Alison Berg of Steamboat Pilot & Today | February 23, 2021

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — In an effort to help community members feel like they’re taking actions to protect the Yampa Valley from the negative impacts of climate change, the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council is launching a program called the Yampa Valley Climate Corps — inviting community members to volunteer for sustainability-centered projects.

“There’s a lot of interest by people in the public to contribute more and get outside and do work that’s good for the environment,” said Tim Sullivan, the Sustainability Council’s director of natural climate solutions. “A lot of people are very anxious to be able to do something to help with environmental issues and giving them opportunities to do something themselves is really important and something people are looking for.”

The project is being developed by Sullivan and Ryan Messinger, a sustainability council intern who is focusing on natural solutions to mitigating climate impacts.

“Right now, there are really no options for community members to volunteer except for the few opportunities Yampa Valley Sustainability Council has or if the schools are doing something,” Messinger said. “My goal is to create a platform for community members to find projects to pull from different organizations and then I would go out with them and work on projects with them.”

Messinger hopes to focus on planting trees along the Yampa River, which suffered as a result of last August being Routt County’s hottest, driest month on record. Temperatures were so extreme that for the second time ever, water managers placed a call on the main stretch of the Yampa River, meaning certain water users had to stop or curb their usage.

“One way to avoid that is to increase the amount of natural tree cover,” Sullivan said, as more shade would protect the river from extreme temperatures.

In addition to providing shade, Sullivan said the trees absorb carbon dioxide and leaves and twigs fall into the water, which benefits the river and ecosystems inside of it.

“Taking carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and putting it into wood is a critical function for wildlife and the health of the river,” Sullivan said. “Tree planting in other parts of our ecosystems can be important for protecting water quality.”

In addition to planting trees, which the Sustainability Council and its volunteers do once a year, Messinger hopes to launch other projects, such as cleaning trash out of the river, reseeding forests impacted by wildfires, removing invasive species to allow native species to grow back or tree cloning.

“We have about a decade to really turn ourselves around and get back on the right track (from climate change impacts),” Messinger said. “Sometimes people feel helpless, and there are little things they can do like recycling and turning off the lights, but it’s hard for those things to make you feel like you’re making a big impact.”

Messinger studied international relations at the University of Colorado Boulder and then studied abroad in Australia, where he gained a passion for sustainability. He then worked for the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps in Steamboat Springs, where he saw how important sustainability efforts were to the Yampa Valley.

“This work gives people the feeling that they’re doing something to help and that they’re not just helpless listening to the doom and gloom of the news,” Messinger said.

Sullivan said the psychological component of helping people feel like they’re contributing to the solution rather than the problem is just as important as actually solving climate issues, particularly during COVID-19, as many people have been stuck in their homes and dealing with losses of all kinds.

“The importance of restoration and healing nature is important both for nature’s sake but also for human’s sake,” Sullivan said. “People want a chance to get out and have a chance to help heal nature.”

Messinger hopes to begin work in June and do weekly projects throughout the summer and fall until snow and colder temperatures set in.