In 2006, the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Geological Survey and Colorado Parks and Wildlife, as well as other federal and state partners, produced an “ecoregion” map for Colorado.
An ecoregion is an area where ecosystems are similar. They help to guide the management of federal and state agencies and inform research.
Southwest Colorado has about a dozen ecoregions, ranging from the shale deserts and sedimentary basins southwest of Cortez to the alpine zones surrounding Silverton.
The diverse landscapes make Southwest Colorado a playground for scientists, and researchers with Fort Lewis College are uniquely positioned to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the area’s unique environments.
Melissa Clutter, Jared Beeton and Heidi Steltzer are three researchers from FLC studying the hydrology, prehistory and alpine environments across Southwest Colorado. They have each found the region fruitful for their research, and their work has been boosted by the unique landscape and people of Southwest Colorado.
“With this diversity of landscape, we have the ability to combine all these different disciplines and study how the environment works in these landscapes,” Beeton said. “I’m an interdisciplinary scientist. I would be bored if I just studied permafrost all the time, or if I just studied river systems or wetlands or dire wolves. The real interest for me is the interconnection of all of that.”
Clutter, an assistant professor of geosciences at FLC, grew up in Oklahoma and came to Southwest Colorado as a student at FLC on the college’s Native American Tuition Waiver. In part, it was the region’s natural environment that drew her to the college.
“Of course like most people that don’t grow up in places with topography, I wanted to experience the mountains,” she said.
While in school, she studied environmental geology, focusing on hydrology before graduating in 2011. For her senior thesis, Clutter installed nine groundwater monitoring wells along the Dolores River to study how McPhee Dam had changed the flow of the river and how it was affecting groundwater recharge, which is how water moves into the ground and is then stored.
As Clutter was pursuing her research and working with professors Cynthia Dott and Gary Gianniny, she decided studying as a hydrologist and teaching as a professor would be her path.
“I was talking with them when we were going out into the field and I said, ‘You have the coolest job in the world. How do I get your job?’ They told me you have to have a Ph.D. and I said, ‘OK,’” Clutter said. “My goal was always to come back to Fort Lewis.”
For more than a decade, Clutter has maintained the nine wells she installed as an undergraduate with the help of FLC professors, studying how the flow of the Dolores and groundwater recharge have changed over time and analyzing the long-term data she is collecting.
Her research has led her to join a new collaborative initiative with scientists and managers from the Bureau of Land Management, CPW, The Nature Conservancy and other groups called the Dolores River Adaptive Management Support Project.
The goal of the project is to support management decisions and flow recommendations for the Dolores River and McPhee Dam.
“We’re trying to think about the flow regime in the river – how the channel is changing, how the groundwater is changing, how the plants are changing – looking at historic data like groundwater monitoring data, vegetation surveys, historic aerial photographs,” Clutter said. “(We’re) getting an idea of how to better manage the dam for those native fish species and plant species.”
So far, Clutter and the Dolores River Project team have found that sustained flow from McPhee Dam is more important for groundwater recharge downstream than the volume of water.
“When they release water for a longer period of time, that’s what the groundwater needs,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be as high of a magnitude of flow, it has to be a longer duration.”
While the semiarid benchlands and canyonlands (according to the EPA’s ecoregion map) surrounding the Dolores River may seem like an odd place to study hydrology with their relative lack of water, the arid environment is actually better for groundwater research.
“In the desert, groundwater is a really important resource. It’s one of the best places you can study groundwater in the country,” Clutter said.
But the appeal of hydrologic research in Southwest Colorado goes beyond the favorable climate for Clutter.
“In terms of studying water in the desert southwest, it’s of interest to so many people, especially in this smaller, tight-knit Four Corners community,” she said. “That for me is the coolest part is how involved the community is and how interested they are.”
As a Ph.D. student at the University of Kansas, Beeton, the chairman and an associate professor of environment and sustainability at FLC, studied the ancient river systems of the Great Plains.
But he found himself wanting to understand how mountain environments change over time, a product of his “addiction” to studying glacial deposits after his master’s research in the Never Summer Mountains of north central Colorado.
Enter Southwest Colorado and FLC.
At its core, Beeton’s research investigates Southwest Colorado’s past environment to understand the region’s present and future amid a changing climate.
Beeton has a number of ongoing research projects with his students in the region, but two stand out as indicative of his work.
The first is the study of charcoal from wildfires thousands of years old along the Piedra River near Chimney Rock National Monument.
As the Piedra River flowed, it cut away at the earth, creating a “cut bank” that exposed the layers of sediment and debris collected by the landscape over thousands of years.
Hidden in those layers is charcoal from paleowildfires in the San Juan Mountains that was deposited by rivers over time. By identifying these layers and then radiocarbon dating them, Beeton and his students have begun developing a forest fire frequency diagram for the Piedra Basin, which tells them how often large forest fires occurred in the past.
Their goal is to construct a historical record that scientists and land managers can compare with Southwest Colorado’s current wildfire regime, which climate researchers project will worsen in the coming decades.
