Nationally-renowned author Terry Tempest Williams visited Steamboat Springs last year and came away impressed by the scope of land conservation in the Yampa Valley.
“I really have to honor this community,” Tempest Williams emphasized. “Coming into this valley, you know that this open space is hard-won.”
Terry Tempest Williams has published a number of well-received environmental books, columns and articles. She appeared on Ken Burns’ PBS series on National Parks and has received a number of prominent awards, including the Robert Marshall Award from The Wilderness Society (their highest honor given to an American citizen).
With so many competing land uses in Routt County, Tempest Williams is absolutely right about about our community’s conservation efforts: open space is hard-won in the Yampa Valley. For nearly 25 years – and made possible only with your support – YVLT has worked to permanently protect over 55,290 acres across Northwest Colorado by way of 75 conservation easements. Many of these complex real estate transactions are years (or even decades) in the works.
Fortunately, the citizens of Routt County have made protecting open space a priority with the voter-approved “Purchase of Development Rights” program, which has assisted with funding and matching funds for the acquisition of conservation easements on over 40,000 acres since it was first approved by voters in 1996. Tens of thousands of additional acres have been conserved with the assistance of other funding entities, including Great Outdoors Colorado, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and various private foundations. Further, nearly all land conservation in Routt County and Northwest Colorado is supported by a generous donation of conservation easement value provided by the landowners themselves.
“Tempest Williams offered high praise for Routt County’s will to preserve thousands of acres of ranch and farm lands by providing tax dollars to help fund conservation easements,” wrote Tom Ross in the Steamboat Pilot & Today.
This community’s dedication to land conservation is visible to residents and visitors alike, and it even plays a critical role in preserving our local outdoor recreation-based economy.Take a look at YVLT’s conservation projects map, below, to see how far we have come in just under 25 years (click to enlarge):
Land Conservation and Public Access Converge to Establish World-Class Singletrack Trail Network on Emerald Mountain
Despite lingering snow showers, the spring melt is in full swing in the Yampa Valley. Now that winter operations have ceased at Steamboat Ski Resort, mountain bike enthusiasts are itching to get their tires back in the dirt at Emerald Mountain – a beloved community resource under conservation easement held by YVLT!
While Steamboat Springs is dubbed “Ski Town USA” and renowned for its ultra-light powder snow, the outdoor-centric community has recently cultivated a new moniker: “Bike Town USA.” Steamboat features some of the premier mountain biking in Colorado, thanks in part to the extensive trial network at Emerald Mountain and Howelsen Hill. Known by many as the town’s “crown jewel,” the 30+ world-class singletrack trails at Emerald Mountain are just a few pedal strokes away from downtown, weaving through thick aspen groves and lush wildflower meadows with sweeping views of the Yampa River Valley. Few communities are fortunate enough to have such an accessible trail system that is both open to the public and free of charge. This is why many people – this author included – moved to Steamboat Springs for the exceptional skiing but ultimately grew to favor its spectacular summers.
YVLT played an instrumental role along with other community leaders in expanding public access at Emerald Mountain, culminating in 2011 when the City of Steamboat Springs (with financial support from Great Outdoors Colorado) purchased 586 acres from a private landowner and opened it for public recreation. The land was already under conservation easement with YVLT, which brought down the acquisition price for COSS and helped make it an affordable venture for the City amid the nationwide recession. [Read more about the deal here.] This purchase complemented the nearly 4,000 acres of Emerald Mountain under BLM ownership and also open to the public!
The partnership between COSS and YVLT has opened the door to exciting opportunities at Emerald Mountain Park, a conservation project striking a delicate balance between ecological protection and public recreation. At the time of the land purchase, there were only about nine miles of established trails on Emerald Mountain / Howelsen Hill; now there are over 24 on both the front and backside of the mountain (owned by the Bureau of Land Management), thanks to the hard work of Marc and Gretchen Sehler, Routt County Riders and other trail builders in the community. The smooth, flowy singletrack trails that have been refined over time are a testament to the hard work that was done both on the ground and conceptually in the office. Many argue that this is the “greatest city-owned park in the world,” and the number of user visits bring merit to that claim. It is estimated that over 2,000 people enjoy the Emerald Mountain trail system every year.
