Month: February 2008

Northern Might

Northern Might

North Fort Collins is separated from the rest of the city by the Cache la Poudre River, a geographic break that historically kept Hispanic and other foreign families segregated from downtown. In recent years, development pressures have initiated a makeover for the north-side, but citizens and city officials remain concerned that changes may impact the social and cultural fabric of historical neighborhoods.


Northern Might

ANorthernMightRMCcovers the north-side makeover continues, longtime Fort Collins residents assert their heritage.

By Joshua Zaffos

Rocky Mountain Chronicle, February 28, 2008

Frank Martinez calls the new Northside Aztlán Community Center “gorgeous.” He repeats the compliment three times during a twenty-minute phone conversation, emphatic in his praise.

And after a tour through the $10 million building, which opened last November, it’s obvious what he means. Light filters through the windows of the expansive open lobby, and the center’s 
exposed steel and cast
 concrete purposely evoke 
an industrial-chic atmosphere. The state-of-the-art
 construction from energy-
efficient components and
 recycled materials of the 
former building will probably 
earn LEED (Leadership in 
Energy and Environmental 
Design) certification. Bilingual signage and Latin American-inspired artistic elements of glass and concrete fuse the center with a creative display of multiculturalism.

Martinez grew up at the old Northside Aztlán, running around the playground, participating in sports, staying off the streets. “Northside was huge for me,” he says. “It really did give me the confidence to succeed in school and at sports.” After graduating high school and serving in the Army, Martinez came back to work at the center, coaching and mentoring children as he was coached and mentored when he was young. He gave up his job when the new building opened to finish his degree and pursue other work, but he helped hire his replacement. Now Martinez is a member of the center’s advisory council, an unofficial committee that serves as a liaison between the facility and the community.

“I’m familiar with a lot of the insides and outsides,” Martinez says, “and I’m worried about the squeezing out of programs and it not being a community center that is accessible to all people in the community. That’s what made Northside beautiful.”

The difference between “gorgeous” and “beautiful” is a feeling among local families, many of them Latino, that the spiffy, new facility doesn’t offer the same amenities as the old center — or that it does but with prohibitive new fees and rules.

In other words, the multicultural vibe needs to be more than decoration.

Discriminating Geography

Outside the doors of the Aztlán Center, other changes are afoot on the north side of Fort Collins. There are plans for an outdoor amphitheater and a kayak park. Mixed-use developments, combining apartments and “loftominiums” with shops and offices, are popping up all over. Many of them are similarly using sustainable-design elements and being marketed to the cultural “creative class,” coveted by retailers and Realtors. In this context, the north side is an untapped frontier for growth, where Old Town can meld with plans for the city’s Beet Street cultural and arts area.

Since its settlement, Fort Collins has grown south from Old Town, away from the Cache la Poudre River. At the turn of the twentieth century, the Great Western Sugar Company sited its sugar-beet factory north of the river, and farm-labor families populated the surrounding neighborhoods — first Germans from Russia and then Hispanic families from New Mexico and farther south.

German Russian 
immigrants, unwelcome 
to live among the general 
population of Fort Collins, 
moved into the north-side neighborhoods of Buckingham and Andersonville in the early nineteen hundreds. Mexican Americans later followed and mixed with the German Russians. In 1923, Great Western started a new settlement
 and provided straw, lime, gravel and lumber for families to build two-room adobe homes. Workers could, over time, purchase a house and property for under $200. Latino residents called the area La Colonia Española. Today, it’s called Alta Vista, and all three neighborhoods are known as the colonias. Adobe homes are still scattered among the blocks, and the area remains — for the moment, at least — predominantly Latino.

Tony Rodriguez’s home in Andersonville sits on the busy corner of Lemay Avenue and Vine Drive, where trains rumble by and cars back up at the intersection all day. As a young boy, Rodriguez moved to Fort Collins with his parents, migrant farmworkers from Texas. Rodriguez and his wife have lived in the home for 58 years, raising five children along the way.

“It was a rough life, let me put it that way,” Rodriguez says of his youth. “I didn’t have an education. I had to start working the fields all over.” He keeps a thin moustache on his thin face, and his creased cheeks are a testament to years of outdoor labor.

North-side residents lived with pollution from the factory and passing trains. The city dump was adjacent to the neighborhoods. River flooding was a looming danger each spring and summer. When the families crossed the river into downtown Fort Collins, they ran into a different set of threats, from prejudiced citizens who refused to associate with them or sell them goods.

Neither the City of Fort Collins nor Larimer County wanted jurisdiction over the colonias, so roads were unpaved and muddy, and houses relied on wood stoves for heat. Into the Seventies, families had outhouses, because the government refused to extend a sewer line to the region.
 A 2003 historical report for the city (PDF link) calls the area “a geography of discrimination.” In this void, AltaVista elected unofficial mayors to advocate for the most basic services, such as street maintenance and indoor plumbing.

“The town here — the racism was real bad,” Rodriguez recalls. “When we came here, [shop windows] said, ‘No Mexicans, White Trade Only’.” He pauses as his mind fast-forwards to the present. “It’s a little better.”

Over time, progressive citizens advocated for the removal of signs that denied Mexican Americans access to stores. And the north side’s cultural identity finally got a physical home
 of sorts, when the City of Fort Collins built the Northside Community Center in 1977 at the site of the former landfill.

