Dominique Naccarato slides to a stop on a hairpin corner of a trail adjacent to the ski area boundary.
“We’re lucky today,” she says. “The wildlife have left their mark for us to see.”
Naccarato, executive director of the Greater Arkansas River Nature Association (GARNA), points to the tracks of a snowshoe hare before diving headlong into a lecture on the myriad forms of wildlife that utilize Monarch Mountain.
What may seem a conversation more fit for the biology classroom is actually a stop along the route of the Ski with a Naturalist program at Monarch. Each Friday at 11 a.m. during the ski season, GARNA staff conducts the free tour — delving into the history of the mountain, geography of the area and forest ecology.
The partnership between GARNA, the Salida Ranger District of the U.S. Forest Service and the ski area east of Gunnison has existed for about 10 years.
“It was really started to educate people about the fact that they’re skiing on public lands, and what public lands mean,” explains Naccarato, a 2016 Masters in Environmental Management graduate from Western Colorado University.
She’s led the Ski with a Naturalist tours since she started working with GARNA five years ago as an AmeriCorps Vista volunteer.
In addition to the winter wildlife lecture, the tour includes five other stops on the way down the mountain. At the first stop, Naccarato notes the mountain’s location in the Sawatch Range of the Rocky Mountains — and, more specifically, on the Continental Divide.
The range contains more than 30 peaks greater than 12,000 feet in elevation — including the highest point in Colorado, Mt. Elbert at 14,440 feet above sea level.
At another stop, Naccarato explains that 80 percent of Colorado’s annual water supply comes from snowmelt, which launches into a brief explanation of the state’s “prior appropriation” system of water rights.
And while 80 percent of Colorado’s snowfall occurs on the west side of the Continental Divide, 80 percent of the state’s population lives on the east side.
But here, the native population consists of countless species of birds, small mammals and — during warmer months — large
ungulates such as elk and deer. Naccarato notes the “edge effect” — or area
where two separate
ecosystems overlap, resulting in greater plant and animal diversity.
Yet, stress on animals caused by human activity can create difficult conditions for some species. Ski trails, for instance, make for an easily traveled corridor — allowing predators easier access to prey.
“This is something we’re finding humans need to be more conscious of,” she explains. “Especially in wintertime.”
Farther down the slope, Naccarato stops to take in the surrounding view, much of which is marked by standing dead trees and holes in the forest where others have already been removed.
“Ninety percent of the trees at Monarch are Engelmann Spruce,” Naccarato says. “A lot of them are dead now because of the spruce beetle.”
Reasons for the spruce beetle’s spread include a lack of age diversity due to human activity — including clear cutting stemming from mining activity in the late 1880s — and fire suppression.
This aspect of the tour alone has proven beneficial for Monarch leaders, who are frequently asked about the spruce beetle situation and even entered a partnership with a Colorado ski maker this year to craft skis from the dead trees.
“I think the education is good, especially this year with our tree mitigation, because people really want to know what’s going on,” says Monarch Marketing Director Dan Bender.
On the last stop, Naccarato notes how different the Monarch base area looks from other mountain resorts. Monarch is one of three ski areas in Colorado that doesn’t make snow, and the proudly “independent” hill has rolled out numerous sustainability measures in recent years.
Of course, the free tours have received interest among a wide array of clientele.
“You never know who’s going to show up,” Naccarato says, noting that a recent Ski with a Naturalist tour included a Monarch co-owner and a separate GARNA board member who helped start the mountain’s snowcat skiing operation. “We got more of an education than we gave.”
ABOUT SKI WITH A NATURALIST
> The free tour takes place on beginner, lift-accessed runs, highlighting Monarch Mountain’s forest ecology, wildlife in the winter, the recreational history of Monarch Pass, and the Monarch-U.S. Forest Service partnership.
> Greater Arkansas River Nature Association coordinates the Ski with a Naturalist Program and is responsible for staffing the tour each week.
> In addition to the basic weekly talks there may be an opportunity to promote a specific topic such as forest health, beetle kill or wildlife on designated Fridays throughout the winter.
> Meet at 11 a.m. at the sign near ski patrol yurt. There is no sign-up required. Participants must have a season pass or day ticket to participate.
(Will Shoemaker can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.)