the director in 2001; along the way he met his wife, a fellow researcher at the lab. “It’s really a place by scientists, of scientists, for scientists,” Billick says.

Today approximately 160 researchers converge on the lab for the three-month summer research season. Among them are senior scientists, graduate students, research assistants, a few dozen college kids, and laboratory staff. A few RMBL employees stay the winter to look after the buildings, enduring an average snowfall of 450 inches. During the summers, the staff coordinates the logistics for the scientists but lets them figure out for themselves the research they’ll conduct.

Most of what scientists know about plant pollination derives from research at the lab. Research on acid rain here led directly to revisions in the Clean Air Act to alleviate air pollution in Western regions. The lab was one of the first places where scientists noted shrinking amphibian populations that were ultimately recognized as part of a global decline. RMBL research on climate change is cited regularly as scientists and policy makers assess the impacts of global warming.

“This is probably the most productive lab in North America in terms of terrestrial ecological research,” says David Inouye, a professor at the University of Maryland, who first arrived at RMBL in 1973 to study plant ecology. That year he set up four-foot-square plots at Gothic and throughout the High Elk to study which plants occurred and when they flowered. More than three decades later, Inouye is able to predict when the first wildflowers-such as larkspur and glacier lilies-will bloom and how many to expect. Changes to the abundance and timing of the flowers, says Inouye, are the result of fluctuations within regional climatic patterns as well as global warming.

From Mining to Mist Nets

As he walks between study plots, Inouye examines the ground for bumblebees pollinating the flowers and for rusty, square nails turned out of the soil each spring by gophers-nails left over from the buildings constructed here when mining ruled the High Elk Corridor.

That mining history is the reason why the High Elk’s environment, recreation, and value to science are now endangered. After silver was discovered here in the 1880s, towns and mining camps such as Gothic, Crystal, and Schoheeld sprang up on either side of Schofield Pass. But silver mining boomed and went bust within a few decades. Miners left behind their cabins-some since restored by RMBL-and almost 6,000 acres of mining claims that remained private when surrounding land was added to the national forest system early in the last century.

“Mining created a real crazy quilt of landownership,” says Doug Robotham, Colorado state director of The Trust for Public Land, which has been acquiring former mining claims in the High Elk Corridor for conservation by White River National Forest. The large number of widely scattered private parcels also makes it harder to decide which lands to protect.

In response, TPL staff launched an effort in 2000 to analyze the inholdings. TPL has prioritized 2,500 acres for protection in partnership with regional land trusts and conservation groups, the U.S. Forest Service, and local governments and businesses.

The goal is to take a landownership pattern that made sense for a 19th-century mining economy and retool it for a 21st-century economy dominated by tourism. Today the High Elk is valued not for silver but for its wildflowers, waterfalls, wide-open views, and value to science.

“It’s absolutely wonderful that TPL has taken on the project just because of the sheer numbers of parcels and landowners,” says lab director Ian Billick. He describes how development could damage the “tools” of the research-by which he means the yellow-bellied marmots, broad-tailed hummingbirds, Mormon fritillary butterflies, and scarlet gilia wildflowers. To protect the experiments it is not enough to protect researchers’ study sites or the land inside the boundaries of the lab. The entire landscape must be protected. “When we lose unique habitats, that means the scientists lose the tools,” Billick says.

Already, visitors to the area have intentionally or inadvertently disturbed research sites. Houses and entry roadways on former mining claims would impact sensitive ecosystems that have been monitored for 75 years. Increased human occupation near the research sites would bring pets, invasive plants, and scavenger species such as magpies and crows, which can disrupt native species and wildlife.

“The more this valley becomes clogged with skiers and snowmobiles and dirt on the road from human presence, the more difficult it is to get useful information for my scientific research,” says John Harte, a professor from the University of California, Berkeley, who has worked at RMBL since 1977. Harte uses infrared heat lamps to artificially warm mountain meadows by an extra two degrees centigrade, simulating climatic conditions as they might develop under global warming a century from now.

Back at their study site, researchers Foufopoulos, Murdock, and Graham delicately extract an American robin and a warbling vireo from the mist nets. They clamp a light metal band to one leg of each bird so that they or other researchers can identify it in the future. They also weigh and measure each bird, prick it beneath its wing to draw two tiny tubes of blood, and then release it. Later they will analyze the blood samples to judge the bird’s nutrition, hormone levels, and immune functions. The percentage of red blood cells in the sample indicates the presence of avian malaria and enables the researchers to compare the health of infected and uninfected birds.

Like the other RMBL scientists, Foufopoulos hopes that the conservation effort under way here will succeed, protecting the area for recreation and research. Currently, TPL and its partners are halfway to the goal of protecting 2,500 of the 6,000 private acres within the corridor. Funding for the effort includes $2.25 million secured by the Colorado congressional delegation from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund. Additional support has come from the Great Outdoors Colorado Trust Fund, Gunnison County, the Crested Butte Land Trust, RMBL, Crested Butte Mountain Resort, and private donors who want to help preserve the High Elk’s natural and cultural history. Parcels protected include public trailheads, scenic vistas, and places of scientific importance.

“This is a key area valued for its scenic beauty and habitat,” says Don Carroll, deputy supervisor of White River National Forest. “If TPL hadn’t acted, there’s no doubt we would have seen development here. It is so important to protect areas that offer such important research opportunities. As a government agency entrusted with managing the public’s land, the Forest Service also needs access to reliable information derived from sound research.”

Completion of the project will be great for the scientists, of course, and for the hikers, backpackers, photographers, picnickers, and others who seek out the corridor for its wildflowers, views, and wildlife. But it will be good news as well for all of us who want hard evidence about the future effects of global warming, diseases that pass from birds to humans, and other RMBL research topics.

“There are very few places in the world where you’ve had the accumulation of knowledge we’ve had here,” says lab director Ian Billick. “This is going to be one of the places where we really understand what’s going on.”

Joshua Zaffos writes from Fort Collins, Colorado, and explores the High Elk Corridor and other wilderness areas in the state whenever he gets the chance.