New and Old Kids on the Block

On a weekday morning, the new Northside Center bustles
 with kids shooting hoops in the gym and grownups working 
out with free weights and on treadmills in the fitness center. There’s a Tai Chi class underway and a children’s education program, themed around “Dora the Explorer,” in progress. Other programs teach cooking, Spanish, badminton and Salsaerobics, among dozens of other activities for children, adults and seniors.

The building is two-and-a-half times larger than the old center. The new gym — “the Cadillac of the whole facility,” says city Recreation Manager Steve Budner — has an elevated track around its perimeter and is three times bigger than the former center’s single basketball court.

But they don’t hold any funerals at the new center.

It used to be that every once in a while, if they didn’t have enough money for a loved one’s funeral, a north-side family would approach the staff of Northside Aztlán, which would arrange for a reception at the center, free of charge.

“A lot of the people we’re talking about here have a hard time paying for 
a funeral, let alone a reception,” Frank Martinez says. He estimates about five to fifteen services used to take place at the old building every year, and the assistance built loyalty toward the community center among residents of the colonias.

Kids under eighteen used to walk in free to the center and spend afternoons playing sports and games. That doesn’t happen anymore either. Now, children ages six to fifteen must pay a dollar to use the new center each day, while teens must
 pay two dollars. Punch cards for multiple visits do offer cost breaks. “And although it’s just one or two dollars,” Martinez says, “there are kids that I’ve talked to who are not going.”

(A lounge, with pool tables, computers, a big-screen TV and PlayStation, is open for no charge.)

If the fees sound minimal, think of a family with two working parents and two children in need of after-school activities. Now the family must pay $10 a week
— $500 a year — for weekday access, a significant amount for people struggling to buy groceries and pay property taxes or rent and utility bills.

The center also offers scholarship funds that reduce fees for children and adults who qualify for federal- or state-assistance programs. But Martinez says some parents who don’t qualify for other government programs still need financial help. Some are overloaded with work or otherwise reluctant to fill out the forms.

Martinez has also heard from children who fear that rates for summer sports programs, including basketball leagues, will be raised. Martinez remembers back when a team used to pay $10 total to enroll to play. Last year in the old facility, each child paid $25 or $40, depending on the league, but higher fees could reduce participation among kids from low-income families.

“It’s a program that’s been used to keep kids off the streets and out of gangs, and it’ll be interesting to see how that works,” Martinez tells me. “It really does create a home for the kids all summer. Hopefully, that’s not lost.”

“A lot of activities were free and it was a good place to find adult leadership and guidance,” Budner says, “and I think we still have that here. The old Northside was a close community. I think this was pretty scary to a lot of people.”

Budner, who has spent 22 years working for the city’s recreation department, has a neat, graying goatee, and today,
as we walk around the new Northside, 
he wears a mock turtleneck and a blue sweater with a city recreation logo. He is disarmingly friendly and not at all scary, but he realizes that he is the face of a new regime (the recreation department is now headquartered at Northside).

The center has no plans to raise summer league costs, Budner says, but
 he acknowledges that the facility won’t accommodate free funerals or other family services. Everyone must pay $25 per hour for a community room, which includes access to a full kitchen.

Martinez responds that the benefits of waiving costs in the dozen or so cases each year — and the community pride toward the center fostered by the assistance — outweigh the $150 or $200 the city would collect for each event.

As far as the new fees, Budner says the changes bring Northside’s operations and rates in line with other city facilities, although he recognizes the complications
 regarding the scholarship applications.

“We do whatever we can to get that filled out,” Budner says, including contacting teachers when parents are unavailable. “We
 do not turn anyone away.” He says he’s also encouraging longtime staff to reach out to children who formerly used the center but haven’t shown up to the new space.

“I think we’re seeing more new faces than old faces,” Budner says. “We’re glad to see the new faces, but we don’t want to lose the old faces either.”

A Brewing Storm

If there is an industrial
 face to the north side
 these days, it’s New Belgium Brewing Company. Since 1995, the enviro-friendly microbrewery abuts the Buckingham neighborhood at Linden and Buckingham streets. (The sugar beet factory site is now the city’s streets department headquarters.)

Upstairs from the brewery’s tasting room, its flowing taps and overflowing crowd, Kim Jordan, New Belgium’s CEO, keeps her office where the sounds of clinking glasses and buzzed conversation provide background ambiance.

“I love this neighborhood. We moved here because we love this part of town,” Jordan says. “But sometimes it makes me sad, because I feel like it’s not as integrated with New Belgium or the downtown.”

The disintegration, as it were, of the north-side neighborhoods has bubbled 
up in a few standoffs in recent years. The Rocky Mountain Sustainable Living Fair, which happens one weekend every September at the “Oxbow” property, bounded by both New Belgium and Buckingham, has faced criticism for clogging neighborhood streets with parked cars. New Belgium’s Tour de Fat, an annual bike parade and carnival of sorts that brings out thousands of costumed bicycle riders and beer drinkers, has also drawn complaints about noise, traffic and public intoxication. And sounds from the brewery’s late-summer, bike-in movie series in its parking lot are said to echo through the neighboring streets.

