“At 12,000 feet, gravity is always going to have a say on steep slopes,” says Karin Teague, executive director of the Independence Pass Foundation from the organization’s office in Old Town Basalt.
Protecting the natural landscape of Independence Pass and restoring environmental damage caused by the building of the road — Highway 82 — and erosion was the original mission of the Independence Pass Foundation when it was formed in 1989. That’s when former biology teacher and environmental steward Bob Lewis brought a group of like-minded people to his woodsy cabin next to the Northstar Preserve south of Aspen.
“It was Bob’s vision to protect the Pass and provide environmental stewardship,” said Teague, who has served as the executive director of the IPF for the last four years, after previously serving on the Basalt Town Council from 2011 to 2014.
The 30th anniversary of the IPF will be celebrated on Sunday, Feb. 17, with the seventh annual Ski for the Pass event.
Beginning at 10 a.m. at the winter closure gate at the base of the Pass six miles southeast of Aspen, individual skiers ($15) and families ($25) can ski in the beautiful quiet of the non-car environment on a groomed track up to Lincoln Creek, where there will be pastries and drinks.
Mid-Valley residents Steve and Donna Chase and Dr. David Borchers will be among those supporting the IPF’s 30th year.
Ski for the Pass follows the road that is the reason the IPF was created three decades ago.
The highway that winds up to the summit of Independence Pass was bulldozed into a dirt road in the 1920s and paved in the 1950s. It is managed by the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT). Since the road is only open from the end of May until early November, it has a lower priority for fiscal allocation than many other roads in Colorado, so additional private funding is needed to constantly battle climate change, erosion and other issues that damage the roadway and the plants that live next to it.
“Friends” of the Pass, like the volunteers and board members of IPF, provide critical services to maintain the integrity and stewardship of the Independence Pass corridor. They have embarked on rehabilitation projects like the restoration of the Weller Lake Cut, which was the IPF’s first environmental project, and the restoration of the Top Cut that runs along that massive rock wall that extends from just above the upper trailhead for the Lost Man Loop up to the summit.
Longtime board member James Peterson explains the environmental damage that needed to be fixed: “Erosion was really a problem. The slopes had been left barren without any vegetation and water runoff on the road was being channeled to certain areas and washing out the native plants that were there. Redirecting that water was important.”
Over several years, the IPF raised and spent at least $3 million to build rock retaining walls, stabilize the steep slopes, redirect water so that it does less damage and plant and revegetate the slopes with native species, according to Teague.
Volunteers, like IPF board member Bob Wade, and inmates from the Colorado Correctional Facility in Buena Vista, scaled loose rock from the steep faces and helped install metal netting to prevent future rockfalls onto the roadway.
“When you go up on the Pass as a recreationalist, it’s for your enjoyment,” Wade says. “But when you go a little deeper, you realize you have an impact on the Pass, on the climbing trails and other infrastructure, so giving back to the Pass is kind of a good message for all of us to realize.”
Being stewards of the Pass has encompassed many different environmental roles over the last 30 years.
“Being stewards of that Top Cut on the Pass means being stewards of the headwaters of the Roaring Fork River,” Teague says. “That was an important component to Bob Lewis and the original board of directors of the IPF. We are watchdogs for the river, and a lot of the work we have done is to prevent erosion and sedimentation going into the Roaring Fork.”
One of the ways the IPF has prevented erosion has been via replanting vegetation in numerous areas of the altitudinous corridor. Many local schoolchildren, who have now grown into parents with their own schoolchildren, can proudly point out spruce and fir trees that were originally planted as seedlings years ago. And compost blankets that hold native grass seed and new plant life can be seen on steep slopes above and below the road. There are at least 500 different species of wildflowers from the winter closure gate to the summit, according to Teague.
Creating additional road safety on winding Highway 82 was also an issue for the IPF from its earliest days. Before guardrails were installed in the late 1980s, a car driving over the pass from the Twin Lakes side hit black ice on the first turn just past the summit and slid off the steep slope with tragic results. One of the first efforts of the IPF was to pay for 900 feet of new guardrails so that road safety could be improved.
The roster of who has served on the IPF board over the years reflects a mix of skill sets, according to Teague, but they have one thing in common: they have all been extraordinarily engaged and hands-on as board members and staff.
Mark Fuller was executive director for 20 years and Judy Olsen was development director for a similar period. In addition to Bob Lewis, early key members of the board were Ramona Markalunas and King Woodward, who served as co-chairs. King is still on the board, which currently numbers 14. Other early members were Dee Bellina, Marcia Corbin, David Hyman, Marjorie Stein, Sloan Shoemaker and John Marty, to name only a few of the members who played important roles in moving the mission of the IPF forward.
Gail Holstein currently serves on the board of the IPF and a picture of her parents standing on the summit of the Pass in 1943 or 1944 reminds her daily of why people fall in love with the mountains of Colorado.
“Our revegetation and stabilization projects have made a strong visual impact on travelers through the Pass,” Holstein says. “When you go up there and see the carefully planted rock wall, you feel as if you have entered sacred territory. It is time to recognize and protect the treasures we've been given, especially those in our own back yard. We have to be reminded of our gifts. That’s a shame, but that's what the IPF is here to do.”
Fighting the impacts of gravity, climate change and nature is often compounded by the impacts of humans.
In the early 1960s, the Forest Service devised a plan to retain more snowpack, slow down snowmelt and preserve more water that would flow into the Roaring Fork and eventually the Colorado River. Their plan involved hauling large eight-foot panels up onto the Continental Divide and staking them into place with inch-thick, three-foot-long pieces of metal rebar along the spine of the Divide to prevent snow from blowing off the ridges, according to current IPF board member and vice-president Kristen Henry.
“They put material on both the north and south side of the summit,” Henry says. “The project didn’t work, and they abandoned it before completion, leaving all of the material in place along the Continental Divide.”
As Henry notes, since the project happened before the Wilderness Act was created in 1964, vehicles were used to haul all of the material for the fencing up to 12,000-plus feet. But after the Act was created, vehicles could not be used to collect the unsightly debris; nothing with wheels was allowed, including no wheelbarrows.
“Our snow fencing removal began as a manual labor project with volunteers and board members of the IPF,” Henry says. “A lot of the panels were assembled and lying on the ground. Piles and piles. The panels were killing vegetation that would take decades to recover.”
Two plans for removing the fencing and debris were put in place. It took years and years, but eventually, the IPF, then headed by Mark Fuller, was able to get a permit from the Forest Service to fly a helicopter into the wilderness, work with teams on the ground to load debris into large nets and haul the nets and debris off the Pass.
Another plan utilized Forest Service mule teams that hauled out stakes, rebar, cables and strapping.
Last September, volunteer teams from the IPF, along with inmates from Buena Vista, hauled thousands of pounds of rebar and metal cable out of Mountain Boy Basin to restore the ecological integrity of the area. It may be one of the last times mule teams will be used in cleansing the Continental Divide because the Forest Service has now disbanded the teams, and they are no longer available.
Future projects for the IPF involve measuring the effects of climate change and how those will affect the plants and animals that live on the Pass, along with future snow packs, runoffs and erosion. One thing about gravity … it never stops and hopefully neither will the efforts of the volunteers and board of the Independence Pass Foundation.