By Courtney King
Photos contributed by Petar Simic and Anakin Dunn
On Saturday, Sept. 23, a group of hearty volunteers spent a brisk morning and sunny day at Cabin Creek, northeast of Gunnison.
Fall-ing on the Autumnal Equinox, the event was a celebration of our shared public lands. National Public Lands Day, celebrated across the country, was established back in 1994 and is held each year on the fourth Saturday in September — an ideal time to get outside and give back to the landscapes that sustain so many of us here in Gunnison.
“National Public Lands Day is traditionally the nation’s largest single-day volunteer effort. It celebrates the connection between people and green space in their community, inspires environmental stewardship, and encourages use of open space for education, recreation, and health benefits,” reads a National Park Service blurb on the earthy holiday, created back in 1994.
In Gunnison, intrepid volunteers have been engaging in environmental stewardship on the day of celebration for at least seven years, giving their sweat in exchange for t-shirts and “fee free” passes to participating parks.
Around town, the events have been driven mostly by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), in coordination with other agencies and organizations, including Western. Such cross-agency coordination is particularly strong in Gunnison, showcased beautifully by this past summer’s roll-out of a restoration crew jointly funded by the BLM, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District.
While coordinating across differing interests and ownership presents challenges, it also provides invaluable opportunities to share time, resources, and expertise, ultimately resulting in more acres of land and miles of rivers restored.
Public Lands Day in Gunnison also provides valuable opportunities for Western students to learn more about their surrounding landscapes, and to give back to their community.
Each year, the event is attended by Mountaineers, including wildlife professors like Dr. Madelon van de Kerk and Dr. Pat Magee, along with their students.
Particularly for those new to Gunnison, the event often coincides with lessons about sagebrush habitats and the species — namely the charismatic but imperiled Gunnison sage-grouse — that rely on these treasured public spaces
A hard day’s work
Public Lands Day also often includes discussions on responsible recreation; as was the case this year, volunteer activities have included decommissioning defunct and redundant roads.
Road decommissioning allows land managers to restore fragmented and damaged sagebrush habitat. Removing roads, among other benefits, increases the habitat available to species like the Gunnison Sage-grouse while reducing erosion, decreasing the spread of invasive species like cheatgrass, and promoting the establishment of beneficial grasses and wildflowers.
Initially, old roads were ripped using a skid-steer, loosening the soil and allowing for easier planting of roughly 500 big mountain sagebrush seedlings. These seedlings were grown at the Colorado State Forest Service nursery in Fort Collins from seeds collected by Western student volunteers last year.
The event also involved “dead-planting” between the planted seedlings, embedding dead sagebrush material to create microclimates for ideal seed germination and survival conditions.
After the seedlings were planted, a native seed mix designed to create habitat for Gunnison sage-grouse was cast in the old roads, and volunteers dutifully watered the seeds and plants. Finally, a “hydro-mulch” was applied to the decommissioned roads to aid in retaining moisture and further promote seedling survival and seed germination.
Although there’s plenty of hard work involved, giving back to public lands needn’t be all toil. The annual event serves as a kind of social for environmentally minded folks within the Gunnison and Western communities.
At past PLD’s (new acronym alert), I’ve chatted with newfound friends, spoken about my career goals with professors and agency professionals, and even met my significant other – apparently, a great way to find love is by carrying heavy rocks together or (carefully, but alluringly) swinging around a Pulaski.
For years, Kathy Brodhead (Wildlife Biologist) and Brian Stevens (Fire Management Officer) have organized these and other volunteer events. Both have spent large portions of their careers with the BLM’s Gunnison Field Office, supporting and often hiring current and former Western students.
This year’s iteration of National Public Lands Day was largely organized by Melissa Jernakoff, a recent graduate of Western’s Master of Science in Ecology (MSE) program who now works for the BLM, along with Petar Simic (also a Western MSE grad) who currently serves as the Habitat Restoration and Cheatgrass Coordinator for Gunnison in a jointly funded position.
Sally Thode and Dr. Jessica Young has also aided in organizing Public Lands Day, leveraging their long-standing connections with both Western and the BLM, which Thode recently retired from after more than two decades of service.
That the university’s provost took time out of her incredibly busy schedule to help execute the event, accompanied by fledgling students in her Headwaters course, sets a strong tone of the importance of public lands and stewardship to the Western communities.
During the event, Dr. Young articulated how we can all find a greater sense of ownership of our area’s public lands through efforts like these focused on building ecological resilience and health.
While Public Lands Day is technically only a single day, the BLM and its partners often spread the volunteer love around. Previous years have coincided with Western’s Fall Day of Service or volunteer days organized by the Gunnison Wildlife Association, High Country Conservation Advocates, and other organizations.
This has allowed those participating to physically spread out (even at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, local volunteership didn’t wane) and engage with different types of projects throughout the Gunnison Basin.
Getting involved on your public lands
If you want to learn more about the wildlife that benefit from such efforts, join the BLM for an evening of presentations, socialization, and dinner at Pie-Zan’s at 6 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 6.
And, to celebrate Public Lands Day a second time (an event so nice they did it twice), the BLM will be hosting another volunteer day with the Gunnison Wildlife Association on Saturday, Oct. 7. Volunteers will meet at the Western Student Union parking lot at 9 a.m. (returning by 1 p.m.). You can contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
On that same day, Western’s Backcountry Hunters and Anglers club will be hosting a different event from 8am to 3pm in conjunction with Western’s Center for Public Lands. Participants will remove outdated fencing and make room for new, wildlife-friendly fencing. You can contact email@example.com for more information.
Finally, Gunnison Trails will be hosting an event on (you guessed it) Oct. 7, building trails on Signal Peak. Volunteers will receive a free public lands shirt, pass, and free food!
Sponsored by The Dive and Double Shot Cyclery, that event will run from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., followed by food and “plenty of libations.” Those interested should plan to meet at BLM road 3211D; visit the Gunnison Trails website for more information.
Events like these have also benefited from the support of community members, local government officials, scientists, and natural resource agency employees.
To stay informed about future events related to sagebrush ecosystems, you can check out the Gunnison Sagebrush Alliance.
Interested landowners and sagebrush supporters can also get in touch with Petar Simic at HappyHabitatsGunnison@gmail.com.
Happy habitats abound when volunteers and professionals converge on Gunnison’s public lands!