If the colonias still elected a local mayor, Betty Aragon-Mitotes would probably be the perennial frontrunner. She has lived,
 on and off, in Buckingham since the 1960s, and she is a frequent spokeswoman and ambassador for the neighborhoods. She led local opposition to a truck-bypass route and helped build support for the purchase and preservation of the Romero House, an adobe home in Andersonville, as a museum of local Hispanic culture.

Aragon-Mitotes says the events and crowds, despite their green credentials and philanthropic motives, are noisy shake-ups to a neighborhood that has long suffered
 a range of affronts and injustices. But her concerns also ring as a preemptive, defensive stance against proposed development.

The Bohemian Foundation, under the control of local billionaire Pat Stryker, owns the Oxbow and has plans to build an outdoor amphitheater on the property, which could regularly host concerts and events, attracting thousands of people through Buckingham, on a nightly basis for months. Aragon-Mitotes says the constant crowds would be a major imposition on the neighborhood, and she’s even more worried about the venue triggering an increase in property taxes, which would price out longtime residents who get by on fixed incomes or modest wages.

“The music venue is the most important issue facing the Buckingham neighborhood,” Aragon-Mitotes says.

Bohemian Foundation staff and a project design firm met with local residents in April 2007 to talk about plans. (The Coloradoan ran a below-the-fold, front-page article about the meeting; the above-the-fold front-page story on a looming snowstorm had an ironic headline: “Brewing storm could whiten city.”)

Merry Hummel, the Bohemian Foundation’s executive director, says, via email, that plans for the Oxbow are still conceptual, and the organization plans to meet again with neighbors before submitting its plans to the city.

“We don’t have specifics to share at this time, but we are committed to talking and working with our neighbors,” Hummel writes. “As you may know, the Bohemian Foundation believes in creativity, imagination and spirit and is dedicated to improving Fort Collins, and our plans for the Oxbow will focus on this mission.”

Infill, Then Move Out

Anne Aspen of the Fort Collins planning department walks into our meeting at the city offices on North College Avenue carrying an armload of rolled-up maps. She unrolls them all, and we focus on one that frames the north side of the city.

From a bird’s-eye view, north Fort Collins looks vastly open. Huge parcels of vacant and former agricultural land surround the colonias. On Aspen’s map, every sizable chunk of green space is labeled, in Sharpie, with the name of a prospective development.

A development with 163 residential units is already undergoing city review. A conceptual project, in the early stages, would include about a thousand residential units and another 270,000 square feet of commercial real estate, right next to Alta Vista. Another conceptual development could build low-density, high-end student housing designed to look like single-family cottages. An open lot along Vine Drive, near Conifer and College, isn’t markered, but Aspen tells me a “major retailer” is interested.

The North College corridor, heading out of Old Town, is the city’s “most promising and underserved area for growth,” says Mike Jensen, of Fort Collins Real Estate. “I’d love to be a property owner 
in those neighborhoods, because they’re going to make out.”

The expansive redevelopment, plus
 a number of urban-infill loft projects, requires some infrastructure overhauls. The city has already spent $10 million on control measures to reduce flood-prone property and open up parcels to commercial and residential development. Next, the city plans to realign Vine Drive and expand the street’s intersection with Lemay Avenue. The expansion alone will cost around $20 million, and its impacts on Andersonville, including Tony Rodriguez’s home, aren’t clear.

“There’s a lot of culture and a lot of pride in these neighborhoods, and it’ll be interesting to see if these people will get forced out,” Frank Martinez says. “People look and say, ‘That’s low-income, that’s rundown.’ To the people that live there, it’s home.”

The colonias are already seeing an infusion of young couples and individuals looking for reasonably priced property near Old Town. That isn’t a bad thing — to have a 
new and diverse next generation of homeowners who appreciate the neighborhoods. But it’s likely that nearby quarter-million-dollar lofts and a new wave of shopping centers will also inflate property values — and taxes — among the colonias, which could, over time, eliminate affordable housing in the area.

Jensen says it’s important not to displace the “fiber and fabric of these neighborhoods.”

“I think everyone is pretty committed to [affordable housing] and sustainable and environmentally conscious growth,” he adds.

Betty Aragon-Mitotes isn’t quite
 so optimistic. She walked away from
the affordable-housing task group of UniverCity Connections, a partnership among city-government officials, Colorado State representatives and civic boosters, because she thought the discussions 
were focused on student housing, not accommodations for low-income families.

The task force has suggested, preliminarily, that one-fifth of new housing along the Mason Street Corridor, which is slated for 
a public, bus-rapid transit line, should be affordable. Mixed-use projects in Denver and Boulder already lock in below-market-priced units to rent and own. Whether Fort Collins city officials and developers will support the targets when the time comes — and the case can be made that it already has — is another thing. New and under-construction loft projects around downtown have hardly any price-restricted housing.

“We have every right to be in this community, and I feel like we’re being pushed out,” Aragon-Mitotes says. “Is that what Fort Collins is about? Becoming a city for the elite? I’ve heard that my neighborhood is not going to be around in five years.”

Moving History Forward

None of this is unique to Fort Collins. It’s just another case of gentrification in America. But the especially distressing part for our city is that much of the north-side growth is catering to the so-called creative class, the progressive and environmentally conscious people who drink microbrews, watch independent films, shop at farmer’s markets and bike instead of drive — the people who are supposed to embrace community diversity among incomes and cultures.