The heavily-used site is carefully managed to preserve its conservation values and safeguard an important forest ecosystem, which provides habitat for a number of plants and animals, including elk winter range and calving grounds. Conservation projects and natural areas such as this are among the reasons why Steamboat Springs has such an abundance of wildlife, despite its semi-urban setting. The overwhelming success of this project demonstrates that land conservation and outdoor recreation are not incompatible goals. With thoughtful stewardship and ecosystem awareness, these aims can go hand-in-hand.
Make sure you are among the thousands who enjoy this amazing resource in 2016! Pump up your tires, inspect the derailleur, tighten the bolts and screws, and lubricate the chain – mountain bike season is right around the corner. Always remember to respect the trails and other users, and please stay off the trails when they are wet. Many volunteers and members of the community work hard to keep these trails in great shape!
YVLT looks forward to bringing more public access opportunities to Northwest Colorado in the near future. These important projects wouldn’t be possible without your support!
Donate today and we will continue to connect our community to land conservation.
The hay meadow at Summer Ranch, a YVLT conservation project preserving wildlife habitat and open space views.
Why hay meadows need our care and stewardship
Northwest Colorado is home to an incredible diversity of wildlife; a staple of this region and a core component of its cultural identity. We owe our almost daily encounters with animals to the wealth of prime habitat within and on the outskirts of our communities. Your support allows us to preserve the important attributes which make this place special.
Quality wildlife habitat comes in many forms in Northwest Colorado, from the aspen-dotted hillsides to its lush irrigated hay meadows. Hay meadows are scattered throughout this vast open landscape and are a familiar sight to many, but their environmental functions are not widely understood.
In actuality, the wet, marshy environments that irrigated hay fields foster supplies among the most species-rich habitat in Northwest Colorado. Nutrient-rich plants found in the meadows attract insects and invertebrates, important food sources for many animals. Irrigated meadows are particularly beneficial for migratory birds, whose populations have plummeted in recent years due to habitat loss, conversion and fragmentation. With your help, YVLT has conserved tens of thousands of acres of this important habitat throughout the region.
An estimated 341 Neotropical migratory bird species exist in North America. Nearly 130 of those are known to be in decline, and 60 are considered to be in severe decline (i.e. populations roughly cut in half over 40 years). Many birds return from the spring migration only to find that their preferred nesting grounds have succumbed to human development. Over time, this cumulative habitat loss has been devastating to certain species. Open space preservation and smart growth are among the key ways to help stabilize declining avian populations, which rely on diverse ecosystems like the hay meadow during many stages of their development.
The benefits of hay fields are not limited to wildlife, but are realized by humans on a daily basis as well. In addition to performing vial ecosystem functions and promoting diversity, these environments offer both social and economic value. Hay meadows preserve Northwest Colorado’s iconic open landscape and help sustain local agriculture, which has long been a backbone of the regional economy – proving that habitat conservation and agriculture are not mutually exclusive aims.
These dynamic ecosystems undergo dramatic changes from season-to-season and as such, they serve a wide range of wildlife. Colorado wildlife representing nearly all branches of the animal kingdom utilize hay meadows at some point in their lives, be it for food, water, shelter, nesting grounds, or movement corridors. Perhaps the best way to understand these complex environments is to explore the seasonal change that occurs in a hay field over the course of a year.
Join us as we go behind the scenes at an irrigated hay meadow in the fertile Yampa Valley, inspired by one of YVLT’s conservation projects at a historic ranch in Routt County:
It’s April in the Yampa Valley.
