Four-ton bandage applied to trampled peak

  • Composting by helicopter

    U.S. Forest Service

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 13,000 feet.

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 additive.

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 Agency staffers made runs to grocery stores and restaurants three times a week to pick up wilted produce and outdated bakery products.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.

The raw 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.

Although the 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.

If 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.

The writer works in Leadville, Colorado.