“I’d like to think that, too,” Kim Jordan says of the targeted populace, when I raise that conundrum and ask if she thinks the decline of the colonias’ culture and affordability is inevitable.

“The future? To me it is, Can we be extraordinary?” Jordan says, with a daring tone that would just sound like rhetoric 
if she hadn’t launched New Belgium as a model for sustainable and profitable business. “I think we’d lose a lot in turning our backs on recognizing the Hispanic contribution to Fort Collins, and the same thing goes for the agricultural contribution.”

But hope is not yet foreclosed upon.

Aragon-Mitotes and others are trying to raise funds to build an interpretive center next to the Romero House museum to accommodate funeral services and other family events in the future. The city is also considering a playground, basketball courts and a park at the streets department site that was once the beet factory.

Most significantly, neighborhood discussions have begun to consider landmark designation for the colonias. Residents met with city staff, including Anne Aspen and Karen McWilliams, the city historic preservation planner, in November to talk about options, including the differences between protection of individual adobe homes, and others that represent the “vernacular architecture” of the neighborhoods, versus recognition of entire blocks.

Landmark preservation would recognize the area’s history and create financial incentives for homeowners to rehabilitate and repair houses, McWilliams says. It would also provide greater protection against out-of- sync development next to the colonias and prohibit property owners from demolishing structures from within designated boundaries. (Some residents have questioned whether preservation status could also have negative effects, banning some renovations.)

Aspen hasn’t heard of any interest in specifically targeting the colonias for a full-scale makeover. A developer would be “stupid” to do so, she says.

Aragon-Mitotes is drumming up support among neighbors and hopes to submit an application for city historical preservation soon.

“The recognition they’ll receive in the public realm will be huge,” McWilliams says. “I think it will be a great source of pride for the communities themselves. Finally, after years, Fort Collins will formally recognize their contributions, instead of them being an afterthought.”

The reality is that, despite the anxieties and setbacks, the culture and character of the north side are still visible among the homes of the colonias and even the design of the new Northside Aztlán Community Center. Fort Collins is perched at a moment when the city can decide how to identify and incorporate these elements, beyond old and new architectural designs.

“There was a lot of history in that old facility, and we want to bring that history forward,” Steve Budner says of Northside Aztlán. “We have the ability to impact the lives of so many people and make a positive impact for the rest of their lives. That’s what we had at the old Northside, and we want that here.”

In Frank Martinez’s mind, the connections between accessible community center and thriving community are inseparable.

“I think the center is very symbolic
 of the north side,” he says. “I count it as a resource, where people can come together, where they can meet and they can work. It’s always been a little heart of north Fort Collins. That’s how I view it as a center, and that’s how I view the future.”


Altered State

Altered State

In a quest to understand and explain how climate change is affecting Colorado, I rummaged research journals and contacted scientists to delve into the impacts that are already happening and what a carbon-loaded future may look like in the state.


Altered State

Nine signs that Colorado’s environment is heating up.

By Joshua Zaffos

Arapaho Glacier, in the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area, 1898 (top) and 2003 (bottom)
Arapaho Glacier, in the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area, 1898 (top) and 2003 (bottom)

Rocky Mountain Chronicle, February 14, 2008

A high-country freezer-box of a former Colorado mining village, Gothic in winter doesn’t inspire thoughts of global warming. For eight decades, the busted-town site has been the home of the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL, pronounced “rumble”), an independent, outdoor-research campus. Bustling with scientists and students from around the world during summers, the lab has served as the backdrop for scores of ecological and biological breakthroughs because of its pristine setting — surrounded by public land and eight miles from Crested Butte, up a windy highway and dirt road. But, in the winter, beneath heavy snows and bone-shivering low temperatures, RMBL shuts down.

Billy Barr, the lab’s business manager, has endured winter in Gothic since 1972, a lone cold-season resident who maintains his office and helps with caretaker duties. At night, he watches movies and then posts quirky reviews online.

This winter, Barr says, Gothic has felt particularly cold. It’s one of the snowiest in over three decades, with the ground buried by more than six feet. During the first full week of February, the temperature never rose above freezing, and the average high was just nineteen degrees Fahrenheit. Warming probably sounds like a cozy idea. But only one day this winter has set a new record-low temperature, while six new record highs have occurred on warmer days — hints of climate change and its complexities.

Barr has maintained his own records, observing early signs of spring and the first stirrings of wildlife each year. Yellow-bellied marmots emerge from hibernation with the onset of spring — or at least they used to. The fat and furry critters, sometimes known as whistlepigs or rockchucks, now appear 38 days earlier than they did a quarter-century ago. Scientists believe the earlier emergence is tied to warmer spring temperatures, even though the ground is often still covered with snow, leaving the marmots scrambling for food and perilously vulnerable to coyotes.

Places set aside for ecological preservation, including RMBL and Rocky Mountain National Park, offer opportunities to key into such changes, some of which are occurring on a scale that the region and the planet haven’t experienced in thousands of years.

“This state is enormously complicated climatically,” says Brad Udall, who runs the Western Water Assessment at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “It probably has more microclimates than any other state” because of the range of our topography and the convergence of the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains and the high desert of the Colorado Plateau.