A wet spring inundates the Yampa Valley. Photo: Wyoming Aero Photo LLC
The lingering blanket of sun-baked snow is receding and the ground has thawed, leaving behind a series of boggy seasonal ponds across the valley floor. Many refer to the shoulder season in Northwest Colorado as the “mud season,” a period distinguished by stormy weather, saturated soil and gushing rivers fueled by rapid snowmelt. Over the course of a few days, the influx of water will transform the landscape from varying shades of tan to a vibrant chameleon-green.
Meanwhile in the Valley, the hay meadow on a YVLT-conserved ranch is thriving amid the spring runoff. Sedges, clovers and grasses are growing taller by the day, providing much-needed food and shelter for resident wildlife who have endured a long, hard winter. Warmer temperatures wake the animals from a lethargic state and suddenly, the meadow – which lay dormant just a week or two ago – is bustling with activity. Some of these guests may stay for just a few moments, some will stay for a season, and others will visit periodically for the next several years.
Legacy Ranch, owned by the City of Steamboat Springs and conserved by YVLT. Photo: N. McCormish
This is an exciting time of year on the ranch. Migratory birds have returned from their southern exodus and are taking refuge in the meadow or along the nearby banks of the meandering Yampa River. Now that the snow has shed from their traditional nesting grounds, a pair of Greater Sandhill Cranes can be seen strutting about the wet marshes and Oxbows at the meadow’s edge. The willow thickets and tall grass fields provide plenty of cover for this pair to raise their newborns, and they will happily reside here until the fall migration. These captivating birds are keen on family values – Cranes generally remain faithful to the same partners for life!
Sandhill cranes are commonly seen poking around hay meadows near waterbodies. Photo: CPW
Local birdwatchers regularly line the banks of the Yampa River during this time to marvel at the Cranes, scanning intently for their long necks and the distinctive crimson patches adorning their foreheads. These large native birds (a State Threatened Species) are widely regarded as among the most graceful dancers in the animal kingdom. If the onlookers are lucky, they will be treated to a truly unique and animated display:
Many other species are similarly drawn to the prime conditions in the hay field. Early-season growth in the meadow is ideal for foraging, attracting Wilson’s Snipes, Great Blue Herons, Red-winged Blackbirds and even the occasional moose. At the fringe of the meadow near the riverbanks, a well-camouflaged Snipe combs the muddy ground with its long beak. The short, stocky sandpiper bobs up and down, curiously scouring the earth for earthworms and protein-rich insects. Success! Triumphantly raising its head, the Snipe showcases its wriggling, hard-earned trophy and zig-zags into the distance.
Countless other creatures – elk, butterflies, toads, hawks, snakes, bees, dragonflies – depend on patch environments like hay fields at various times of the year. The meadow is a revolving door: with spring runoff slowing to a trickle and valley temperatures on the rise, some of the meadow’s temporary visitors will return to higher ground while new guests begin to filter in.
The dog days of summer are fast approaching.
It is mid-June in the Yampa Valley and temperatures have crept into the upper 70’s. The heat occasionally conjures an afternoon thunderstorm amid the otherwise hot and sunny days, showering the thirsty ground with a brief burst of precipitation.
Looking across YVLT-conserved Legacy Ranch on the outskirts of Steamboat Springs. Photo: N. McCormish
Hay and pasture grasses are now waist-deep throughout the irrigated meadow, which benefitted from a particularly wet spring. While most opt to remain in high mountain elevations among the cool, thick patches of dark timber during the summer months, a few remaining deer and elk occasionally pause in the meadow to browse on the bountiful supply of food. The open field provides an important movement corridor for these large creatures at all times of year, allowing them to bypass surrounding clusters of human development as they wander down to the Yampa River to quench their thirst.
