Telluride Valley Floor Monitoring

Scott Roberts, MSI's aquatic biologist collects bugs for water quality monitoring. Photo: Esmé Cadiente of

Scott Roberts, MSI's aquatic biologist collects bugs for water quality monitoring. Photo: Esmé Cadiente of

Mountain Studies, in partnership with the Town of Telluride, has developed and implemented protocols for long-term ecological monitoring for the Telluride Valley Floor open space. The Valley Floor a 560-acre property was acquired by the Town of Telluride and is being managed for recreation, wildlife, vegetation (including invasive species), and cultural resources. The Valley Floor is an important ecological resource, recreational amenity, and scenic gateway to the Town of Telluride, containing diverse vegetation communities, wildlife habitat, and cultural and historical resources along a three-mile reach of the San Miguel River. 

In the future the Valley Floor will see active restoration of the San Miguel River to its original course. The open space is an ecologically diverse property ranging from spruce and aspen woodlands, to open dry meadows, to cottonwood forests, to dense riparian (stream side) thickets of willows and herbaceous wetlands. This diversity in vegetation provides critical habitat for numerous animal species; including a resident herd of elk and a handful of resident beaver. Along with its ecological diversity, the Valley Floor has experienced a wide diversity of human impacts, including deposition of mine tailings, the channelization of the San Miguel, railroad construction, and livestock grazing. 

The Town of Telluride is being proactive in its management approach by asking and seeking answers to the flowing question:

What is the current ecological baseline condition of the property; and how might that baseline change over time?

Addressing this question provides the opportunity for MSI to put into practice “science people can use” by informing the community and decision makers of current conditions and capturing change, both favorable and unfavorable, as the property recovers from prior human impacts. Both baseline and long term ecological data can better inform management decisions regarding the restoration and utilization of this ecological and community resource.

To assess the baseline ecological conditions of the Valley Floor over the past two years, MSI has monitored the following:

MSI's Telluride Valley Floor Monitoring responsibilites 

Juncus Arcticus in full bloom in the TVF. Photo: Anayeli Picasso

Juncus Arcticus in full bloom in the TVF. Photo: Anayeli Picasso

Overall Condition – established permanent repeat photography points

Vegetation Composition and Health – established 40+ vegetation monitoring plots; assessed forest composition and health; assessed forb, grass, and shrub community composition and health; assessed of willow health.

Invasive Species – developed protocols for tracking and monitoring; provided instruction to town staff on the use of technology to help in the documentation of invasive populations.

Terrestrial Wildlife – developed and conducted surveys both of population and impacts of elk and prairie dog.

Aquatic Wildlife – conducted surveys of beaver populations; collected benthic macro-invertebrates to assess water quality; developed aquatic Habitat Suitability Indices.    

Recreation – (in progress) placing TRAFx trail counters key points to document the recreational use of the property.

Climate – established a research grade climate station on the Valley Floor; visit MesoWest for live conditions.

Installing a Climate Station in the TVF, Winter 2014. Photo: Aaron Kimple

The natural and physical characteristics of the property are a dynamic system, always changing in response to human interaction and natural forces. Monitoring provides an opportunity to fill data gaps, track long-term trends, evaluate management actions, and identify management problems before resource damage occurs. Ongoing monitoring is a key component of the Town’s adaptive approach to management of the property. 


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Hydrology of the Wolf Creek Pass Area

wolf creek pass

The Wolf Creek Pass area is a unique environment that has been formed by abundant precipitation, high elevation, and steep mountain slopes. These characteristics have formed extensive wetland areas. A private land owner has proposed to build a large development in this area.

The hydrology of the Pass Creek Watershed, located adjacent to the Wolf Creek Ski Area, was investigated to better understand the environmental impacts of future large-scale development of this watershed.