This climatic complication means that Colorado has actually had it comparatively easy so far in terms of warming. According to data from the U.S. Historical Climate Network, compiled by the Colorado College State of the Rockies project, the state has warmed an average of 0.39 degrees Celsius in the last half-century, while most other Western states have heated by more than half a degree.

“On the Front Range, the really dramatic changes that we’re seeing around
the West are muted,” says Jill Baron, of the Natural Resource Ecology Lab at Colorado State University, who has studied climate change trends within Rocky Mountain National Park.

But we’re not getting away with anything. Models predict Colorado in 2085 will be seven to nine degrees (Celsius) hotter in summer and five to six degrees warmer in winter. Snowpack, our main source of water, is predicted to drop to half of the current average. Warming will have advantages around Colorado, causing longer growing seasons, wider stretches of some wildlife habitat, and possibly more precipitation in some regions. But signs of stress are already all over the state, and unless we rapidly alter our carbon-dioxide emissions — and encourage China and India to do the same — climate change will trigger even greater chaos on our landscapes and in our lives.

Ice, Ice Maybe

Located in the south end of the Indian Peaks Wilderness, Arapaho Glacier is protected as a drinking-water source for the city of Boulder. Arapaho is the largest glacier in Colorado, and it’s shrinking fast.

The glacier has thinned by roughly 120 feet since scientists started taking measurements in 1960. Archival images from 1898 show Arapaho had retreated significantly between then and 1960. Glacial melt in Colorado — as in Glacier National Park in Montana, on the flanks of Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, and along the Greenland Ice Sheet — is directly tied to global warming. But Arapaho’s transformation is something of an anomaly in the state.

Inside and around Rocky Mountain National Park, Andrew Fountain, of Portland State University, and his colleagues have cataloged smaller glaciers — “glacierets.”

“These little teeny glaciers are not that climatically sensitive,” Fountain says. “This is one of the hidden stories that makes climate change difficult.”

Glaciers around the park are fed by drifts, winds and avalanches that pack them with ice and snow, and Fountain figures that climate conditions haven’t changed enough to affect them yet. Still, his team, taking the first measurements of the park’s ice fields since the 1970s, has concluded that the glacierets began retreating over the last decade, and there are additional signs that significant transformations are afoot. A melting Front Range glacier revealed bison remains that researchers dated at two thousand years old. The preserved state of the remains suggests they haven’t been exposed much since their burial, an indicator that warming is occurring on a scale not seen in millennia.

What to Expect in the Future? The retreat of the little glaciers could be a harbinger of warming temperatures affecting our landscape on a more local scale.

“It looks like we’ve reached a tipping point,” Fountain says of the changes, “but it’s one of those things that we don’t know until we’re past it.” In other words, until it’s too late.

The loss of glaciers probably won’t cause the state’s water fountains to run dry, since most of our water comes from mountain snowpack, not ice fields. But glacial melt
will impact sensitive alpine environments, Fountain says. The ice fields and buried
snow persist as banks of moisture for plants and wildlife during the hottest and driest times — when life needs water the most. The decline of our glaciers could leave rare, alpine critters and vegetation high and dry.

Flipping the Birds – Out

As far as state birds go, Colorado’s specimen isn’t all that flashy. The lark
bunting is a stocky bird with a streaked, grayish-brown body and a short tail that
makes, what birders consider, a distinctive, soft “hoo-ee” call. Generally found among grassland areas, the good news is that Colorado probably won’t need to look for a new state bird anytime soon.

Because of Colorado’s range of elevations, bird species that reside in or migrate through the state should be able to endure climate change by taking wing northward through the state or upward in elevation to find cooler or wetter habitats that suit them.

The geography and birds’ mobility have prevented noticeable changes in migrations, breeding patterns or populations in the state, says Jeff Price, author of a national report on global warming and songbirds for the American Bird Conservancy and the National Wildlife Federation.

One possible indicator of change comes from Billy Barr’s observations at RMBL. American robins now arrive in the high country 
of Gothic two weeks earlier than they did in 1981 and then spend roughly eighteen days scrounging for food until the ground is bare.

Price, formerly of Boulder and now at California State University, Chico, says the example isn’t ideal, because robins are resident birds, not migrating into the state.

Still, the data implies that the birds are following temperature cues to move to higher elevations, even though there isn’t a food source. Robins may be able to improvise over time, but migratory species in need of food to complete their cross-continent journeys, or species with more specialized habitat requirements, are more susceptible. In other cases, some birds that typically head south for the winter are now more likely to stay in the warming climes of Colorado.

What to Expect in the Future? Price’s report projects that nearly half of the bird species observed in Colorado could
 face reduced or disappearing suitable habitat if temperatures warm as predicted. “Birds that live on tundra, mostly ptarmigans and American pippets, have nowhere to go,” Price says. “So as we start losing krummholz” — the high-altitude, timberline zone of stunted trees and tundra — “we’re going to lose the birds.”

Warmer winters have triggered white- tailed ptarmigan populations in Rocky Mountain National Park to hatch earlier and suffer slowed growth rates, according to modeling by researchers from CSU’s Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory and the state Division of Wildlife. Future projections suggest the birds will experience “accelerated declines.”

Snow More Fun?

