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Restoration breathes life into wetland

Remediating destruction left by mining industry
Tim Cutter, a project manager for Mountain Studies Institute, conducts a vegetation survey in the Chattanooga wetland area along Mineral Creek.

SILVERTON – The mining industry that boomed in the early 20th century plundered the mountains of Southwest Colorado of their wealth of gold and silver. When operations finished, scars remained as a reminder of mining’s toll on the environment.

One such environmental issue is the devastation of the delicate ecosystem known as wetlands.

When miners arrived in the late 1800s, they bore into the mountains, usually at high altitudes where elevated concentrations of valuable minerals could be found.

As part of the process, the industry needed flat, open space to set up mills, homes and other types of infrastructure required for the operation. And in the mountains, those areas can be hard to come by.

Miners eyed that ideal space in wetlands and drained the marsh-like soil with ditches, effectively wiping away one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems.

But in 1972, after decades of unregulated mining practices, the federal government signed into law the Clean Water Act, which sought to restore and maintain national waterways.

A few years ago, when Durango Mountain Resort (now Purgatory Resort) wanted to expand on land it owned that was deemed protected wetland, the Clean Water Act mandated the ski resort restore another wetland to offset the environmental impact.

That’s when various environmental agencies focused on the Chattanooga wetland, outside Silverton near Ophir Pass.

After two major restoration pushes in 2009 and 2013, the project is coming to a successful end.

On Wednesday, Tim Cutter with the Mountain Studies Institute ambled through the bogs to survey plots of vegetation. At this point, most of the work left in the Chattanooga wetland is monitoring and data collecting.

Chattanooga is a fen wetland, Cutter said, a mineral-rich marsh worth saving.

Marcie Bidwell, executive director of Mountain Studies Institute, said wetlands account for 2 percent of the Earth’s surface but sequester 20 percent of emitted carbon.

“(The wetlands are important) in figuring out the world of climate change,” she said.

The marshes also capture sediment, filter water through their vegetation and act as a sort of reservoir, Cutter said.

A University of Colorado graduate, he enjoys the time alone plodding through the bogs.

“I like being out here and being able to think and focus on the work I’m doing,” he said. “And it’s nice to see people rally to restore something that was once destroyed.”

In addition to Mountain Studies Institute, the U.S. Forest Service, Army Corps of Engineers and Purgatory Resort were part of the mitigation project.


Dec 4, 2021
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