Project Leader: Mark Williams (University of Colorado)

Administered by the Mountain Studies Institute

Preliminary Results

Synoptic surface water samples were collected on public lands and/or access roads towards the end of snowmelt in June 2006, and analyzed for stable water isotopes, tritium and major solutes (Figure 2).  Sample sites included wetlands, springs, and surface waters. High average ANC values of 280 µeq L-1 and average silica of 370 µmoles L-1 suggest water bodies were dominated by groundwater (Table 2). A range of tritium values from 6-8 TU suggest a residence time of 1-5 years (Table 1).  δ18O values of around -14‰ suggest recharge primarily by snowmelt. 

These results suggest that the source of water for wetlands and springs in the area of the Alberta basin is groundwater rather than new snowmelt runoff. Recharge appears to be snowmelt upgradient of the wetlands complex. Residence time appears to be on the order of 1-5 years. Construction of impervious areas of about 50% in the development area, along with removal of snow for road access and other activities, will likely result in a severe reduction in infiltration. The decrease in infiltration may result in a reduction in groundwater recharge that feeds the wetlands complex.

Therefore there is reason to believe that development up-gradient of the wetlands could have down-gradient impacts by affecting the hydrologic and ecological processes supporting these wetlands.  Development may:

  • Reduce infiltration through the addition of impervious surfaces: (a) roads, (b) driveways, (c) buildings
  • Disrupt ground water flow paths that support the wetlands through (a) construction of basements, (b) burying utilities to depths of 10’ or greater, (c) road cuts
  • Drainage systems installed to divert water away from roads and buildings

San Juan Fen Partnership


The San Juan Fen Partnership is a collaborative citizen group whose goal is to identify, study, and protect the unique and ancient wetland ecosystems that are present in the San Juan Mountains—our local fens. Fens are wetlands that are rich in organic peat soil. They store carbon, filter pollutants from water, and are important for supporting biodiversity, including rare species.

Who is the San Juan Fen Partnership?

Comprised of the Town of Mountain Village, the Town of Telluride, San Miguel County, Telluride Ski & Golf Resort, Sheep Mountain Alliance, Colorado State University, Mountain Studies Institute and the local community at-large, the Partnership is working closely with the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, which manage much of the high country in the San Juan Mountains, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has been providing grants to identify and study the fens.

San Juan Partnership Representatives:

  • Dr. David Cooper - Colorado State University
  • Bob Delves - San Miguel Watershed Coalition
  • Mary Duffy - Telluride Community At-Large
  • Rube Felicelli - Town of Mountain Village
  • Karen Gugliemone - Town of Telluride
  • Joan May - San Miguel County
  • Linda Miller - Sheep Mountain Alliance
  • Dr. Koren Nydick - Mountain Studies Institute
  • Warren Young - Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, and Gunnison National Forest
  • Elizabeth Howe and/or Amy Laubenstein - Telluride Ski & Golf Resort

The Prospect Basin fen studies at the Telluride Ski Resort are the only studies of their type being performed in the United States. The Prospect Basin fens, like many fens in the San Juans, represent unique ecological niches. In Prospect Basin, the age of the fens stretch back in time approximately 10,000 years. Many of the wetland plants that grow in fens are clonal (descended from and genetically identical to a single common ancestor), and provide a valuable source of baseline information for the further study of other plants, climate, insects, carbon sequestration and other characteristics of mountain environments over time.

Fens in the high country surrounding Telluride and Mountain Village became a point of contention in 2001 when the Telluride Ski Resort proposed expanding their operations into Prospect Basin. While it was agreed that the additional terrain was important to sustain economic viability in the region by enabling Telluride to compete with larger resorts for the Colorado skier market, there were many environmental concerns, particularly with ensuring protection of the fens that exist in the proposed expansion area. San Miguel County negotiated directly with the ski area owners to achieve a greater degree of financial assistance and ecological monitoring for the Prospect Basin fens than the U.S. Forest Service required as part of the ski area expansion permit. Working with its neighbor governments, the County helped set up a collaborative community oversight group to help with the fen work paid for by the ski area during the three years of pre- and post-construction of the expansion.