Colorado’s premier ski resorts — Wolf Creek, Vail and Steamboat Springs — receive nearly 350 inches of snowfall a year on average, earning the state its world-class reputation. Resort managers can’t control when that snow falls, which is why they spend lots of money artificially augmenting the snowpack, creating powder from hoses. It’s obvious what’s at stake for the resorts, and the state, if climate change tweaks the winter weather.

David Clow, of the U.S. Geological Survey, looks at data from 72 remote weather stations, monitored by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, that measure the air temperature, depth of snow and its water content throughout the state’s high country. Using radio telemetry, the network of gauges report those values each hour. With nearly thirty years of data, Clow has observed decreases in the total amount of winter precipitation in Colorado. And there are other signs of trouble.

“The main trend we’ve seen is a shift in the time of snowmelt toward earlier in the year,” Clow says.

Overall, snow in Colorado melts two weeks earlier than it did three decades ago, and there are corresponding shifts in the timing of spring runoff. The trends fit with regional patterns observed throughout the West. Another alarming region-wide shift with links to climate change: More winter precipitation now falls as rain instead of snow, particularly at lower elevations, which means less water flows into rivers in the spring to fill reservoirs.

What to Expect in the Future? The earlier onset of spring means a more abrupt end to the ski season, but Colorado resorts could make out in the short term. So far, our state’s slopes have experienced milder changes than the mountains of the Pacific Northwest, the Northern Rockies and the Sierra Nevadas.

It’s even possible that our mountains could end up with more total snowfall for 
a while, Brad Udall says, because longer and colder springs could get a few extra snowstorms in place of rain showers. The catch
is that the snow will melt more quickly than it does now. And the long-term prognosis is bleak: Models commissioned by the Colorado College State of the Rockies project predict snowpack in Summit County, home
to Breckenridge and
three other major ski
resorts, will be cut in
 half later this century.

Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

Among the first mountain wildflowers
to open in spring are purple larkspur, which start a colorful parade of meadow and hillside blooms that lasts through the summer. David Inouye, a University of Maryland professor, has worked at RMBL since 1971, studying plots of wildflowers and accounting for the mix and abundance of different species. (He also helped Billy Barr recognize and publish the changing trends among marmots and robins at the lab.)

With 37 summers’ worth of data, Inouye has recognized that many wildflowers are opening sooner in spring — another result of earlier snowmelt — when they are more susceptible to frosts. In his plots, Inouye has seen frost damage snuff out the flower buds of tall larkspur, a favorite of hummingbirds; fleabane daisy, the preferred nectar source of the Mormon Fritillary butterfly; and Aspen sunflowers, an important food for bumblebees.

The consequences extend to other organisms, Inouye adds. Fly larvae feast on the sunflower seedheads, and parasite wasps eat the flies. So, a crash in wildflowers will have consequences for all of the high country’s biological diversity.

“What’s happening with these plants are indicators that climate change is happening and happening quite rapidly,” Inouye says.

What to Expect in the Future? If the trends continue, Inouye half jokes that Crested Butte might need to replace its title as the Wildflower Capital of Colorado. And while he is careful to note that climate fluctuations, like El Niño and the North Pacific Oscillation, play a role in the changes on the ground, he believes global warming is at work in the high country, and the long-term impacts are visible at RMBL.

John Harte of the University of California at Berkeley has spent the last eighteen summers at the lab, conducting an experiment into the future. Using heat lamps, Harte melts the snow from a meadow three weeks earlier than nature does and then keeps the soil warmed an extra two degrees Celsius (four degrees Fahrenheit) — “conditions that Colorado will resemble in about thirty years,” Harte says.

The meadows have not turned to barren deserts,
but they contain much
more sagebrush and fewer wildflowers. Warming beckons the uphill creep of sagebrush, drying out meadows and eliminating the cooler and wetter conditions for flowers and their pollinators.

“The even more important result — but it’s not 
visible — is the loss of soil 
carbon,” Harte says, which creates a “positive feedback.” The shift of vegetation causes the ground to store less carbon, which is then released into the atmosphere as greenhouse gases, causing more warming.

Perhaps Crested Butte will become the Sagebrush Capital.

Wet and Mild

Blue Mesa Dam, near the small Western Slope town of Sapinero, creates Colorado’s largest body of water, along the Gunnison River. Blue Mesa and two other upstream dams inundate part of a deep canyon system; the lower reach is now protected as a national park. Before the dams altered the flows
and temperatures of the river, trout cruised through the canyon’s cold waters and fed on flurries of insect hatches. Downstream from the canyon, native warm-water fish — Jurassic Park-looking beasts like the Colorado pikeminnow, the razorback sucker and the humpback chub — used to swim in the river’s warmer waters. Today, introduced trout proliferate below the dams, and the warm-water fish are listed as endangered species, facing extinction throughout the Colorado River system.

The effects of dams and diversions on streams can provide us with a glimpse of the consequences of climate change, says David Merritt, a riparian ecologist with the Forest Service and the Natural Resource Ecology Lab at CSU, who studies stream flows and riparian (streamside) ecosystems in the West. By altering river flows and natural sediment movement along streams, dams affect not just fish but also cottonwood trees, willows and other riparian vegetation, which rely on flooding for regeneration and dependable low flows for maintenance. Instead, drought-tolerant vegetation, including invasive species like Russian olive and tamarisk, can thrive.

