A type of wetland, fens form peat and are primarily fed by groundwater. They form over thousands of years and resemble a kind of mire. Grasses and sedges dominate a fen, adding to the high diversity of plant species.
High in the Rocky Mountains, the Chattanooga Fen sits at 10,500 feet on the San Juan National Forest in southwest Colorado. At this fen, iron pyrite minerals in the groundwater create acidity. The iron pyrite is a typical rock formation in the Southern Rocky Mountains. In addition, unique plant communities dominated by Sphagnum mosses have survived in these wetlands since the glaciers receded.
Fen wetlands have a constant need for water to keep the soils saturated in an anaerobic condition to accumulate peat. Small water diversions can alter the hydrology, which dry out the wetland, and reduce peat that has been growing for more than 10,000 years. A series of ditches impacted Chattanooga Fen when they lowered the water table and eliminated the relic Sphagnum spp., one of the keystone species for peat formation.
To support the Fen, Mountain Studies Institute developed a plan for restoration implementation and education with many other collaborative partners. The National Forest Foundation funded part of this project through the Matching Awards Program in 2013. This grant enabled the staff to improve the hydrologic and ecological function of four acres of Chattanooga Fen through heavy equipment work to fill in the ditches and handwork to replace vegetation. Staff planted Carex sod plugs and willows on the restored wetland surfaces. Groundwater levels greatly increased as a result of restoration.
During and following the work, Mountain Studies Institute shared the importance of fen habitat widely with local communities through site visits, volunteer restoration efforts and courses presented at Colorado State University, Prescott College and Fort Lewis College. Improvement to the overall recreation experience is felt by the 250,000 visitors who drive the San Juan Skyway, a Colorado Scenic Byway that passes by the Chattanooga Fen.
Fortunately, the benefits and skills gained from the collaborative process, educational workshops and community involvement will help guide the conservation of the 2,000 fens in the area. The Fen Restoration Manual is available for interested parties, and the project team produced academic publications sharing their techniques.