Director’s Blog 3/28/20

Director’s Blog March, 28, 2020

By Ian Billick, PhD

Unfortunately this will not be my last missive on the virus.  Knowing that our community is spread across the world and experiencing different stages of infection and closures, this blog is a glimpse into Gunnison County, a virus hotspot, and how RMBL is thinking about summer and beyond.

While it is difficult to interpret the numbers, Gunnison has one of the highest county-wide confirmed infection rates with over 4 cases per thousand (5th highest behind two counties in NY and WA?), with 75 confirmed infections (42% of those tested).  609 people have self-reported virus symptoms.

Not surprisingly, the county is shut down.  The governor issued a statewide stay at home order on Wednesday, March 25, through April 11.  The county has similar, more restrictive orders in place, including limiting access to public lands by Gunnison residents only.  I suspect that order would not hold up to a constitutional challenge, but it doesn’t seem like a good time to have the conversation.

The good news is that social distancing is working locally.  The number of cases is dropping and the hospital has not been overwhelmed.  We have seen 1 death and with a lack of intensive care facilities, patients are being shipped to other hospitals.  But given the rate of infection, things could be worse.

It is not clear what will follow the decline in infections.  Neither the county nor the state have articulated a mid-term plan.  What will be critical thresholds triggering changes to the health orders?  Once cases drop, will they relax social distancing?  If the county gets a handle on the situation, will they still discourage (legally or illegally) visitors to the county or public lands?

With this uncertainty in mind, how is RMBL thinking about the summer undergraduate program?  While we plan for business as normal, we are also thinking about business not as normal.  We may use distance learning and develop group projects if we have to reduce or eliminate time in Gothic.  These changes would not be ideal, but with the closure orders RMBL may not have a choice and students may not have other opportunities.  Contact Rosemary Smith, rsmith@rmbl.org, for more info or to help.

How are we thinking about research? Business as normal, we are processing research and animal care applications and plan to open most or all Gothic buildings with water.  It is not good for many systems to be shut down too long and the opening will us to quickly allow scientists to return if the county is opened part way through the summer.  With business not as normal in mind, in the absence of students in Gothic we are unlikely to operate the dining hall.  We continue to think about creative ways to support scientists, including organizing research assistants living locally.  Contact Jennie Reithel,  jennifer@rmbl.org, with questions/suggestions.  Look for a survey next week as we try to better understand your needs.

RMBL’s Board is active and involved.  The Board Leadership met Friday March 21 and the Board is forming a committee that will meet Friday, April 3.  I anticipate the committee will include Dan Blumstein (President/scientist), Bruce McLean (Chair), Brian Wildes (Treasurer), and several more scientists from the Board.  The committee will review a draft coronavirus strategy to send to the full board. A strategy might include components like: within legal and health constraints RMBL will prioritize research over other non-essential activities, and within the context of our mission and normal activities RMBL will work creatively to limit financial losses (e.g., distance learning).

Will RMBL be able to continue operating if we are closed this summer and suffer large financial losses?  One of the strategies might be ensuring RMBL has the financial and personnel resources to fully operate in 2021.  After the Board develops a general strategy, we will present the committee, and ultimately the Board, financial analyses under a range of assumptions.

What does a quick glimpse at RMBL’s finances say about our future?  While it may not be easy, we see no problems being fully operational in 2021.  We can squeeze 2020 expenditures down from $2.1 million to $1.3 million without losing permanent staff or undermining the future.  A very conservative estimate drops revenue projections from $2.1 million to $900,000 with lots of opportunity to generate additional income through programs and fundraising.  We started the year with about $400,00 in reserves.  We have been working on a conservation easement that would generate $1.2 million in the next year.  We are also eligible for some of the federal stimulus programs.  So while we are not certain how we will navigate the next 15 months until the dining hall welcomes 250 guests for the 4th of July BBQ, we are comfortable there is a path.

Thanks to Ben Blonder for suggesting RMBL’s finances be part of a blog post.  If you have questions, ideas, or suggestions for future blog posts, don’t hesitate to reach out to me.   We will do our best to communicate, understand your needs, and flexibly respond to rapidly changing circumstances.  We appreciate the patience, compassion, and support the entire RMBL community has shown each other as we navigate crazy times!

COVID-19 FAQs for Scientists

Frequently Asked Questions 

For RMBL Scientists 

Last updated: 3/19/20

The current global pandemic is causing uncertainty about summer 2020 plans.  RMBL is committed to the health and safety of our community and also understands that scientists have critical long-term projects.  Below is a list of questions and answers directed to our research community and is meant to help PIs and their teams make decisions.  We will update this as new information becomes available, with major updates most likely 2-4 weeks out.   

We are very interested in knowing how you are thinking about this summer, and whether there are creative ways we can assist you.   Don’t hesitate to reach out to Jennie Reithel, RMBL’s Science Director, at sd@rmbl.org, or Ian Billick, the Executive Director, at ibillick@rmbl.orgwith questions, suggestions, or feedback. 

Summary of changes:   

March 19, we upated the answer to: Can I or my team travel to Gunnison County to do research and stay in offsite housing? 

——————————————————————————————————————— 

Is RMBL open as of Wednesday, March 18? 

Currently we cannot house scientists in Gothic. Gunnison County is shut down – in large part because we have a cluster of cases in the county. There is a public health order in place which shutters all nonessential businesses, including us, as well as the schools.  However, the situation is changing quickly. The only certainty is that things will continue to evolve in unpredictable ways and the key for all of us is to be as flexible as possible.   

