ASPEN – The doors are locked, spring field trips and lectures are canceled, and the essential summer season hangs in the balance, but in one respect, the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies has never been busier: local agriculture. 

“As this pandemic hit, we realized you can not make enough food,” said ACES CEO Chris Lane. “Last year at this time, we had 180 dozen eggs that had to sit in a refrigerator because people weren’t buying them. Now we’ve increased our laying hens by 30% and we’re selling eggs like crazy.”

ACES operates the 113-acre Rock Bottom Ranch, which sits between Basalt and Carbondale. The ranch typically hosts field trips, programs for kids and farm-to-table dinners in the spring and summer. 

This spring, field trips are canceled and other programming is on pause, but the ranch continues to produce local foods, including eggs, chickens and vegetables, which it sells on site, at Skip’s Market in Basalt and Silo in Carbondale, and through Community Supported Agriculture shares starting in early June.

“People are excited to have local, stable, clean, green, chemical-free food,” Lane said. 

Amid the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, people continue to turn to nature for solace, and local environmental organizations are adjusting to the crisis and working to prepare for what comes next.

Watchdog work continues

Last week, just after news broke that the Environmental Protection Agency would no longer be enforcing regulations regarding pollution, Will Roush, executive director of Wilderness Workshop, sent out an email assuring members that the nonprofit remained “committed to being your eyes and ears in the forest.”

“We recognize it can be harder to keep track of a lot of things for people while coronavirus is taking its toll and impacting people’s health or economic situation,” Roush said. 

Roush and his colleagues are working remotely to influence policy and push for ecologically focused decisions from land managers working in the Roaring Fork River watershed and the White River National Forest.  

“We want to continue to do that watchdog work where we track proposals from the federal agencies and are the ecological voice in the room and make sure that we’re still looking out for our public lands at a time when it’s tough to be doing much else beside focusing on your personal situation,” Roush said. 

Wilderness Workshop, which employs seven people, recently submitted detailed comments on a proposed trail between Redstone and McClure Pass and is awaiting an environmental assessment from the Colorado River office of the Bureau of Land Management as part of a 2018 court ruling. 

The past several weeks have clearly illustrated for many residents just how important public lands are.

“All of us are recognizing how lucky we are to have public lands nearby and be able to recreate on them,” Roush said. “We have some added responsibilities about how we recreate, both to not get too crowded at certain pinch points and also to really dial back our risk taking.” 

That’s a message that Karin Teague, executive director of the Independence Pass Foundation, is taking seriously. Colorado 82 beyond Independence Pass’ winter-closure gate is a popular place to hike, ski and walk, and has become even more so in recent weeks. 

“The parking lot is full to overflowing; there are cars lined up on both sides of the street,” Teague said. “And as a result, there’s sometimes a failure for proper social distancing.”

In addition to people and their dogs crowding the road, spring weather and snow conditions attract backcountry skiers to remote places up the pass such as Green Mountain and Lincoln Creek, which they reach by snowmobile.  

“We want to be really careful about the kind of backcountry excursions we’re taking in terms of stressing our already-overstressed health-and-safety folks,” Teague said. “That’s a huge trip for our mountain rescue or sheriff’s department to make if there’s an evacuation needed.”

Hikers and dogs walk past the winter-closure gate on Independence Pass. Local environmental nonprofits encourage people to take extra care to follow rules on public lands during the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: Elizabeth Stewart-Severy/Aspen Journalism

Virtual education and preparing for life after the pandemic

ACES education director Andrea Aust, standing in her backyard, uses a pine cone to teach about patterns in nature, but there are no children present. Instead, it’s a video challenge, shared on YouTube, Instagram and Facebook. As school shifts online, Aust is working with local schools to continue providing environmental education to local students. 

“We’re prioritizing just providing opportunities for them to get outside and connect with nature,” she said.  

Roaring Fork Conservancy has taken a similar approach, posting videos of staff members reading the organization’s children’s book “Dee Dee the Fryingpan River Dipper” and providing online lists of river-related activities for kids. 

Both the conservancy and ACES have educators who work closely with area schools and are working to find ways to reach all students — despite differing levels of access to devices, WiFi and adult support — through digital learning. Last year, ACES reached about 2,700 students through field programs between March and May and an additional 1,100 through summer camps and programs. The conservancy had 85 school programs in 2019, with nearly 2,000 student contacts. 

As summer approaches, organizations will have to make decisions about whether to cancel fundraisers, kids camps and other programming. And, like so many businesses across the world, local nonprofits are trying to get a handle on the financial implications of the pandemic. 

ACES recently raised $10 million to go toward an endowment. ACES’ goal is to raise $12 million. Still, Lane says if stay-at-home orders last into the summer months, ACES, like other businesses, will take a financial hit.  

“We’ll have to cut costs and be efficient,” Lane said. “Safety of our employees and families is No. 1, and right behind that is our business.” 

Aspen Journalism is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit journalism organization covering the environment in collaboration with The Aspen Times and Aspen Public Radio. 

Elizabeth Stewart-Severy is a freelance journalist based in Snowmass Village. She grew up in Aspen and has worked as an editor at Aspen Journalism, reporter at Aspen Public Radio and an English and journalism...