Working together helped to ensure the success of the Prospect Bowl expansion and to gain national recognition for the collaborative conservation project, in particular for its protection of the fens, its use of innovative trail construction techniques to minimize adverse environmental impacts and its efforts to preserve the natural feeling of the mountain. It also raised local awareness about the fragility and importance of fens and how little we know about them. So, upon completion of the ski area construction, local partners in the fens effort decided to continue the group’s mission to pursue funding for scientific research on the fens and to expand its area of geographic interest from the Prospect Basin fens to the fens of the entire San Juan Mountain region.

Today, the San Juans Fen Partnership oversees further scientific research, monitoring and analyses of the fens in the San Juans region, as well as continues to provide education about fens and their importance to local forest and alpine ecology. The Mountain Studies Institute in Silverton, Colorado serves as fiscal sponsor and provides research, outreach, and development support for the Partnership. Dr. David Cooper, (Colorado State University), Dr. Rod Chimner (Michigan Technological University), and Dr. Koren Nydick (Mountain Studies Institute) lead fen projects throughout the San Juan Mountains. These projects incorporate research, monitoring, restoration, and educational training. The San Juan Public Lands Center (USFS/BLM) and the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forest have participated in these training events and now operate fen inventories for public lands management.

Fen Restoration

ophir fen

Mountain Wetland Monitoring, Assessment, and Conservation

MSI's MOUNTAIN WETLAND PROGRAM has several components aimed at improving the understanding of wetland hydro-ecology, ecological health, spatial distribution, and impacts of human activities, and communicating this information to land managers and the public. Of these, the fen project is an integral piece of mountain wetland monitoring.

Fen Project

Fens in the San Juan Mountains have accumulated up to three meters of peat and most are thousands of years old. These wetlands store carbon, filter pollutants from water, and support biodiversity, including rare species. Fens are abundant in the San Juans because the combination of snowmelt and late summer monsoon rains provide ample moisture.

Fens face threats from the development of mountain watersheds and from climate change. Both can alter the amount of water that reaches the fen and can cause the wetland to dry out. For example, development at the proposed Village at Wolf Creek may threaten fens. 

The Fen Project is a result of the San Juan Fen Partnership

Project Leaders:


Drs. David Cooper (Colorado State University)

Rod Chimner (Michigan Tech)

Koren Nydick (Mountain Studies Institute)

Phase 1: Fen Monitoring

Dr. David Cooper, a wetlands expert from Colorado State University, began monitoring fens in Prospect Basin, near Telluride in 1999. The San Juan Fen Partnership, which includes MSI, was established to help continue this work.

Phase 2: Fen Monitoring, Assessment, and Protection

MSI was awarded funding by the U.S. EPA-Region 8 to continue monitoring the Prospect Basin fens, develop a novel fen assessment technique, apply it to an inventory of fens in San Miguel and western Ouray Counties, and assist government and private land owners with fen watershed planning, conservation, and restoration. MSI worked with Dr. David Cooper (Colorado State University) and Dr. Rod Chimner (Michigan Tech) on the project. Matching funds were provided by San Miguel County, Town of Telluride, and Town of Mountain Village. Colorado State University, Telluride SKi and Golf Resort, and MSI provided in-kind assistance.

Phase 3: Regional Assessment of Fen Distribution, Condition, and Restoration Needs

EPA-Region 8 awarded a second grant to MSI to expand the inventory and assessment of fens throughout the San Juan Mountains, to train regional land managers about fen assessment, and prioritize fens for restoration. MSI again employed Dr. David Cooper and Dr. Rod Chimer on the project. MSI provided the matching in-kind funding.

Phase 4: Development of a Regional Restoration and Protection Program for Mountain Fens

alex pullen ophir fen

EPA-REgion 8 awarded a third grant to Colorado State University with MSI as a project partner) to develop methods of restoring damage to the hydrology and vegetation of mountain fens. Additional funding is provided for the project by San Miguel County, Town of Telluride, Town of Mountain Village, and Durango Mountain Resort. The fen restoration methods are being tested on-the-ground in various fens in the San Juan Mountains. We are working in partnership with US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Army Corps of Engineers, and private land owners.

