In the shadow of 13,052-foot Houghton Mountain on a crisp weekend in September, students and faculty carefully hiked across alpine tundra at the Burrows Basin research site deep in the San Juan Mountains. These intrepid explorers were eager to uncover and relay an interdisciplinary story of the land’s history over the weekend-long research trip.
“This is what I thought I’d do when I chose to go into the sciences,” says Heidi Steltzer, coordinator for the Environmental Science degree program and professor of Biology. “We’re going where no one else has gone before.”
It’s true: the research expedition to the Burrows Basin site was the first in a series of outings spearheaded by Fort Lewis College’s Environment & Sustainability Department. The endeavor represents an alignment of interests between FLC, the Bureau of Land Management, and private landowners — all asking how best to preserve this fragile ecosystem.
Like many scientific expeditions, the origins of the Burrows Basin foray were serendipitous. Back in 2018 while on a hike with her family, Steltzer first laid eyes on the Burrows Basin site.
“When I saw the Basin, I thought this could be an amazing field site, and that this was the place where I wanted to study,” says Steltzer, who returned to the Basin a few more times before letting the idea rest and percolate.
Two years later, at the Gunnison Valley Climate Action Conference, Steltzer was approached by the BLM to work with Rachel Miller, a natural resources specialist at the BLM Gunnison Field Office.
“In the high alpine, there are so many differences from what we usually manage; we don’t get 14,000-foot peaks anywhere else except for Alaska, so it’s unique for a BLM field office,” says Miller. “In order to do our job, we need to be informed by science, so this project helps us gather information and understand what’s going on up there.”
To that end, Steltzer and Miller have facilitated a three-year agreement between FLC and the BLM to collect data at five sites: Burrows Basin, Maggie Gulch, Stony Pass, Deer Park, and Molas Pass. This agreement is the first of its kind, and the biggest beneficiaries are FLC students, Steltzer says.
Whether they’re interested in microbiology, plant phenology, or something else entirely, students signed up for the Burrows Basin venture for several reasons, from finding a thesis for their senior research projects to further developing existing research questions. Over the course of the September trip, nine students joined five faculty members and a couple of specialized scientists to see what they could find in Burrows Basin.
“I’ve been waiting for this,” says David McClellen, a senior majoring in Environmental Science. “It’s definitely a hands-on learning experience, having eyes on the landscape, and you can’t repeat this in a classroom.”
McClellen spent his time measuring spectral components of physical phenomena using a spectrometer, a device introduced to him by on-site scientist Amanda Henderson, Scientific Focus Area field manager for the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. Besides helping students with the highly specialized scientific equipment, Henderson also played a role in plotting the expedition’s complicated logistics.
“It’s definitely a hands-on learning experience, having eyes on the landscape, and you can’t repeat this in a classroom.”
— David McClellen, Senior, Environmental Science
“It’s one of the most wonderful collaborations that I’ve been a part of,” Henderson says. “Seeing these young scientists in the field, what they’re seeing, what they’re learning…it’s really awe-inspiring.”
As McClellen and his classmates inspected the tundra, they looked for viable, BLM-permitted plots to set up winterized monitoring stations. Like many zones in the San Juan Mountains, Burrows Basin is a patchwork of private and public land, so the students used GPS data provided by the BLM to navigate the logistical puzzle.
Meanwhile, Lucas Brown, a junior majoring in Public Health, collected samples for his senior research project on watershed antibiotic co-resistance to bacteria that have been exposed to heavy metals. By installing multiple water temperature and water chemistry loggers, Brown can compile data that will tell a deeper story of the mining industry’s impact on local mountainous watersheds.
“I definitely came up with some stuff to add to my senior research project,” says Brown excitedly. “And it was eye-opening to see the process of beginning a partnership with a federal agency.”
Drawn to the Basin by an entirely different opportunity, FLC junior Brenne Etzl speculated on the possible occurrence of permafrost in the area.
“As the Earth warms, we can find out how much carbon it will release into the atmosphere, and then we’ll have the knowledge to combat that,” says Etzl, who is majoring in Environmental Science. “Once we collect our [core] samples, we’ll take it back to campus, weigh it, and place it in a muffle furnace and burn off the excess carbon, a process called ‘loss on ignition.’ From there, we’ll weigh it again to find out how much carbon was released.”
“A discovery like this at a southern latitude would be unique, and we could construct a predictive model for the carbon emissions caused by its melting,” says Jared Beeton, chair and associate professor of FLC’s Environment & Sustainability Department. “It’s a big deal because there are a lot of studies on arctic permafrost, but there have been fewer studies on alpine permafrost.”
Beeton says this kind of research could be published and presented at the American Association of Geographers in New York City, providing a major advantage for students applying to graduate school.
After several hours of hard work, the Burrows Basin research crew gathered around their campsite over dehydrated meals and hot tea to discuss logistics and research questions. The uniqueness of the FLC academic experience was on full display, having moved beyond the classroom, beyond tests and grades, and into a small, interdisciplinary community of thinkers, scientists, and explorers.
On the final day, the team awoke to overcast skies with a hint of rain. But the group forged ahead with their respective pursuits. The permafrost seekers headed to the Upper Basin, while Brown collected samples in the Middle Basin. At the lower part of the Basin, Steltzer and Henderson set up the remaining winterized monitoring stations. Despite their varied interests and questions, all three teams worked in perfect concert to understand this alpine environment, its history, and trajectory. But the ecstasy of discovery would, unfortunately, be cut short by a sound that mountaineers are all too familiar with: the clap of thunder.
Over the next two hours, a steady stream of students and faculty trickled out of the Basin to lower ground. Committed to installing the last of the winterized monitoring stations, Steltzer and Henderson were the last to leave. For most, the weekend expedition was over, but the real work was only beginning.
“We have more questions than when we started, which is always a good thing in the sciences,” says Beeton. “It was also great to have scientists from different fields here because now we can tell a more holistic story of the land.”
“A discovery like this at a southern latitude would be unique, and we could construct a predictive model for the carbon emissions caused by its melting.”
— Jared Beeton, chair and associate professor, Environment & Sustainability
Two weeks later, Steltzer returned on a day trip with four students to finish core sampling for permafrost. After digging through 1.4 meters of earth, they hit broken up bedrock—not permafrost. Steltzer explains this isn’t a reason to give up hope on the project; there are other possible permafrost locations, such as areas with less snow accumulation and therefore less insulation from outside temperatures. Time is also on their side, as the agreement with the BLM does not conclude until December 2023.
However, the importance of these research sites extends far beyond just permafrost—something Steltzer recognizes.
“I’ve seen a recurring theme in talking to students after these trips,” she says. “From any one of them, it seems to be something along the lines of ‘it’s just so wonderful to have interacted with faculty, to do meaningful science.’”
Besides supporting research, the Burrows Basin expedition also marked the beginning of a new, adventurous chapter for FLC that’s a win-win for students and the environment alike. After all, this under-researched ecosystem is in desperate need of scientifically informed stewardship, something students can provide as they gain marketable skills for their future careers, and the confidence to go where no one else has gone before.
Benjamin Brewer (Cherokee Nation) is the Editor-in-Chief of IMAGES Magazine and a contributor for FLC Voices, Indian Country Today, and the Four Corners Water Center newsletter. Benjamin is also a senior at Fort Lewis College studying philosophy and hopes to attend law school after graduation.