AUGUST 10, 2018 BY 

By Sarah Jones, YVSC Executive Director

On the morning of August 9, I had the incredible fortune to fly in a single-engine plane for a couple of hours all over Routt County. The flight was provided by an organization called EcoFlight whose mission is to educate and advocate for the protection of remaining wild lands and wildlife habitat using small aircraft. EcoFlight provides an aerial perspective on large-scale land use issues like drought, wildfires, oil and gas drilling, mining, water diversion projects, forest clear-cuts and road building. Local land use experts and at least one member of the media are invited on each flight they provide. On the two flights over Routt County, we had Tim Corrigan, Routt County Commissioner, Jay Fetcher, rancher, Carolina Manriquez, Colorado State Forest Service (CSFS), Kent Vertrees, Friends of the Yampa, Peter Hall, Hala Gear SUP, and Shannon Lukens and Eugene Buchanan, local media representatives.

Our pilot, Bruce, contracted by EcoFlight, has done many flights for the organization all over the West. He is passionate about his work to provide people a bird’s eye view of our region’s mountains, deserts and forestlands. During our flight, he mentioned his concern that changes to public lands are now happening without regard to public input.

On our first flight, Bruce took us up over Rabbit Ears Pass and around Emerald Mountain. During this flight, Commissioner Tim Corrigan talked about the importance of public lands to the economy and cultural heritage of our county.. Fifty percent of the land in Routt County is publicly-owned, and 20% is under conservation easement. Tim talked proudly about Routt County’s development policies, which are intended to preserve the open space and agricultural heritage of the Yampa Valley for future generations of Routt County residents. As we looked out to the smokey Sarvis Creek Wilderness Area, Tim talked about the fact that this area will have to be closed because of the current fire that is not expected to be extinguished before snowfall. The area is popular with hunters, so its closure will have huge negative economic impacts on the local economy. Beyond Sarvis Creek, Tim worries that potential visitors may have the impression that all of Routt County is on fire, which may deter them from traveling and spending in our community.

Also on our first flight of the morning was Forester Carolina Manriquez. She spoke passionately about the increases in wildfire risk they’ve been seeing, and she mentioned that, with climate change, it is only going to get worse. Currently, work is being done to reduce fuels (dead or down trees) in the wildland–urban interface (or WUI) near Steamboat Springs. Local foresters, however, are concerned about Emerald Mountain, and Carolina pointed out that if there was a wildfire in the Cow Creek area, it would quickly spread over the mountain to endanger residential areas near Steamboat Springs.

On our second flight, we traveled up the Elk River Valley. Kent Vertrees, of Powdercats, CMC and Friends of the Yampa, talked about the importance of public lands to the drainage basins of both the Elk and the Yampa rivers. Kent has seen the impacts of both flooding, during the summer of 2011, and droughts on the Elk and Yampa. The agricultural land and public land along these rivers are critical for water quality and quantity.  .

As we flew over the Zirkels, Kent pointed out the Continental Divide Trail, which spans from Canada to Mexico. It is only because of public lands that the trail can connect this huge distance. Public lands also provides employment. As both Kent and Peter Hall said, “If we didn’t have public lands, we would not have jobs.”

As we flew over our incredible valley, I was struck by the diversity and vastness of our public lands. With smoke muting our mountain vistas and the brown valley highlighting our drought conditions, it was clear that climate change is impacting Routt County. Our public lands are critical to fighting this global warming locally. These lands conserve biodiversity, provide natural buffers in the face of extreme weather, connect landscapes and habitat, and capture and store carbon, providing a sink for greenhouse gas emissions.

Although the flight reminded me of all the work we need to do to fight for our climate, mostly I was awed by the natural beauty of our public lands. It’s so important to get people out enjoying and experiencing their public lands, so that they are inspired to protect them.

If you are inspired by YOUR public lands, I hope you’ll join us at the Stand for Our Land rally on Friday, August 10 at 5:30 p.m. at the Historic Routt County Courthouse on 6th Street in Steamboat Springs. Bring a sign and a friend or family member and make your voice heard on public lands.