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Rebuilding Mt. Elbert

Article by Sharon Chickering

Reclamation – February 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

Some hikers bag Colorado Fourteeners the way others bag trout. But what happens when trails are used to death — spreading to widths of forty feet with gullies four to five feet deep?

That was the problem facing the Leadville Ranger District of the U.S. Forest Service on the old North Mt. Elbert Trail, which saw nearly 10,000 hikers annually in its short four-month summer seasons. Because of excessive wear and tear, the trail was closed and relocated in 1992. But the environmental damage remained and steps needed to be taken to prevent further deterioration.

Enter Loretta McEllhiney, a slender young woman with long blonde hair. During five years of seasonal employment with the Forest Service, McEllhiney learned techniques for trail construction and stabilization.

Now in the middle of a special one-year appointment, she is in charge of revegetating a heavily eroded five-acre portion of Mt. Elbert spanning the subalpine and alpine ecological zones. Her challenges included finding enough affordable top soil to cover the area, and then transporting the dirt up the mountain to elevations between 11,000 and 13,000 feet.

After getting the assignment, McEllhiney set out to learn as much about high-altitude revegetation as possible. As a result of her research, she decided compost might work to enhance the barren, granitic mountain soil.

In the comporting process, organic matter is mixed in proportions of approximately 25 parts carbon (the energy source) to one part nitrogen, the protein sources. Sources of carbon include leaves, straw, sawdust, and fibrous plant materials; nitrogen comes from manure, grass clippings, and green vegetation. Besides carbon and nitrogen, moisture and oxygen are major components.

As the micro-organisms in the pile multiply and grow, the material is decomposed into a rich, dark, not-unpleasant-smelling soil additive.

Starting with manure and bales of hay, both left over from when the Forest Service kept horses, McEllhiney placed notices in the local paper asking for people to provide raw comporting material.

“People were good about sorting their food wastes,” McEllhiney said. “We got exactly what we asked for.” That is: no meat, cheese, or grease.

EACH WEEK FIFTEEN OR TWENTY GALLONS of kitchen waste and sixty to one hundred bags of yard waste (grass) were dropped off at the Forest Service office in Leadville. In addition, employees made runs to Safeway, Food Town, and a couple of restaurants three times a week to pick up old produce and out-dated bakery products.

All these were hauled to the Forest Service facility at Crystal Lakes, about five miles south of Leadville, and mixed in the compost pile. Also added were wood chips from a previous clear-cut operation and sawdust from a furniture maker. Since it was in a rural area, there were no close neighbors to complain about possible odors or unsightly heaps of garbage.

Although the compost material was cheap, the whole process was labor-intensive. Without heavy equipment, the twice weekly turning of the compost was done by hand. McEllhiney equates this to hand mucking in a mine.

The first pile was thoroughly comported in three summer months and a second pile begun. Material was added to this second pile all winter, and although it wasn’t covered or regularly √¶rated, the process still worked — the bottom portion was well decomposed by spring. The first two piles were combined and a third started.

During the second summer, while waiting for all the compost to make and cure, McEllhiney and her crew of three to five people spent two months on Mt. Elbert doing revegetation. They built check dams and wattling (willow branches bundled together and staked in the soil in hopes that some of the lower branches would take root), transplanted grass plugs and trees from surrounding areas, and spread natural mulch (grass stalks that had gone to seed were cut and used as mulch in hopes that some of the seeds would fall and sprout). Because of potential problems with unwanted weed seed, no other seeding was done.

DURING THE FIFTEEN MONTHS of the initial project, about four tons of compost were produced. Now the problem was getting it onto Mt. Elbert. Neither horses nor mules could be used because of the potential damage to the already fragile environment, and llamas would have been too expensive. Transporting the compost on human backs would have required 225 trips along a six-mile trail. Luckily, arrangements were made to use an Army Chinook helicopter from Fort Carson.

First, however, inmates from the Buena Vista Correctional Facility helped shovel the compost into 350 plastic bags for easier transport. The bags, weighing up to seventy pounds, were dropped at four sites accessible to the chopper, not necessarily where the compost was needed most. From those points it took McEllhiney’s crew more than 200 hours to haul them to exact locations, sometimes up to one-third of a mile along a steep trail.

The compost was spread, by hand, over the eroded areas, mostly below timberline. Because the helicopter drops weren’t done until late summer, some of the compost remains on the mountain, still bagged, awaiting more hospitable weather conditions next spring.

This project is an experiment. McEllhiney has never heard of compost being used at 13,000 feet. She and her crew tested and documented as they went along. If successful, the project may provide impetus for use of the technique on badly worn trails on all the other Fourteeners in the state.

One limiting factor, however, is that compost is not a native material, so at this point it cannot be used in wilderness areas. If McEllhiney finds that no weed seed was imported in her current experiments, the possibility exists for using compost in more projects in the future.

“I’ve done so much work on the land,” McEllhiney said, — I feel I own it.” Whenever she takes trips back to Kansas, she is on the look-out for used heavy equipment such as a small tractor or chipper/shredder which would make work on her project much easier.

“The tractor doesn’t even have to run if it could be fixed up,” she emphasized.

Although no composting was done during the fall, McEllhiney has recently begun to collect compostable materials again. She is optimistic that organizations such as Colorado Mountain Club and Volunteers of Outdoor Colorado, which have partnership agreements with the Forest Service, will provide volunteers to assist with the ongoing work of revegetating popular trails.

Using “garbage” to enhance the environment may not be a new concept, but Loretta McEllhiney is taking the technology to new heights.

Sharon Chickering lives, works, writes, and composts in Leadville.