We were just leaving Estes Park when I asked my van full of students, “So how was it? What did you get out of today?” One of my more thoughtful students, sitting in the passenger’s seat next to me, replied “Do you remember telling us at the beginning of the year that by the end of the school year, we would really understand just how everything (in nature) fits together?”
“Yes” I replied
“Well, I get it now. I could see that today. I didn’t believe you when you said that, but now I get it”.
Magic moment for a teacher.
It was one of those moments that a teacher longs for. Confirmation that the accumulation of knowledge is really coming together in a student’s mind.
We had just finished a daylong lab at MacGregor Ranch located on the outskirts of Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP). Ken Morgan, ranch board member and Colorado Parks and Wildlife private lands manager, was our guide. MacGregor Ranch is a 1,200-acre working cattle ranch managed by a well-designed board of trustees to conserve the land to maintain a fully functioning ecosystem in a ponderosa pine savannah, all while maintaining its historic land use, cattle ranching.
Managing land correctly.
Being adjacent to the national park, as well as being a large chunk of land that has endured 20th century practices of eliminating predators and excluding fire, MacGregor Ranch was not immune to the pitfalls of decisions made throughout the last 150 years.
As in RMNP, an overabundance of elk wreaked havoc on the riparian system on the ranch, browsing down the willows and aspen the point of eradicating beaver from the ranch. This in turn had a ripple effect on the rest of the ecosystem – lowering the water table, channelizing the stream, and lowering biodiversity.
Unlike a publicly managed national park, however, MacGregor Ranch has had the ability to respond more quickly and arguably more effectively to the overabundance of elk. From designing elk exclusion fences for sensitive areas along the creek, to re-establishing elk hunting on the property, and reintroducing beaver to the creek, the ranch now showcases a riparian system functioning as it would have 150 years ago. As we walked along the edges of the creek, students could touch the young willows, now almost 6 feet tall, and feel the rough grooves in the aspen stump left by the beaver as he harvested the tree for his lodge. Students could see, feel and finally understand the ripple effect of wildlife management.
Just uphill from the creek, the forest is getting a face-lift. Well, a tree-lift really. This too, will have dramatic impacts on biodiversity, and the hydrology of the riparian system.
Through overgrazing and fire suppression, the ponderosa pine forests of Colorado’s Front Range have become overly dense, a scenario that my forestry and wildlife students have become expertly aware of this year.
As Morgan Timber Products, a forest stewardship contractor that happens to be a huge supporter and partner of our Natural Resources Program, removes the carefully selected trees from 160 acres, students could witness transformation in the forest. A forest with clumps of large, mature trees, pockets of regeneration, open areas for grasses, and fewer closely spaced medium-size trees. Instead of imagining what the forest “should look like,” they could walk from what it was right into what it “should be.”
It is one thing to read about something, but a much different thing to experience it. Students can see that harvesting trees can be done with such skillfulness and subtlety as to barely notice the skid trails that we were walking on, or the stumps left behind.
An open forest will give rise to increased populations of wildlife – species that need large old trees, such as the Abert’s squirrel, as well as those that want to feed on the grasses and forbs now shooting for the open sky. Fewer trees will increase the level of the groundwater in the area and increase the biodiversity, which takes us right back to where we began.
It all fits together. The wildlife impacts the trees, and the trees impact the water. The water impacts it all. Everything is connected.
FRCC’s Natural Resources classes benefit from this strong relationship with MacGregor Ranch. Forestry students took baseline measurements before management treatments were applied, which will provide data on the effectiveness of the forestry management treatments with annual student follow up research.
Range management and wildlife classes use the ranch to research competition between wild grazers (elk) and domestic cattle, effects of beaver on hydrology and resulting vegetation, vegetative production in montane forest and riparian management through fencing and hard surface access.
Seeing is believing … and understanding.
I do not expect my students to remember everything I teach them, but I am confident that they will remember what they see, feel, and experience. Having partners like MacGregor Ranch, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and Morgan Timber gives our students a unique learning experience that they will remember for a lifetime.