Since its establishment in 2002, the Mountain Studies Institute (MSI), headquartered in Silverton, has moved forward with the mission to “enhance understanding and sustainable use of the San Juan Mountains through research and education.”
MSI fulfills this mission through research projects, GIS mapping and database services, hosting academic, government and nonprofit partners, and operating a high-altitude field station.
“MSI is here to serve the San Juan region explicitly,” said MSI research coordinator Chris Peltz. “We are not a consulting firm. That’s not our reason for being. Our reason for being is to serve the community.”
In line with their mission to serve the San Juan community, many of the projects take place in and around Pagosa Springs. The five main areas of study at MSI are: climate variability and change, community and land use transitions, ecosystems and biodiversity, water and snow, and air quality.
MSI is presently working with one Pagosa Springs landowner, analyzing the composition and character of the forest before and after thinning.
“What we learn could be replicated by individuals and the Forest Service,” Peltz said.
With this particular project, Peltz explained that he and a small crew will spend approximately four days in the field collecting data on the 500 acres of private land consisting primarily of ponderosa pine. After thinning, Peltz said he will spend another four days collecting data on character and composition. MSI does not have a part to play in the thinning project.
“We are an independent actor,” Peltz says. “We don’t have a stake in the outcome. We are just interested in how they impact the ecosystem.”
The main objective of this study is stand density, which Peltz says can be determined very quickly. The stand density that the project is hoping for is one of “park-like ponderosa pine ... about ten to twenty stems per acre, spread out enough so a person could ride a horse through it at a good clip without getting hit with a branch,” Peltz said.
The purpose for seeking this stand density Peltz said is protection from a large scale fire, a concern around much of the Pagosa area. The secondary objective, is if this stand density helps forest health. That, Peltz says, won’t be known for another one to two years.
“The reason we do science isn’t just to look backwards,” Peltz says. “It’s so we can look forward.”
Thus, most of the MSI projects and collaborations carry predictive power. What will the future hold, how can we be prepared, what can we do? These are just a few of the questions that MSI seeks to answer in a variety of contexts in the San Juan Mountains.
This past summer, MSI had an intern working with Ecosphere, studying the extent of the Pagosa Skyrocket. Another MSI collaborator was looking at the spruce budworm effects on Wolf Creek Pass.
“A lot of trees are dead and other places with spruce trees, they aren’t dead,” Peltz says. “What conditions are different? What conditions are similar? And what can be done? We seek a predictive model of environment so we can anticipate changes.”
Another study, which just completed the first of three years is how mercury from coal-fired power plants is transported and how the mercury manifests in soil. The area under study goes from Mesa Verde to Pagosa Springs.
Southeast of Durango, a pilot project for the forest service is beginning on connection service water and coal bed methane.
MSI is also interested in the health of rivers.
“The San Juan area has lots of undammed rivers or rivers with large undammed segments, which is very unique in both the west and the world,” Peltz says. MSI, though it is difficult, would like to begin analyzing the health, resiliency and stream flow of rivers.
“How is development influencing composition of fish and bugs? These are a good indicator of the ecological condition.”