Gothic permanently protected under conservation easement

Includes RMBL and its research facilities

By Katherine Nettles

We all may be missing visits to the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL) in Gothic this summer, but a conservation easement finalized last week ensures that the 92-year-old research site will remain in perpetuity beyond just one summer season.

The RMBL site itself has been relatively quiet this summer with its usual camps, tours, cafeteria, visitor center/general store and coffee house closed to the public to protect researchers and staff from the risks of coronavirus.

But a smaller number of field scientists are conducting their own business as usual there and RMBL announced on Thursday, July 16, that its 270-acre “living laboratory” has been permanently protected under a conservation easement with Colorado Open Lands for the entire town of Gothic.

The contract will create requirements for RMBL to uphold its mission for research and science, and will in turn protect the area from development beyond those purposes.

RMBL identifies itself as one of the largest, oldest and most productive sites for field research in the world, with research on the site having produced more than 1,900 published studies. It was founded in 1928, 55 years after the first scientific exploration of the area conducted under the auspices of the Hayden Survey.

The conservation easement prevents subdivision of and development on the land and preserves the site for education and recreation into perpetuity.

This means, as RMBL stated in a press release, “that the hundreds of scientists and students that RMBL normally hosts each year have guaranteed access to conduct field research in a large, intact outdoor environment and that tens of thousands of visitors will have unique opportunities to explore environmental science in a beautiful and informal setting.”

As RMBL executive director Dr. Ian Billick phrased it, “The community can know that the Gothic Townsite is dedicated to research and education in perpetuity.”

All of the buildings must have a primary purpose of research and education. There are several buildings outside the building envelope, which Billick explains are in an avalanche zone and will eventually be replaced by structures inside the building envelope.

Billick also said that the possibility of a future North Village project in Mt. Crested Butte, a multi-faceted collaboration between RMBL, Mt. Crested Butte and a private developer with future labs and office space for RMBL outside of its Gothic townsite location, came into play with the conservation easement decision. “We are hoping that any needs for additional structures—offices, housing, labs—in RMBL’s future can happen in North Village. This will reduce our impacts in the East River Corridor and allow facilities to be used year-round.”

The conservation easement will also protect RMBL’s non-consumptive water rights, among the first in the state of Colorado. The press release describes those non-consumptive water rights as having helped “establish the value of leaving water in streams to support wildlife and recreation.”

The statement also traces RMBL’s contributions through nearly a century:

“Since 1928, more than 9,000 people have studied, worked, lived and conducted research at RMBL on important topics such as pollination, changing climate and high-altitude ecosystems. RMBL scientists have created long-term data sets from their many summers of research in Gothic. Science conducted at RMBL has influenced environmental policy; research on acid deposition was used during revision of the National Clean Air Act. Pioneering research on pollination began at RMBL in the 1970s with some of our scientists who continue to research in Gothic every summer. RMBL scientists have created one of the world’s largest collections of long-term research supporting national environmental policy such as the National Clean Air Act, and providing insights into food security, water management, and human health.”

A well-known resident of Gothic and part of RMBL’s history is billy barr. barr has lived onsite at RMBL for nearly half a century, conducting citizen science and enduring winters on-site in solitude, only skiing out for supplies. “His decades of logs of avalanches and daily temperature highs and lows, along with precipitation totals and the arrival and departure of flora and fauna are invaluable to the scientists that decamp upon RMBL each spring and summer when the roads clear of snow,” according to RMBL’s statement.

“RMBL makes science accessible not only for researchers, but student scientists from around the globe, some of whom have never spent any time outside of a city. Through its informal science education program, RMBL invites the public to participate in and learn from its research. By protecting the site under easement, these opportunities to use science to manage the world, and to actively engage the public in research, will endure in perpetuity,” reads the statement.

According to Billick, “With this easement, and in collaboration with Colorado Open Lands, RMBL commits in perpetuity to the Power of Place, demonstrating how a sustained commitment by generations of scientists to understanding a single location can transform our understanding of the world.”

A legacy of conservation

Colorado Open Lands, a private non-profit land trust that will hold the conservation easement on the RMBL site, has protected 69 separate properties for a total of more than 25,000 acres in Gunnison County. RMBL has partnered with conservation organizations such as The Nature Conservancy, the Trust for Public Lands, the Crested Butte Land Trust and Colorado Open Lands for more than 50 years.

In 1997, Gunnison County voters approved a 1 percent sales tax to fund the protection of open space, agriculture, wildlife habitat, wetlands and public parks and trails. With these funds, the Gunnison Valley Land Protection Fund provided a transaction costs grant to support this project. The cost was $65,000, according to Billick.

Tony Caligiuri, president of Colorado Open Lands added, “This is a unique opportunity for a land trust to conserve an entire town, and knowing that the space will be used in perpetuity to advance critical research makes it even more meaningful.”

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