Director’s Letter September 2023

“Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice”—Will Durant

Philosopher and historian Will Durant reminds us that we might benefit by occasionally considering the ground upon which our feet stand, metaphorically as well as literally. Geology is often destiny, and explains Crested Butte’s coal mines, ski resort, and even RMBL.

The presence of Crested Butte’s coal mines is explained in part by the Western Interior Seaway that split North America into two landmasses. Decomposition lacking oxygen is inefficient, leaving energy behind. Coal is just concentrated energy and was generated through plant material that accumulated in swamps and wetlands adjacent to the Western Interior Seaway, places where dead plant material would accumulate but oxygen was limited.  Geology explains CB coal mines!

The Crested Butte Mountain Resort is located on a laccolith, formed when magma bubbled up from the Earth’s crust, giving us a mountain upon which to ski. The local laccoliths, including Snodgrass and Gothic mountains, are located on mancos shale and are prone to landslides. While landslides on Snodgrass were intensively studied to assess whether a ski resort expansion was appropriate, the removal of Snodgrass from the ski resort boundary through the recently released Forest Plan Revision by the Grand Mesa, Uncompaghre, and Gunnison Forests is more about economics and politics than geology.

Local mancos shale, on the other hand, is partly responsible for RMBL’s persistence. Mancos shale dates to 80-95 million years ago, or the late Cretaceous when dead plants accumulated on the shallow bottom of the Western Interior Sea. With plant material accumulating in stagnant waters and a low oxygen environment, the mudflats became shale, with less energy than coal.

The relationship between mancos shale and Crested Butte’s wildflower diversity is less than clear, at least to me. I’ve seen mancos shale described as being a barren soil upon which plants struggle to grow as well as a sponge that provides water maintaining plant productivity and hence diversity. My best guess is that our diverse wildflowers likely are a result of diverse habitats associated with the shale. Work from the Watershed Function Scientific Focus Area (Lawrence Berkeley Lab) finds variability in types of mancos shale that is correlated with different vegetation types. Mancos shale moves and breaks, and when combined with lots of water and complex terrain, produces a complex and variable landscape, supporting diverse wildflowers.

Pre-World War Two scientific work at RMBL took advantage of this diversity; botany and mammalogy classes leveraged it to introduce plants and animals. This landscape complexity became a barrier in the 1970s when a push towards experimentation put a premium on large homogeneous landscapes. But now, the increasing power of sensors combined with big data, give us the inferential power to untangle this complexity, revealing fundamental processes lacking in simpler landscapes. I will take the beauty and statistical power of the Elk Mountains over the monotony of cornfields!

Big picture, how we manage the release of stored carbon from anaerobic (without oxygen) decomposition, will determine the world’s future. RMBL, leveraging emerging sensing techniques and unique long-term research that integrates geology, hydrology, biology, and atmospherics, will play a major role in revealing, and hopefully managing, our geological destiny!

Learn more about geology and biology by reading the accompanying essay by Dr. Amy Ellwein. Check out her amazing book, Geology Underfoot on Colorado’s Western Slope!

Ian Billick - Director RMBL

Ian Billick | PhD
Executive Director, RMBL