Ironically, dams and diversions along the Front Range serve as a natural experiment, Merritt says, where we can look at scenarios of future climate change — like lower or earlier runoff and peak flows — to understand how river systems will respond to warming and decreased flows.

What to Expect in the Future? The transformation of rivers from warming could lead to “terrestrialization,” Merritt says, meaning the encroachment of junipers, ponderosa pines and other flood-intolerant, upland vegetation into former wetlands and riparian areas. Considering that sixty percent of the state’s flora occurs within these areas and eighty percent of wildlife uses them at some stage in their life cycle, reduced stream flows could have noticeable negative effects — not to mention for people who siphon off those flows for cities and farms.

“I don’t think climate change in and of itself will cause the drastic collapse of riparian areas in Colorado over the next century,” Merritt says, sharing his personal assessment. “But the distribution and characteristics of riparian areas will change in predictable ways. Habitat specialists [ranging from neo-tropical migrant songbirds to native cutthroat trout] will be the most immediately affected. These species will either respond by moving to a suitable habitat, or, if they are not well dispersed or if suitable habitat becomes fragmented or scarce, they will become locally or regionally extinct. That’s not an opinion or a sappy, moral statement. That’s a scientific fact.”

As far as actual water in our rivers, the forecasts range widely. Some models show precipitation totals increasing in parts of the state, including the extension of monsoon conditions from the Southwest. On the other hand, there’s a chance that the desert of Arizona will spread north into Colorado as temperatures climb.

Udall says projections for the Colorado River predict its flows will dry up between 5 and 50 percent over the next century. Even in the best-case scenario, Colorado — and the six other Western states that share water rights to the river — will have to get creative and cooperative with their water use, considering the astronomical population-growth trends for the region. Some water managers say the forecast supports storing more water behind new dams, like the proposed Glade Reservoir for the Cache la Poudre River outside Fort Collins. Other researchers say higher evaporation rates and the changes in flows should make the case to not build more dams.

The Butterfly Effect

During her research at RMBL in summer 2002, Carol Boggs noticed a Gillette’s Checkerspot, an orange, black, and white butterfly, far from where the insects usually fluttered about. The butterfly species, although common in the West, had been introduced to the lab decades earlier by another scientist and maintained a small range with no more than 125 individuals. In the midst of a drought, Boggs, a Stanford University biology professor, realized the Checkerspot population had exploded, “by an order of magnitude,” to 3,000 individuals and expanded its range by half a mile. After statistical analysis, Boggs and colleagues believe warmer temperatures are most likely the critical factor triggering the Checkerspot boom.

Boggs has also tracked the lab’s population of the Mormon Fritillary, another common Western meadow butterfly, for 10 years. She realized the species’ success relied on its nectar supply, which is closely tied to the timing of snowmelt. The earlier melt means that flowers bloom earlier, making them more susceptible to late-season frosts that kill the flowers. That leads to decreases in the Mormon Fritillaries, because they have less fuel to survive and reproduce.

What to Expect in the Future? Boggs says butterflies are “the canary in the coalmine” when talking about climate change: “It’s an indicator the whole ecosystem is changing, because butterflies are intimately connected with a number of plant species.”

And since they help pollinate plants and crops, which then pump oxygen into the air for people to live on Earth, they’re pretty essential. The changes at RMBL — one minor and introduced species thrives, another native one declines — are an example of how climate change can shuffle the biological diversity of ecosystems and trigger other changes among the plants the insects pollinate or the birds that eat them.

Bugging Out

Among the perfect storms of the natural world, Colorado’s pine-beetle epidemic is pretty damn perfect.

The combination of drought and reduced precipitation with dense forests of same-aged trees has created prime conditions for pine beetles to conquer lodgepole pine trees. The devastation of Summit and Grand counties is visible, and the beetles have crossed the Continental Divide to Front Range forests.

Early symptoms of climate change favor the pine beetles in two ways. First, milder winters enable the beetle larvae to survive, says Jeff Hicke of the University of Idaho, who has modeled climate-change impacts on pine beetles. Second, warmer summers have likely sped up beetle lifecycles, from two years to one year, facilitating more outbreaks.

What to Expect in the Future? Mountain pine beetles usually only attack lodgepole pines, but, as warming continues, the insects could jump to other species in Colorado forests.

“Now we’re seeing lodgepole pine at very high elevations being attacked, which is unusual, if not unprecedented,” Hicke says.

Like whitebark-pine trees in the northern Rockies, which are currently being attacked by the insects, limber pines and bristlecone pines could both host beetles, but neither may be adapted to them, like lodgepoles, Hicke adds, so they could suffer even more severe declines. Bristlecone pines, widespread around South Park, are the oldest trees in the state — thousands of years old — and some are as tall as 40 feet.

Despite the possible devastation, increased carbon dioxide levels should boost tree growth for some species in some regions. We could see more stands of aspen trees emerge as pines die off and other changes in forest diversity that will create “new” ecosystems, distinct from the wooded landscapes we see now.

