Posing new questions

Center for Sustainable Landscapes and Communities encourages local engagement through Ecosystem Trends Report

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At 10,000 acres, the Calwood fire, seen here on Oct. 17, quickly became the largest fire in Boulder County history.
Ben Nelson | Envision Studio, Boulder CO

In a world where climate change presents an ever-increasing threat, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and helpless as we carry on in our day-to-day lives. The stress-induced, existential questions pile up: What can I do? Do these problems affect me in any real way? Am I doing enough?

 The CU-Boulder affiliated Center for Sustainable Landscapes and Communities (CSLC) offers a way to narrow that seemingly limitless scope, homing in on environmental issues specifically within Boulder County and fostering interaction and collaboration between CU students and faculty, community members and municipal agencies. The center aims to educate the community and involve people in effecting tangible change within local ecosystems while promoting healthy perspectives on sustainability. 

“When we look at data for the place where we live, it’s eye-opening and grounds us to this community in a way I think is important,” Sharon Collinge, cofounder of CSLC, says. “That is why we made this center intentionally and explicitly Boulder-focused. It lets people get involved and create change where they might feel helpless in the face of global climate crises.”

For the first time since its inception in 2018, the CSLC recently released the Boulder Ecosystems Trends Report, spotlighting a few of the pressing environmental concerns in Boulder County and its surrounding public lands. The idea for the Trends Report emerged when CSLC’s Collinge and cofounder Karen Hollweg recognized motivation within the community to understand how local ecosystems are changing over time. As a result, CSLC has been identifying and collecting environmental data over the last few years, analyzing and collating it to create a report the community can understand and connect to. 

This year, the report highlights trends in six environmental categories: climate, soil health, watershed health, air quality, biodiversity and urban tree canopy cover. Each trend category has a subset of three important patterns. Watershed, for example, focuses on local snowpack, benthic macro-invertebrates and human population growth. All categories were chosen with the help of community members who were invited to share environmental trends they found most interesting and important. 

“We have an engaged community that’s ready to talk about these issues and ready to take action,” Collinge says. “Our intention is to provide a neutral platform where experts and community members can convene and discuss local environmental issues in an informed and thoughtful way, talking through the potential for sustainability, restoration and action.” 

In congruence with this year’s Boulder Ecosystem Trends Report, CSLC is offering a series of three free webinars, giving community members the opportunity to engage in discussions about this year’s report, as well as the planning and management of public lands in the Boulder region. If the existential stress of global climate change has proven burdensome on the soul, this is a way to get involved on a local level, become educated on environmental trends and establish positive change in the community. Each trend from this year’s report will be presented by an expert in a corresponding field, educating viewers on everything from changing precipitation rates to soil health. 

Local climatologist Matt Kelsch is one of CLSC’s partners this year, contributing his 30-year data set on temperature change and precipitation in Boulder. Late winter and early spring, he’s found, have become increasingly wetter, while mid-summer months are steadily drier and hotter. The collaboration of different local researchers and organizations, he says, is vital as we continue to look forward.

“When it comes to climate change or natural variability, a principality like Boulder has to prepare for what’s happening,” Kelsch urges. “Weather and temperature extremes are becoming more common, and a growing city has to prepare for things like water storage, fire, flooding and snow removal.”

In direct relation to these watershed issues, the trends report on soil health will cover results from tests facilitated by the Citizen Science Soil Health Project, an initiative spearheaded by community member Elizabeth Black. 

“Every grower believes they’re improving the health of their soil in an effort to make the land more resilient to flooding and fires,” Black notes. “These tests are a way to determine if they’re right, and if not, to find ways to improve overall soil health.”

There are now more than 40 local participants collecting soil from farms, golf courses, tree farms and more. The project provides the resources to collect soil samples, test and analyze them, and return the results in a user-friendly format. This initiative also identifies ways to improve or implement soil carbon sequestration — the practice of using soil as a storehouse for carbon, helping eliminate it from the atmosphere in an effort to combat global warming. 

CSLC’s set of three, 90-minute webinars cover two trends each. The forum will spend a short time with local guest researchers and experts extrapolating and presenting data from the report, with the majority of the time allotted for questions and conversation between researchers, CU affiliates and community members. 

“Our hope is to engage different members and agencies within Boulder County to generate ideas, answer questions and even pose new questions,” Hollweg says. “We’re all working together to create a healthy and sustainable life for ourselves, our neighbors and our ecosystems.”