“If we’re going to ask questions like: Are forest fires increasing today? Are we having more forest fires than we did in the past because of a drying climate in a warming world? Or, is it because of forest management? We need to understand how forest fires occurred in the past without so much human influence,” Beeton said.
One of Beeton’s other projects is farther east in the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge near its namesake town.
Once of two places in Colorado where researchers have found the remains of dire wolves, the area was once a massive wetland that mammoths also roamed (FLC students found a mammoth tooth at the site).
Beeton and his students again use radiocarbon dating as well as pollen analysis to understand what the climate was like at the time.
“We can look at the peat deposits in the old wetland, and we can tell how the water table fluctuated over time. When the water table came up, it was a wet wetland. And when the water table went down, it was drier,” he said. “That can tell us about precipitation over time.”
The aim is again to link Southwest Colorado’s current climate to the past, showing that over glacial-interglacial cycles for the last 30,000 years the area became wetter when it was colder and drier when it was warmer, a trend that could explain what may come for the region as temperatures warm.
“It’s all about understanding how past environments have changed, so that we can understand future environments,” Beeton said.
As a geographer, he relies on interdisciplinary study, employing ecology, geology, chemistry and biology for his research.
For Beeton, the interdisciplinary research required to study the diverse ecoregions of Southwest Colorado is what sets the region apart as a destination for scientific inquiry.
“Here in Southwest Colorado, we’re right on the margin of the desert and the mountains. To understand environmental change, we’re not just talking about the species that live there,” he said. “We’re also talking about the landscape, the soil, the rocks, the atmosphere and the climate … To put these stories together, it requires interdisciplinary research.”
Steltzer, a professor of biology and environment and the coordinator for FLC’s environmental science degree program, knew she wanted to study Southwest Colorado’s mountains in 1996.
As a second-year Ph.D. student at the University of Colorado Boulder, she was conducting research at the university’s Niwot Ridge Long-Term Ecological Research site west of Boulder, but she eyed the more remote mountains of Southwest Colorado.
“So much of the alpine science in our state has been done in the Front Range mountains, and I thought, ‘Well, I’ll go somewhere fewer people have gone,’” she said.
An expert in alpine environments, Steltzer started as a professor at FLC in 2009. She has conducted research across the globe from Alaska to Greenland, and she was the lead author of the high mountain chapter of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2019 special report on the ocean and cryosphere (the frozen parts of the earth).
It was while walking in the San Juan Mountains in 2021 that Steltzer drew much of her inspiration for her current research.
“I was walking in this one basin and I was like, ‘This looks like Alaska, but I’m in Colorado. And I know I’m in Colorado, (so) what’s the story?’ The story is there’s got to be water there,” she said.
Much of Alaska’s landscape is shaped by the freezing and thawing cycles that are extreme in the Arctic north and permafrost, ground that remains permanently frozen.
In Alaska, the expansion of frozen water lifts the ground and creates the distinctive mounds of grasses that dot the state’s landscapes, a process linked to permafrost.
When Steltzer noticed mounds of grass in the San Juan Mountains that looked similar to Alaska, she found herself asking the question: Could there be permafrost in Southwest Colorado?
Steltzer, along with Beeton and her students, has taken to the mountains to find out if the region’s mountains are indeed the southern terminus of permafrost in the U.S.
Last year, in the project’s first year, students helped Steltzer to dig a 1.4-meter pit in Burrows Basin northeast of Silverton.
“We’re going to locations where we expect there to have been more accumulation of soil and a greater depth to bedrock,” Steltzer said. “And, with those deep soils, a greater likelihood that it stayed cold and that there’s permafrost down there.”
Steltzer and her team also installed temperature sensors in the pit to document the frozen water that could be contained in the bedrock, which is where the soil meets rock.
This fall they will dig more holes with the ultimate goal of identifying the potential distribution of permafrost in the San Juan Mountains and studying how permafrost could influence the region’s alpine ecosystems.
The implications are significant.
Permafrost limits how deep plant roots can go and alters how water moves. On the Tibetan Plateau, high alpine environments with permafrost are actually seeing greater plant growth because of the warming climate – melting permafrost provides more water for plants, which can grow more when it is warmer, Steltzer said.
The chance to study ecosystems that are comparable to those in such unique places as Alaska or the Tibetan Plateau is one of the reasons why Southwest Colorado is so compelling for researchers and teachers like Steltzer.
“I want the opportunity for Fort Lewis College students that are interested in science to do expeditionary science, and we don’t have to go outside our region to go on a science expedition,” Steltzer said.
Like Beeton, the geography of Southwest Colorado drew Steltzer to the region. But while the region’s landscape has proved fruitful for Steltzer’s research, it is now the chance to share the scientific opportunity of Southwest Colorado with her students and others that drives her work.
“I’m one person with training in the sciences who could help facilitate experiences for others to step into the same kind of research I’ve been so privileged and fortunate to get to do in my career,” she said. “Now that I’ve been here and I’ve been in this awesome region, shouldn’t everybody get to step in?”