National Forest Foundation

Mountain Studies Institute’s long-term commitment to restore a rare, iconic fen wetland on the San Juan National Forest

NFF Grant Partners and Projects


Mountain Studies Institute (MSI), a nonprofit, community-driven research and education organization in Southwest Colorado, partnered with the National Forest Foundation and the San Juan National Forest (SJNF) to restore Chattanooga Fen, a rare, iron-rich type of wetland, just north of Silverton, Colorado. MSI received funding through NFF’s Matching Award Program to engage youth and volunteers to help bring this decade-long project to a close.

Fens have been thought to be rare in the continental Western U.S. because of the hot and dry climate. However, fens are numerous in the higher elevations of the Rocky Mountains and they support endemic and wildly diverse flora and fauna. Fens require perennially saturated soils produced by nearly constant groundwater inflow to accumulate peat. Even small water diversions or depletions can reverse the process of peat accumulation that has been ongoing in many fens for more than 10,000 years and lead to fen destruction.

Restoration in progress at the fen.

A look at the hydric soil profile of the plants in the fen.

Fens in the San Juan Mountains have been disturbed for various reasons, including mining of minerals in the peats and draining areas for larger construction interests. These impacts have affected plant communities, soils, erosion and water quality. Once the areas are denuded, frost heave, degraded soils, and lack of moisture affect the area’s ability to regenerate on their own.

Restoration has been shown to greatly increase the success of the revegetation of these areas. The Chattanooga Fen had been altered sometime in the early 1900s, with nearly 1500 linear feet of ditches, which disrupted the hydrologic regime, and therefore the ecological functions of the fen.

MSI began working to restore the fen in 2009, by building plywood dams, installing ditch dams, filling select ditch sections with peat and excelsior bales, and revegetating areas devoid of vegetation. NFF funds were crucial in the final stages of restoration, supporting MSI’s work to engage the community in service-learning days at the fen.

Plot 1 in July 2010.

Plot 1 in July 2018.

Volunteers helped plant sedges and willows to revegetate the fen, getting their hands dirty while learning about wetland ecology and the valuable ecosystem services that Chattanooga Fen provides for our watershed. MSI worked with multiple school groups, the local chapter of the Native Plant Society, Outward Bound, and the general public to recruit volunteers.

In total 2.27 acres were restored at the Chattanooga Fen. In 2018, we put the very last sedge in the ground, bringing a decade of restoration to a close, and returning this important ecosystem to a functioning state.

Volunteers mulch around each sedge with excelsior.

MSI is honored to have the opportunity to work with the NFF to impact our forests and the youth and citizens of our San Juan Mountain communities. Not only does MSI take pride in improving our National Forest lands, we have a great time getting out to enjoy our beautiful surroundings and engaging with our volunteers, getting to know them, and work alongside them as stewards of these magnificent landscapes!

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