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A world-renowned climate research site near Crested Butte is now protected by a conservation easement

Colorado Open Lands’ easement on 270 acres to protect the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab prevents development and serves as a model for management of conserved land

Nestled beneath the imposing facade of Gothic Peak, the historic silver mining town of Gothic is located in the West Elk mountains near Crested Butte. Established in 1879, Gothic once had a booming population and over 200 buildings. Today, it is home to just a few full-time residents and is known for being the location of the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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The Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Gothic has spent almost a century working to protect pristine swaths of wild lands. The research site, which draws scientists from across the globe every summer and ranks among the world’s largest, oldest and most productive field stations, now is permanently protecting its entire 270-acre research site.

As part of a deal announced Thursday, the lab above Crested Butte — known locally as “Rumble” — is protected under a conservation easement with Colorado Open Lands, ensuring that the hundreds of scientists and students who convene at the remote research station can continue their ecological research free from the ever-creeping threat of development. 

“We don’t have to worry about private development undermining the ecological integrity of the landscape, and all our partners can know this property will be managed for research and education,” said Rocky Mountain Biological Lab Executive Director Ian Billick. “And it shows the lab is serious about conservation.”

MORE: Researchers are scouring the landscape near Crested Butte to gather data and inform climate computer models used around the world

Formed in 1928 in the abandoned mining town of Gothic, the lab’s natural landscape in the headwaters of the Elk Range’s East River has hosted a rotating array of scientists who have published more than 1,900 studies. Landmark research into wildlife, insects, habitats, soil, water ecology and the roaming impacts of climate change has flowered in the undisturbed high-altitude terrain surrounding the laboratory.  

And the lab has played a critical role in conservation in Colorado, working with advocacy groups to manage protected land. The lab manages the Mexican Cut Preserve atop the Elks’ Galena Mountain, which was the first property protected by The Nature Conservancy in Colorado in 1966. The lab has helped many conservation groups with the management of protected landscapes, including, most recently, the protection of 4,377 acres of working ranch land — the venerable Trampe Ranch — in the Gunnison River and Upper East River valleys. That easement — funded with a $10 million grant from Great Outdoors Colorado, the group’s largest single transaction — protects acreage that borders Rocky Mountain Biological Lab. 

During the winter Gothic is accessible only by non-motorized means, skis, snowshoes and fat bikes. The town was just granted a conservation easement. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“From an ecological standpoint, this is the capstone of the conservation work in that basin. This is at the very top of the Trampe Ranch conservation easement, which protects the whole valley,” said Tony Caligiuri, the executive director of Colorado Open Lands. 

There was potential that a deep-pocketed developer with big dreams could scheme a ski resort or community development around Gothic, Caligiuri said, which could threaten the work done to protect the Trampe Ranch. The conservation easement also protects RMBL’s water rights, which were among the first in Colorado and helped establish the now commonly accepted value of leaving water in streams to support wildlife, habitat and recreation.

“This easement assures that you can protect the historic character and protect the research that has been going on around Gothic and we know it will be protected into perpetuity,” Caligiuri said. 

Caligiuri said about half of all the working ranchland in the Gunnison River Valley has been protected with easements that prevent development. Colorado Open Lands has protected 69 properties totaling more than 25,000 acres in Gunnison County, where voters in 1997 passed a 1% sales tax to fund the protection of open space.

Scientist Dr. Heidi Steltzer, Ft. Lewis College environmental sciences students Rebecca Reath and Spencer Snyder and Amanda Henderson, field manager at Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, walk up a hillside through the snow below Gothic Peak to reach a research plot in Washington Gulch near Crested Butte, Colorado on October 25, 2019. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“In some places with high development pressures, agriculture can become a small niche. The Gunnison River Basin is a place that will be guaranteed to remain in agriculture for as long as we can imagine. And now it continues and can be economically viable,” said Caligiuri, who believes the conservation easement over an entire historic town and surrounding acreage — all owned by Rocky Mountain Biological Lab — is a first for Colorado.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Gothic may have been established as a silver mining camp, but it has survived on science. The Rocky Mountain Biological Lab has built housing, research areas, a community center and more since it moved in. Now, as many as 150 biologists gather at the lab every summer. (In the winter, Gothic is accessible only by a long walk or ski.)

The science that flows from the lab’s visiting researchers is one of the world’s largest collections of ongoing research. Those note-takers include Gothic’s longest running resident, billy barr, the capital-letter eschewing citizen scientist who moved to a remote cabin in Gothic 48 years ago and began tracking observations on the weather. (He’s not going anywhere, by the way.)  

His daily measurements have made the reclusive barr a sort of accidental apostle among climate researchers, with hundreds of notebooks detailing decades of daily high and low temperatures, snowfall, snowpack and snow water equivalent.

Billy Barr has lived in a cabin in the historic mining town of Gothic for the past 48 years and is the town’s only full time resident. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

His data are now some of the country’s most detailed observations of a warming climate with shrinking winters and climbing temps. 

MORE: This Colorado ranch-made-lab is turning beetle-kill trees into lumber in the name of forest health

While the lab has established itself as a base camp for the study of complex ecosystems, the easement on its property is part of a larger vision to set the lab up as a model for management of protected land. 

“We’ve spent 90 years helping purchase and protect landscapes,” Billick said, “and this is the next step.”


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