If you didn’t know otherwise, you would think that this was just a nondescript mountain meadow, dotted with an occasional boulder, sloping to the north bank of Henson Creek. A heathy cover of grasses and shrubs is turning shades of amber and brown in the late September sun. Here and there, a young aspen, still attired in summer greenery, shows itself amidst the sea of grass and rocks. A mountain chickadee gives a raspy but cheerful greeting among the larger aspens at the
edge of the meadow. But this harmonious slice of the San Juans hasn’t always been so.
In 2008, the meadow where I have been standing did not exist. Instead, the locale was the site of several long-abandoned and very unsightly settling ponds for the Ute-Ulay Mine, just a quarter-mile downstream. Not only were these mudflat ponds ugly, but they were also an environmental hazard, filled with heavy metals that kept anything from growing in their vicinity. What’s worse, they were a ticking time bomb if a major rain event would wash their toxic residue into Henson Creek. The damage to the aquatic life of Henson Creek, from its
macroinvertebrates to its trout, would be incalcuable.
Thankfully, though, this hazardous site did not go unnoticed. Largely through the initiative and funding from the Bureau of Land Management (whose land it was) and the Colorado Division of Reclamation and Mine Safety, a reclamation project was undertaken in 2009 to stabilize the toxic minerals and restore a meadow environment. On the ground, this meant digging up the pond sediments, mixing them with a concrete slurry, then burying the resultant immobile mass under tons of topsoil, which was then seeded with native grasses and forbs. The result, as can now be seen 14 years later, is a notable success in the form of a simple mountain meadow that barely gets a passing glance from thousands who drive by on the Alpine Loop each year.
The Lake Fork Valley Conservancy (which was then called the Lake Fork Watershed Stakeholders Group) played a significant role in this project. As a fledgling organization, we couldn’t provide much in the way of funding, but we did provide a local platform for planning and coordination for the many entities that became involved. We also contributed a bit of hands-on labor. At the end of the project, volunteers from our organization planted spruce and pine seedlings to help further stabilize the topsoil. A few of these trees now stand three to four feet tall, but it is clear that Mother Nature’s preference for this site is to keep it mostly as a meadow, which is fine with us. We take satisfaction that the primary goal of protecting Henson Creek from a toxic time bomb has been attained.
The old adage of “Leave nothing but footprints and take nothing but photographs” has much to commend it as an ethic for treading lightly on the land, but for the Lake Fork Valley Conservancy, it seems incomplete. We would add the phrase “and leave things better than you found them” to fulfill our byline of being Stewards of the Lake Fork Valley. Our past work of the Ute-Ulay Remediation, the Hough Mine Stabilization, and habitat enhancement on Henson
Creek and the Lake Fork within the Town of Lake City are examples of how we have attempted to put this adage into practice in recent years. In the years to come, we hope that leaving things better than we found them also includes improved dark sky viewing opportunities through our Dark Sky Initiative, continued hazardous mine cleanups, and developing an enthusiastic next
generation of Lake Fork Valley stewards through our educational work with the Lake City school. We celebrate our successes, but our work continues, and we welcome all who would love to help to leave this place better than they found it, too.
Vice President, Lake Fork Valley Conservancy