Mountain Wetlands
By Mary Duffy

Back in 2001, when the ski area was proposing expansion into Prospect Basin, an unusual ecosystem almost brought the project to a halt. The basin proved to be home to fens, year-round wetlands that are fed by groundwater and monsoonal rains. More specifically, fens are a type of peatland, the most unique and biologically diverse category of wetland. In general, peatlands have organic soils greater than 40 centimeters thick, stay saturated for long periods of time and contain large carbon deposits. Fens act as environmental filters and wildlife (particularly amphibian) habitat.

In Prospect Basin, the age of the fens stretches back in time approximately 10,000 years. Many of the wetland plants that grow in fens are clonal-descendents from and genetically identical to a single common ancestor-providing a valuable source of baseline information for the further study of other plants, climate, insects, carbon sequestration and other characteristics of mountain environments.

Working with the Forest Service, the county and ski area set up a collaborative community oversight group to help oversee fen monitoring. Comprised of the Town of Mountain Village, the Town of Telluride, San Miguel County, Telluride Ski & Golf Resort, Sheep Mountain Alliance, Colorado State University, Mountain Studies Institute and the local community at-large, the San Juans Fen Partnership works closely with the Forest Service and the Environmental Protection Agency, who has provided grants to identify and study the fens. The Prospect Basin fen project at the Telluride Ski Resort is the only research of its kind being done in the United States.