New faces arrive in the meadow daily as the hot summer sun soaks up the moisture elsewhere in the valley. A Greater Sage-grouse hen and her brood recently traveled here from the neighboring sagebrush shrublands, taking shelter in the wet meadows now that her preferred sagebrush habitat has dried out. In this damp environment, her chicks will have little trouble finding the tender forbs and juicy bugs that they need to flourish.
Greater Sage-grouse often visit hay meadows near sagebrush country to raise their young. Photo: CPW
Western Chorus Frogs are small enough to fit on a fingernail, but their raspy trill (“cree-ee-ek!”) rings through the meadow and is audible nearly a half mile away. This gravely call sounds in sharp contrast to the bubbling chorus chiming from a Bobolink nest tucked away deep in the hay field. Wet meadows like this are Bobolinks’ preferred breeding grounds, and the dense, flowing stands of grass found here provides sufficient cover to shield their young, which should hatch any day now. The melodies echoing through the hay field serve as a reminder that many animals – large and small – rely on these diverse ecosystems for survival.
For a brief time, the meadow experiences an explosion of color as a sea of seasonal wildflowers are in full bloom. Diminutive Bobolinks with their skunk-like plumes can often be seen perching on flower stalks, preparing for their fall migration to the southern hemisphere. Despite their small size, these birds are world travelers: some will fly over 10,000 miles this year going to and from South America. They are using this time to rest and to conserve energy for the long journey ahead.
Hay meadows are great places to host YVLT summer picnics for supporters once the crop is cut and baled!
Irrigation season is coming to an end and now the time has come to harvest the annual crop: over the course of a few weeks, the hay will be cut, raked, shaped into bales, and carted off the meadow. For birds that nest in hayfields, timing is everything: if the hay is cut too soon, the baby birds may not survive. Cutting hay after the first or second week of August helps to ensure that another generation of songbirds has fledged – and also ensures 100 percent “bird-free hay!” After the hay is cut and baled, it is moved to storage and will provide food for livestock during the winter until grazing season resumes in the spring.
Summer is waning as the days are getting shorter and the nights grow colder. Fall is in the air.
A bull’s breath lingers in the crisp fall air. Photo: CPW
The sound of bugling elk echoes throughout the Yampa Valley.
It is early October and Northwest Colorado is bursting with vivid displays of fall color. A shimmering sea of golden aspen leaves in the hills signals that winter is near, and the hay meadow’s guests are busy preparing for leaner times to come.
Colorful Colorado: YVLT’s conservation project at Mystic Hill.
The overnight frosts and occasional snow dustings are pushing deer and elk down from the high country into a mid-elevation “transition range” and occasionally down into the valley. Elk mating season (the “rut”) is underway and the animals have formed small groups or “harems” led by dominant male bulls. At dawn, a harem comprised of a bull and about a dozen cows roams through the meadow, the condensation from their breaths hanging in the chilly fall air. The leader of the group emits a roaring bugle that pierces the morning silence of the valley, drowning out the chirps and grunts coming from the cows. This is the bull’s way of showing off for the cows and asserting its dominance over the group. Minutes later, the sun crests over the towering mountain peaks to the east, illuminating the valley and inciting a flurry of activity in the meadow. The bull leads the harem down to the river for a quick drink before disappearing into the nearby sea of trees and vegetation.
During the “rut,” elk utilize willowed areas and irrigated meadows on YVLT-conserved YZ Ranch, a 5,280-acre property situated along the South Fork of the White River. Photo: Dorsey/YVLT
By mid-September, resident Greater Sage-grouse begin to retreat back to the thick sagebrush canopy, which will provide shelter and sustenance during the dark, cold winter months. The Sandhill Cranes are preparing for a journey to the San Luis Valley in Southern Colorado (and then ultimately even further south), fattening up in the wet meadows and grain fields. For weeks the young cranes or “colts” have been learning to fly, sharpening their take-offs and landings. While the adult cranes can travel as far as 400 miles a day, this family will need to slow down to make sure their young can keep pace.
