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The environment desk at Aspen Public Radio covers issues in the Roaring Fork Valley and throughout the state of Colorado including water use and quality, impact of recreation, population growth and oil and gas development. APR’s Environment Reporter is Elizabeth Stewart-Severy.

A delicate balance: Experts talk recreation and wildlife conservation

Elizabeth Stewart-Severy/Aspen Public Radio News

As more and more people make use of public lands for skiing, hiking and biking, wildlife experience additional strain. This week, two Colorado researchers are in the Roaring Fork Valley to discuss how best to balance recreation and wildlife conservation.

Sarah Reed and Sarah Thomas are passionate about having fun outside, in nature. And about protecting wildlife. They started discussing how to best balance those sometimes-competing interests, while trail running.

“We’re really coming to this from the perspective of people who understand and value the natural resources and wildlife of our state, and who also enjoy getting out into the backcountry and recreating,” Reed said.  

Reed is a scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society. She studies how humans impact animal species. She and environmental policy expert Sarah Thomas will be presenting this week as part of the Naturalist Nights Lecture Series hosted by three local non-profits.

Thomas explains that American conservation efforts historically have been tied to recreation. Many communities combine recreation and conservation into one agency, like Pitkin County’s Open Space and Trails department. The idea is that we save lands so that we can walk in open spaces, but that’s not always the best approach for wildlife, Reed said.

“We just need to acknowledge that combining these two goals is not always compatible in all places for all species,” she said.

There is a long-held belief that low-impact human activity like hiking and biking doesn’t disrupt wildlife. But more recent research indicates this is not the case.

“There are implications of these activities for wildlife, and so it’s something we need to better understand,” Thomas said.

Especially as the number of people using public lands skyrockets. Reed cites a 2015 study that found that protected areas worldwide see 8 billion visits every year. Locally, use of the most popular trails in the Maroon Bells Wilderness is up about 300 percent from 10 years ago.

It isn’t clear what that means for wildlife. Reed said there are certainly actions that individuals can take to minimize impacts, like “staying on existing trails, respecting seasonal closures, minimizing noise, not approaching wildlife and reducing speeds of motorized vehicles.”

Of course, policy decisions matter too. Thomas said communities across the American West are striving to provide both safe havens for wildlife and places where people can play and enjoy the outdoors. But finding that balance can still be difficult.  

“There’s certainly a need just to have these conversations and to be open,” Thomas said.

In the Roaring Fork Valley, that conversation will continue this week. Reed and Thomas present Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. at the Third Street Center in Carbondale and Thursday at 7 p.m. at Hallam Lake in Aspen.

Aspen native Elizabeth Stewart-Severy is excited to be making a return to both the Red Brick, where she attended kindergarten, and the field of journalism. She has spent her entire life playing in the mountains and rivers around Aspen, and is thrilled to be reporting about all things environmental in this special place. She attended the University of Colorado with a Boettcher Scholarship, and graduated as the top student from the School of Journalism in 2006. Her lifelong love of hockey lead to a stint working for the Colorado Avalanche, and she still plays in local leagues and coaches the Aspen Junior Hockey U-19 girls.
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