MSI Frequently holds fen restoration and trainings. Keep up to date on fen trainings on our Events page. 


Cooper, D. and Arp, C. 2002. Prospect Basin Fens: Baseline Monitoring and Ski Area Expansion Monitoring for the Year 2001. Report Prepared for the Prospect Bowl Fen Protection Oversight Committee. (link)

Chimner, R. and Cooper, D. 2004. Ecosystem Carbon Cycling in San Juan Fens. State of the San Juans Conference: San Juan Mountains Science & Research: Linking Communities, Researchers, and Practitioners. September 24-26. Mountain Studies Institute, Silverton, Colorado. (pdf link)


Dr. David Cooper, Colorado State University; Dr. Rod Chimner, Michigan Technological University; Dr. Mark Williams, University of Colorado; Dr. Koren Nydick, Mountain Studies Institute; San Juan Public Lands Center (USFS/BLM); Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, and Gunnison National Forest; Telluride Ski and Golf Resort; Durango Mountain Resort; and the San Juan Fen Partnership.

Peggy Lyon Western Colorado Flora Collection

geranium kingsii

Peggy Lyon Western Colorado Flora Collection

Peggy Lyon has collected and surveyed plants for decades in Western Colorado. Over the years of working for the Colorado Natural Heritage Program, she has become a "guru" of plant flora. Peggy has led wildflower walks as part of MSI's Mountain Learning Program. She was integral to MSI's baseline alpine survey conducted in 2006 that began a long-term study (as part of the international GLORIA program).

Upon her impending retirement, Peggy decided to donate her flora collection to MSI for display at Fort Lewis College. Thanks Peggy!

The San Juan Public Lands Center (USFS/BLM) provided funds for labor and materials needed to prepare the collection for use.

What is in the Collection?

elephant head

The specimens in this collection include vascular plants from the western slope of Colorado, from desert to alpine tundra.  They were collected during various projects on the western slope, from a master’s thesis in 1993/4 in the San Miguel and Lower Dolores drainages, to various Colorado Natural Heritage Program county-wide projects and rare plant surveys on National Forest and BLM lands, through 2008. 

Counties represented include: Montezuma, Dolores, La Plata, Archuleta, Hinsdale, San Miguel, San Juan, Montrose, Ouray, Delta, Mesa, Garfield, Rio Blanco, Pitkin, Summit, Eagle and Rio Grande.

Major families represented are Asteraceae (166 species); Poaceae (104); Fabaceae (77); Cyperaceae (71); and Brassicaceae (67). 

Seventy-two are species tracked by the Colorado Natural Heritage Program.

How can you access the Collection?

The Peggy Lyon Collection is housed at the herbarium at Fort Lewis College. The Fort Lewis College herbarium is an internationally registered collection (code FLD) with current holdings of approximately 15,000 specimens of vascular plants and fungi, principally from southwest Colorado and the San Juan Mountains.  The herbarium is housed within  and managed by the department of Biology and access is granted to the public via prior arrangements with the curator, Dr. Ross A McCauley. Contact Dr. McCauley by email or phone, 970-247-7338. 

indian paint brush

Currently the herbarium is housed in a portion of the botany laboratory and thus access is restricted to those times when the room is not needed for instruction.  At the end of 2009 the Biology department will be moving to a new facility which is currently under construction.  With this move the herbarium will have a larger and dedicated space with new compactor-style cabinets, work space with microscopes for examining specimens, a small library of botanical literature, principally taxonomic keys for the Rocky Mountains and Intermountain West, and a dedicated computer with internet access to botanical databases and resources.  In order to increase the public accessibility and usefulness of the collection a project is currently underway to start the data basing of the collection with one of the goals being the distribution of herbarium records via a publically accessible internet database.