As with many mountain communities in Colorado, visitation to the Gunnison Valley is at an all-time high. Land managers observe that they have never seen our public lands as busy as they have been in recent years. The area is surrounded by 1.7 million acres of National Forest, and the Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service also manage well-known recreation areas and parks in the region. The valley has been nicknamed “the American Serengeti” for its abundance of wildlife, the single-track trail network is among the largest in the country, and the network of waterways provide endless opportunities for summer recreation. If it sounds like the perfect place to escape during quarantine, you aren’t alone in thinking that way.
NFF and Gunnison County officials acted urgently this past spring to prepare for the anticipated onrush of summer visitation. The partners quickly hatched the idea for the STOR Corps – a jobs-creation program modeled in-part after the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1920’s and in-part after the youth corps model that is so successful today. Funding was secured through supporters like Great Outdoors Colorado and the Tourism and Prosperity Partnership, job descriptions were drafted, interviews were held almost immediately, and by mid-July the STOR Corps was on the scene.
The Corps is working with all of the federal land management agencies in the county, and the work is varied and of high importance. So far, the Corps has accomplished the following: distributed vaccines to prairie dogs, cleared deadfall on Wilderness trails, installed signs on Cottonwood Pass, restored wet meadows, removed noxious weeds, and planted NFF-funded trees on Slumgullion Pass. In addition, the Corps prioritizes interfacing with the public. To optimize user outreach opportunities, the Corps is staged at high-use trailheads and campgrounds on weekends and holidays to provide information on where to camp, park, and recreate safely and responsibly. The Corps members also rove popular areas to report observations back to the management agencies, and they serve as naturalist and interpreter, providing educational opportunities for the visiting public.
Not only is the STOR Corps a unique and urgent response to the economic and social implications of the COVID-19 pandemic, the program is also an attempt by the County and the NFF to elevate conservation work as a legitimate career path. For far too long, stewardship has been relegated to a seasonal job, a stop on the way to a more meaningful career. That stigma needs to change in order to have the retention, consistency, and experience necessary to effectively serve in the role of steward to Colorado’s most treasured landscapes.
The STOR Corps has attracted environmental professionals who have established careers in land stewardship. Both crew leaders have graduate degrees in Environmental Management, and half of the crew members are enrolled in Recreation Management or Environmental Studies degree programs at Western Colorado University. Some crew members are even earning undergraduate credit for their experience. While initially crafted as a temporary, urgent response to the economic and land-management challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic, the partners are exploring the potential to continue the program into the future. The STOR-y continues…