Fired Up

Love forlorn, not global warming, could properly be blamed for the ignition of Colorado’s largest recorded wildfire. On June 8, 2002, Forest Service ranger Terry Barton burned a letter from her estranged husband inside a fire ring in the Pike National Forest, southwest of Denver. Arson may have been the cause, but extremely hot temperatures played a key role in the wildfire’s growth.

The Hayman Fire, as it was named, was preceded by four days of 90-plus-degree (Fahrenheit) heat. On June 9, the blaze blew up and spread 60,000 acres, fed by wind gusts and a peak temperature of 95 degrees. It was the hottest June 9 in Colorado in 80 years. On the same day, another wildfire in the Durango area doubled in size in just 40 minutes and then expanded its area six-fold in only three hours. Before Hayman was finally contained, weeks later, it scorched 137,000 acres and destroyed 133 homes.

In 2006, four scientists published the results of a survey of every large Western wildfire dating back to 1970. The conditions for big burns are often tied to a century of fire suppression. The researchers found another correlation.

Starting in the mid-’80s, the number of wildfires spiked in the West. Through statistical analysis, the researchers recognized a strong association between fires and earlier snowmelt and higher spring and summer temperatures. Like other warming trends, the increase is strongest in the northern Rockies and Sierra Nevadas, but Colorado fires, including Hayman, have also responded to the elements.

What to Expect in the Future? Hotter temperatures will mean drier and more fire-prone forests that burn hotter and wider than they would under past conditions. Climate change could also increase storms and their lightning strikes. And fires emit a lot of greenhouse gases, another positive feedback.

Growing “exurban” communities of homes mixed among forests will add to the risks to life and property from more frequent and intense fires, too. Considering the federal fire-prevention budget already exceeds $1 billion a year, wildfires could also burn lots of money.

Prairie-Home Combustion

Just as most residents and tourists shower their love and money on the Rockies, the plains of Eastern Colorado receive less attention from researchers. But the farms and ranches, and the surrounding grasslands, could experience some of the greatest changes from warming.

For five years, Jack Morgan, of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and his colleagues maintained chambers over grassland areas in Weld County, one of the driest parts of the state, and pumped them full of carbon dioxide, equivalent to levels projected for 2100.

Fringed sage, a small woody shrub, thrived in the experimental plots. Already common among slightly deteriorated, or overgrazed, ranchlands, the plant isn’t very palatable for cattle.

“It signals that native grasslands are moving toward becoming more woody grasslands in the future,” Morgan says, “and most people in ranching would view that as a negative.”

Morgan is now undertaking a similar experiment on the grasslands of southern Wyoming that will test how invasive weeds might do in a warmer and carbon-dioxide-enriched environment.

What to Expect in the Future? The prairies of Eastern Colorado are expected to heat up more than any other region of the West, according to the Colorado College State of the Rockies project. Models are less clear on changes to regional rainfall: “For predictions of precipitation, you might as well flip a coin,” says CSU researcher Bill Parton, who has worked with Morgan.

Parton says precipitation will likely be less consistent from year to year, meaning plants and crops that can handle variability will fare best. One study, by a CSU graduate student, showed that more rainfall variability increases plant productivity on Colorado’s dry plains (although the wetter grasslands of Kansas responded to the same experiment with decreased growth).

Ranchers could gain some benefits, if winters are warm enough to allow cattle to forage on the range for longer periods. Extended growing seasons would be good news for farmers — and higher carbon-dioxide levels could increase plant production and reduce water loss. Parton says winter wheat crops could grow just fine under forecasted climatic shifts, but corn and other summer crops become less viable in hotter times.

Farmers are already fending off growing Front Range cities that want their water. James Pritchett of CSU’s agricultural economics department says climate change could trigger a loss of groundwater if irrigation flows decrease or become less consistent, which could lead to more erosion on the plains.

The U.S. National Assessment on Climate Change, completed in 2000, forecasts that Western farmers may have to increase crop diversity to roll with the changes. Orchards, like those on the Western Slope, will likely require expensive and difficult relocations as crop zones shift northward.

“The climate-change picture in Colorado isn’t as negative as it could be in other places,” Parton says. “There will be winners, and there will be losers.”

Conclusion: Our Stamp on the Environment

Last year, the U.S. Postal Service released a “commemorative” collection of stamps in its “Nature in America” series, detailing the flora and fauna of the Colorado Rockies. The sheet of stamps features yellow-bellied marmots, white-tailed ptarmigans and several butterflies, as well as elk, bighorn sheep and golden eagles. With climate change in motion, the stamps are almost like an early eulogy for the natural environment of our state.

In most cases, it’s nearly impossible to separate the effects of global warming from other climate variations and drought conditions. But the signs of change, on an unprecedented scale, are evident. Each of the cases highlighted above comes from peer-reviewed research, published in accredited journals of science. There are more, and there are also anecdotal observations that hint at the miniscule and massive changes occurring in our state and on our planet.

Clearly, our greatest concern in Colorado and out West will be water resources, but global warming threatens to transform every aspect of our environment. Plants and wildlife respond to different cues to survive and reproduce. Wildflowers now bloom, only to be killed by frost. Birds migrate but find diminished food supplies and habitat. Marmots emerge and get picked off by coyotes. Each of these changes is called a “disjunction,” and they are signs of how climate change is jamming the circuits of our natural world in Colorado.

In a few centuries, our progeny may only have stamps to remind them of the state we now know.