Making my data collection irrelevant

Since my last post I have been in Colorado conducting field research in Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forest.  The Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forest units are located in the Colorado frontrange about an hour and a half from Denver. I am here because this particular forest unit contains two 14’ers (14,000ft + peaks) that are very easy to summit. One, Mt. Evans, you can drive to by taking the highest paved road in the United States and then hike up a very short, practically paved path to the summit at 14,265 feet (4,348 m).  The other 14’er is Mt. Bierstadt, 14,065 ft (4,287 m) , which can be reached by driving Guanella Pass (a scenic byway) and hiking a 3 mile trail to the top.

Due to the popularity of these two destinations and the forest units’ proximity to a large population center, I am here mapping recreation resource impacts such as informal trails, visitor-created sites, and areas of multiple trailing. I have always realized that my research represents a “snapshot” in time – one wet week and new social trails can be created, a very minimal visitor-created site can regrow in a year if left alone. However, this week, as I finished up mapping at the Mt. Bierstadt trail, I realized just how quickly the data that I collect can be made irrelevant.

My field tech, Annie, and me on the summit of Mt. Bierstadt

I needed to visit the Mt. Bierstadt trail on a very busy day so that I could examine the extent of people parking along the road after the parking lot filled and possibly damaging vegetation. So, I decided to head up Guanella Pass on a Saturday morning. I had pretty much finished mapping the designated trail and associated impacts but wanted to examine the condition of a social trail/local’s trail that is used to summit Mt. Evans from Guanella Pass. Therefore, I started my day with a short hike up the designated trail past all of the impacts I had mapped the week before.  As I approached an area I knew was plagued by particularly bad multiple trailing (where visitors do not follow the designated trail but create parallel social trails), I noticed a bunch of people in hard hats with pick axes.  Once I got close enough to actually see what they were doing, I was shocked and awed to see a group of about 20 people replanting willows and placing rocks in the “extra trails”!

An example of multiple trailing.

The group, in one day, was making the data layers that I had collected, literally days before, completely inaccurate! The group was fixing the multiple trailing in this section of designated trail. Although their timing was less than ideal from my standpoint, I was thrilled to see someone out there doing trail restoration. I stopped and chatted with a few people and learned that they were all volunteers with Colorado Fourteeners Initiative.

The Colorado Fourteeners Initiative works to protect and preserve Colorado’s 54 fourteeners through stewardship and education.  Particularly they work towards protecting the delicate and fragile tundra ecosystems that exists along the trails to these 14’ers.  The volunteers saw the lovely antennae sticking out of my backpack and the GPS in my hand and asked me what I was doing. I explained my research and told them, jokingly, that their actions were quickly messing up my data .  We thanked each other for our respective work, I marked the location of the trails they were working on, and went on my way. But as I wandered down the trail, dodging tourists in sneakers carrying plastic bags of bread and water on their way to a 14,000+ft peak, I heard giggling as they passed the story down the line of workers that they had made my some of my data irrelevant.

Annie mapping in the fog at 14,000ft.


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