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Junior biology major Danielle Duni works as a farm incubator on the property.

Old Fort lives on as regional learning center

The Old Fort may be old, but it’s still alive and kicking. And it's still both a living repository of Four Corners history and a place where FLC students, and others in the community, can get their hands dirty learning.

Thanks to a management agreement approved in March between the Colorado State Board of Land Commissioners and Fort Lewis College, the Old Fort will continue its legacies of local community connection and learning.

"It's a large part of the College's history," says Beth Lashell, coordinator of The Old Fort at Hesperus, the official name of the site since 2010. "The college was there for nearly thirty years before we moved to Durango. It's also the reason the Native American Tuition Waiver exists. It is the core of where and who we are." 

The greenhouse at The Old Fort at Hesperus"From an educational standpoint, it offers an amazing amount of opportunities for science majors," Lashell adds. "We currently host public health labs, biology labs, environmental studies labs, and field classes. And in the summertime, we host interns from those fields and sociology."

The site has also hosted archaeology field classes uncovering military-fort-era artifacts, biology students' research into hantavirus, and astronomy classes taking advantage of the site's exceptionally clear and dark skies.

Approved on March 9, the new Beneficiary Use Agreement between the College and the State Land Board, which owns the property, will give FLC control of land, buildings, and operations for 10 years starting July 1, 2017. 

"It's a big deal," says Lashell. The new agreement lets the College know it will be managing the property long-term, keeping its unique learning opportunities available to students. It also allows Lashell to reach out to regional educators, public schools, and colleges to find ways they, too, can utilize the historical, agricultural, and other resources the Old Fort offers.

Still, Lashell stresses, "We're not interested in doing just anything -- it has to align with our guiding principles set up with the Land Board." Those guidelines include maintaining the economic viability of the site, protecting natural resources, encouraging community involvement, expanding educational opportunities, and preserving historic structures.

Presently a variety of projects make use of the 6,318 acres at the Old Fort. These include:

  • The Old Fort Lewis High Altitude Hop Varietal Trial, exploring how different varieties of hops grow at 7,600 feet.
  • A half-acre education garden where students and extension programs in the region work together on sustainable agriculture practices.
  • A soil-remediation project, led by Professor of Public Health Phil Shuler, studying the use of oyster mushrooms to remove herbicide residue from soil.
  • An orchard from the early 1900s now used to keep alive rare regionally specific varieties of apples.
  • An apiary with 21 beehives where Assistant Professor of Chemistry Bill Collins and his students are researching solutions to colony collapse disorder.
  • The Beginning Farmer Incubator program, which offers community members interested in farming access to land and water so they can grow their skills while growing products for market.
  • Partnerships with several regional organizations that provide labor at the Old Fort in exchange for use of the site, including Conservation Legacy (formerly the Southwest Conservation Corps), the Mesa Verde Helitack interagency fire crew, and the Fort Lewis Mesa Fire Department.

The Old Fort also hosts several business enterprises, including a small cattle herd, a commercial hay operation, in addition to the sustainable vegetable and herb production. These enterprises make the Old Fort self-sufficient, Lashell explains. "We generate all our own revenue,” she says, “through our enterprises and grants to fund the staff, utilities, and upkeep."

It all adds up to a still thriving life for the place where Fort Lewis College was born.

"The Old Fort is in its fifth or sixth life now," Lashell laughs. "That's just the nature of the property. It started as a fort and has gone through all these transitions, and every one of those transitions was challenging. This is just another phase of it. But what's cool is that since 1880, it's been the same piece of land."

Upcoming opportunities to visit the Old Fort

Saturday, May 14, 9:30 - noon, La Plata County Historical Society driving tour, beginning at the Old Fort

Tuesday, July 26, 1 - 6 p.m., Summer Open House

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