The mass exodus continues as the thin deposit of snow covering the valley floor gradually starts to accumulate. Aside from a few lingering Magpies, the meadow is temporarily vacant. The wind is all that is audible across the empty hay field.
Volcanic dikes on YVLT-conserved Rossi Ranch make for a stunning backdrop as the seasons change. Photo: Dorsey/YVLT
It is late January in Routt County.
The meadow is buried under three feet of Colorado’s famous “Champagne Powder®” (trademarked by Steamboat Ski Resort!). Snow sports enthusiasts may be thrilled with this weather, but the winter months mark an annual struggle for survival for many of the animals in this region.
Overlooking YVLT-conserved open space across Legacy Ranch. Photo: N. McCormish
While some of Northwest Colorado’s wildlife hibernates during the winter, deer and elk generally remain semi-active and relocate to lower, more temperate elevations to escape the deep snow; often at south-facing slopes that retain winter forage. Their goal for the winter is to burn as few calories as possible, conserving energy and living off of fat reserves when food is scarce. The meadow is important at this time because it provides them with an unimpeded movement corridor, allowing them to more easily browse on shrubs, grass, twigs, bark, and seed-rich patches of uncut hay that still line the irrigation ditches under the deep snowdrifts. It is a dark and difficult time for these animals, but perseverance will see them through the winter.
The hay field lays dormant under the rosy pink hue of the mountains, illuminated by the evening’s stunning alpenglow. In a few short weeks it will be spring, and the cycle begins once again as the powerful sun sheds the layers of compacted snow and breathes life back into the meadow.
The next time you pass by a hay meadow, pause for a minute – you might catch a glimpse of the vibrant wildlife community that lives there!
Support YVLT in its wildlife habitat conservation efforts, which has permanently protected over 55,290 acres across Northwest Colorado to date (2016 update).
The view across YVLT-conserved Storm Mountain Ranch, looking into the rugged Walton Creek Canyon.
The Yampa Valley has long been renowned for its incredible scenery, defined by its sweeping open space views, rolling hills, meandering rivers and towering snow-capped mountains. Internet travel giant Expedia recently acknowledged what we have always known: Steamboat Springs is among the most visually stunning places in the United States. Steamboat ranked as Number 10 on Expedia’s list of the “30 Most Beautiful Towns in America.” Emphasizing its “rustic beauty” and proximity to public lands, Steamboat was the lone representative from the state of Colorado to receive this distinction.
Overlooking some of the finest singletrack trails in Colorado (and Mt. Werner) on YVLT-conserved portions of the city-owned Emerald Mountain!
YVLT is thrilled to see Steamboat getting this national recognition, as we have long fought to preserve the natural qualities that make this area so unique. The vast open landscapes surrounding Steamboat Springs are validation that we are balancing smart growth and land conservation in a positive and quantifiable way. Various studies have shown that the open lands of Routt County bring more visitors to the area, who subsequently stay for longer periods of time and spend more per day during their time here. Land conservation brings so many benefits to the Yampa Valley and the greater Northwest Colorado region as a whole; benefits which are shared by residents and visitors alike.
Thank you – YVLT supporters – you are the reason why Steamboat Springs remains one of the most beautiful towns in America. With your support, we are working to ensure that the Yampa Valley retains its entrancing natural character for this generation and for many generations to come. You can help us achieve a lasting and permanent legacy: donate today and you will continue to see the results!
Open space is synonymous with the Yampa Valley. The view across Summer Ranch just south of Steamboat Springs.
The Expedia article said the following about Steamboat Springs:
“Thanks to the 150 hot springs, 3 Colorado State Parks, and 2 ski resorts around this mountain town, Steamboat Springs has a lot going for it in the rustic beauty department. The Yampa River babbles along the banks of downtown, while the nearby steamy Strawberry Park Hot Springs place you in a serene natural pool among an aspen grove. And trust, the backdrop of the ski slopes is really something you’d consider writing home about.”