Science community reaches out
Five miles beyond the Mt. Crested Butte ski resort, at 9,500 feet in altitude under the sheer rock gaze of Gothic mountain, lives a summer enclave of researchers at the Rocky Mountain Biological Labs (RMBL) field station.
Unaffiliated with any academy or university, and aside from the native population of marmots, RMBL residents are quite distinguishable. Some are eternally glancing at the ground, staring at data in an alien syllabary fastened to clipboards, or perhaps observing an insect that’s just landed on a particular plant they’ve been studying for 20 years or so. Maybe you’ve seen them sitting perfectly still in a field of wildflowers and solitude, binoculars held so unfalteringly steady you wonder if it’s some new form of meditation.
They may be in packs at the end of the day, hoisting butterfly nets over their shoulders as they stride down the dusty road heading for the cache of ice cream in the Gothic store. Crested Butte has had an ongoing admiration and wonderment of RMBL and now the science community is reaching out and giving back the love by sharing their experience and some of their research.
On June 6 the new Weldon and Rosalie Weekley Visitor’s Center in Gothic opened to the public. Once housing the original Vera Adams Johnson Laboratory, the log building was moved about 100 yards down the hill to its current location next to the historic Gothic Town Hall, which will now be the new Kid’s Nature Camp Headquarters. Don’t worry—they moved the ice cream freezer into the Visitor’s Center. The funding for the new center was from the estate of Weldon and Rosalie Weekley. The Weekleys lived in Houston most of the time but spent summers in Crested Butte for 50 of their 71 years of marriage. The Visitor’s Center is staffed through a joint endeavor by both RMBL and the Crested Butte Chamber of Commerce from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. every day through September 30.
You can also get familiar with what goes on up at RMBL and just what those scientists are up to. Along the Visitor Center walls are large upright displays with information and photos of the different wildlife, flora and terrain, but even more fun is the interactive tablet. Like an oversized iPad, this huge touch screen table allows people to see how researchers are conducting their studies via videos, photos and interviews. It shows how they capture and mark those adorable marmots to keep track of their habits and lives, the importance of pollination studies, the effects of climate change, to name just a few of the topics. There’s a history tour of the old silver mining town Gothic once was, and amazing photo maps that take you across various passes as though you were flying in real time over the mountains.
The RMBL store is also in the Visitor’s Center, with tee shirts, sweatshirts, books and cards, fuzzy plush native animals like marmots, mountain lions, owls and birds, and a plethora of snacks—including ice cream. Starting out from the Visitor Center daily at 11 a.m. there’s a half-hour, free, guided tour of the RMBL grounds that explains various buildings and their uses, field work in progress and a bit of history.
Allison Butcher has been RMBL’s development director since 2008 and is excited about the new programs and opportunities for people to connect with the researchers and projects. She says the Visitor’s Center was a way to begin to reach out to the public. “Even when I started in 2008, all people knew about RMBL was corn lily people in the 4th of July parade,” she laughs and adds, “And there’s much more to RMBL than that. The Visitor’s Center is part of the Legacy Campaign and it’s basically part of a strategic plan. What we found when we were out talking to current donors about the campaign was that we needed to be more visible in the community. We had a donor who specifically wanted to bridge the gap between RMBL and the public. It’s a cultural change for the RMBL community to be inviting others into their world. It’s a very short growing season and they’re here from all over the world doing research and very focused on whatever it is they’re studying …and they don’t often look up,” she confirms.
“Science is changing a lot, especially the last several years, because funding is becoming harder to get and scientists are being forced to communicate the importance of their work to the general public,” Allison says, comparing this to having to learn a new language. The communication “benefits science because it takes a higher level of thinking for the researcher to be able to explain what they’re doing to the public.”
Allison says much of the National Science Foundation (NSF) grants they receive now has a communications requirement, “A component of what they’re (researchers) doing has to be communicating their results to the public.” Allison says the scientists of RMBL are enthusiastic about the new open lines of communication with non scientific public. They helped to put the display panels together as well as the interactive table and videos, checking for accuracies.
You can even hobnob with researchers, students and staff in RMBL’s dining hall since they now offer lunch and dinner to visitors. Just be aware that they’re on science time, not Crested Butte time, so you have to get there precisely at high noon for lunch, and dinner is served at 6 p.m. sharp because if you arrive late there may not be any food left… those scientists work hard and are famished. You must make reservations for either lunch or dinner 24 hours in advance, although they will try to accommodate you with less notice (not guaranteed, though). Lunch is $9 and dinner is $10.50.
Better yet, if you sign up for one of the Adult Science Tours, held each Thursday from 9 a.m. to noon, the tour includes one of those scrumptious lunches in the $40 fee. Topics range from “An Introduction to Our Native Bees” to “Wildflowers, Invasive Plants, and Pollinators” to “Rocky Mountain Rivers: Rock Snot, Bugs, and Fish,” and more. There are also free Tuesday Talks at 7:30 p.m. that are open to the public and feature the research scientists. If you come early, there’s another opportunity to have dinner with the geeks at 6 p.m. ($10.50 with advanced reservations required).
Are you an aspiring wanna-be geek? The Third Annual Geek Week is a week-long series of events on “The Biology of a Changing World,” a unique introduction to the scientific research at the RMBL. Designed for adults with an interest in the workings of the natural world, Geek Week is an incredible experience in one of the most well-studied ecosystems on the planet, with expert keynote speakers. Geek Week runs July 28 through August 2 and you can sign up online.
And for the younger set, there’s the long running and wildly popular Kids Nature Camp where children ages four through 12 have the unique opportunity to meet and observe real field scientists at work and learn research skills such as observing wildlife, trapping and tagging animals, and collecting data and most important, teaching kids that science is not only significant but fun. Some of the kids attending the classes in the past have grown up to be scientists who return to RMBL to do research.
You and your kids can even ride the free Mountain Express shuttle bus up and back, with roundtrip stops at the Four-way in downtown Crested Butte, Mountaineer Square Transit Center on Mt. Crested Butte, Snodgrass Trailhead and Gothic (schedule at mtnxp.org).
The RMBL website has all the information for every event, tour and goings on at rmbl.org. And if you want the real deal data, check out Digital RMBL in the upper right corner of the RMBL website. Its goal “is to bring the ideas, data, and science developed at a small, but internationally renowned, field station in the mountains of Colorado into college classrooms around the world. We’ll introduce you to organisms (and other local characters) and their environment in and around a ghost town turned ecology field station.”
RMBL researchers don’t always wear the trademark floppy-brimmed hats and light-colored khakis, which help keep the heat and annoying flies away. Nope, these top-notched scientists and researchers were also found on July 3 duct-taping corn lily leaves into fashionable skirts, bangles and head wreaths to wear proudly in Crested Butte’s Fourth of July parade, waving butterfly nets and banging loudly on pots and pans. It is most likely their only day off but to fully appreciate the nitty gritty of it, get yourself up to stunning Gothic and check out the new Visitor’s Center, catch a tour, take in a talk, do a bit of noshing, and get acquainted with our local investigators of ecology.
Reservations for any event, tour, Kids Nature Camp, lunch or dinner can be made through the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab website at rmbl.org or call (970) 901-1395. For lunch or dinner reservations call (970) 349-7231 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. The free Mountain Express Crested Butte to Gothic shuttle schedule is at mtnexp.org.