Some hikers bag Colorado Fourteeners - the peaks that top 14,000 feet elevation - as others do trout. But what happens when trails are trampled to death?
There was so
much wear and tear on the North Mount Elbert Trail, which bears
nearly 10,000 hikers each summer, that it had to be closed and the
trail relocated. Loretta McEllhiney, a Forest Service employee, was
handed the task of revegetating a heavily trampled and eroded
five-acre portion of Mount Elbert - Colorado's highest peak. First,
she had to find enough affordable top soil to cover the area; then
transport it up the mountain to elevations between 11,000 and
After researching, McEllhiney
decided to gather as much organic waste as possible. By composting
leaves, straw, sawdust, manure, food waste and grass clippings, she
could cheaply produce a rich, dark, not-unpleasant-smelling soil
The town of Leadville, population
2,700, helped. Beginning in 1993, residents started dropping off
kitchen and yard waste at the local Forest Service office. Agency
staffers made runs to grocery stores and restaurants three times a
week to pick up wilted produce and outdated bakery products.
"People were good about sorting their food
wastes," McEllhiney said. "We got exactly what we asked for." That
is, no meat, cheese or grease.
ingredients were hauled to the Forest Service facility at Crystal
Lakes, about five miles south of Leadville, and mixed in a compost
pile with wood chips from a previous clear-cut operation and
sawdust from a furniture maker.
compost material was cheap, the whole process was labor intensive,
McEllhiney says. She and her crew turned the compost twice a week
by hand, a task McEllhiney equates to hand-mucking in a mine.
The composting in a series of piles went on
winter and summer.
McEllhiney and her crew also
spent two months on Mount Elbert trying to stabilize and restore
the damaged trail. They built check dams and wattling (willow
branches bundled and staked in the soil in hopes that some of the
lower branches would take root). They also transplanted grass plugs
and trees from the surrounding areas, and spread natural mulch.
But how to haul an estimated four tons of
compost up Mount Elbert? McEllhiney says neither horses nor mules
could be used because of the potential damage to the fragile
environment, and llamas would have been too expensive. Transporting
the compost on human backs would have required 225 trips along a
six-mile trail. McEllhiney decided to go airborne, and made
arrangements to use an Army Chinook helicopter from Fort Carson.
Inmates from the Buena Vista Correctional
Facility helped shovel the compost into 350 plastic bags for easier
transport. The bags, weighing up to 70 pounds each, were dropped by
the chopper at four chopper-accessible sites. From there it took
McEllhiney's crew between 200 and 300 hours to haul the compost
bags to final destinations, sometimes up to one-third of a mile
along a steep trail. The compost was spread, by hand, over the
eroded areas, mostly below timberline.
successful, the project may inspire compost applications to other
badly worn trails on Fourteeners in Colorado. One concern is that
the compost might introduce non-native weeds to alpine areas.
McEllhiney says she is monitoring the compost for weed seed.
For McEllhiney the work has already been
rewarding. "I've done so much work on the land, I feel I own it."
For more information, contact the Leadville
Ranger District in the White River National Forest, Old Federal
Building, Box 948, Glenwood Springs, CO 81602.
Sharon Chickering Moller
writer works in Leadville,