Will RMBL be open this summer? 

We are preparing for summer, including processing research applications, as if we will have a normal summer, recognizing a normal summer is unlikely. 

When will RMBL know whether it will be open? 

Given how rapidly things are changing and that summer is over two months away, we will be waiting at least 2-4 weeks before making any big decisions.  Ideally any decision we make will be done in conjunction with local health care and emergency responders.  They are overwhelmed right now.  Consequently, we want to see how the situation unfolds and give them time to better understand what the county is capable of supporting. 

Will RMBL have any travel bans or quarantines, including for international students and researchers? 

RMBL will follow the guidance and recommendations of public health officials. As of 3/11/20, the Colorado Governor’s office recommended that travelers over 60 years of age and those with underlying health issues avoid nonessential travel to mountain resort towns in Colorado, which includes RMBL.  This is primarily due to the limited capacity of mountain community health systems to handle a surge in demand for their services. 

How will decisions about RMBL closures be made? 

The County is in a state of emergency and we have little freedom to decide how and whether we will operate.  To the extent that we have latitude, RMBL’s Board will be overseeing major decisions and setting general strategy. 

The deadline for housing priority is April 1.  Will that be extended? 

Yes, we are extending the deadline for housing priority to April 15. Scientists, research assistants, and visiting scientists should fill out the appropriate application form by April 15 in order to be prioritized for housing this summer. This will give all of us more time to assess the situation and see how things unfold. 

Should I wait until I know my summer plans to submit my teams’ summer applications? 

Do whatever feels right to you!  We will be flexible and nimble.  We do encourage you to communicate with us, either by submitting space requests or emailing us about where you are at.  The more we understand what you will be trying to do this summer, the better we will be able to help you! 

Is RMBL waiving cancellation fees for 2020? 

Yes! For all programs we are waiving any kind of financial penalty for coronavirus-related cancellations.  We hope this will allow scientists and students to do their best to plan and communicate with us, without having to worry about whether larger events will force them to change their plans, thereby incurring a financial penalty.

If RMBL houses people onsite this summer, how will RMBL respond if someone on site develops symptoms or a confirmed infection? Will RMBL be able to quarantine or isolate patients? 

It is too early to develop specific plans, but if we are able to host people onsite we will work closely with public health authorities to develop and implement guidelines and recommendations. 

Can I or my team travel to Gunnison County to do research and stay in offsite housing? 

Hotels and short-term rentals are closed.   RMBL cannot currently house people onsite.  Additionally, the county has asked all visitors to leave and told visitors considering coming to stay away.  Furthermore, while they are not actively prohibiting non-residential second homeowners from coming to the area, they are strongly encouraged to leave.   We hope that these restrictions will be relaxed before summer. 

I have a critical study that needs some maintenance.  What should I do? 

We encourage you to let Jennie know, in as much detail as appropriate, what you are concerned about.  She is keeping track of individual needs. We will be thinking creatively about how we might support research (e.g., enabling remote monitoring of sites, facilitating hiring of local research assistants, providing field oversight/supervision).  The better we understand your needs, the better we can plan! 

Can I ship supplies to RMBL? 

UPS, FedEx, and the Postal service are currently in operation in Gunnison County, though shipping times are a little delayed as of March 18. As in past years, our winter office is very small and we ask that you delay shipping things until it is closer to your arrival date. 

Are RMBL staff working? 

Yes.  Our senior management team (Ian, Kelly, Jennie, Steve, and Brett when he arrives) started weekly meetings to assess the situation with Coronavirus, figuring out both near and long-term actions.   

However, we ask for your patience and flexibility as we respond to this unprecedented situation.  Please remember that our staff are working from home, many with young and school-age children.  One of our staff has a likely but unconfirmed infection (rationing of test kits!) and is doing well.  We expect most of our staff have been exposed given how widespread the virus appears to be in the community.  Our staff are also pitching in in the communityvolunteering in various capacities.   

Will RMBL operate the Undergraduate Research Program? 

We are committed to running the Education Program for college students this summer; it will NOT be canceled. We are remaining flexible on exactly what the program will look like and it may include a distance-learning component. These details will be worked out in the months ahead. 

Has RMBL canceled other programs?  

We have closed the Gothic winter huts and Coffee Lab, and we cancelled March and April school programs.  No other programs have been cancelled at this time.  As with research, we are in a wait and see mode. 

Can RMBL survive a widescale disruption? 

We are here for the long haul!  There are financial realities that will drive our decision-making, but we are also doing our best to be compassionate and cautious.  We are thinking about strategies that can guide decision-making such as prioritizing having financial and staff resources to be fully operational in 2021.   

We are currently developing financial models  looking at various income scenarios and to help us think about expenditures (e.g., capital improvements in the summer, seasonal staffing, etc.  We have about 25% of our operating costs in reserves ($500k on a $2 million budget).  We are pretty close to completing a conservation easement that would add around another $1.3 million to our reserves.  About a third of our budget is fundraising, and that could be affected in different ways than operational revenue.  In the past fundraising has been a bit insensitive to economic downturns, but there is a lot of uncertainty around that.  We don’t have any debt, so reserves and financial contingencies can all be used to delay cuts to core operations. 

I heard there is community transmission of COVID-19 near RMBL, in Gunnison County.  Where can I get the most current updates on the local situation? 

Coronavirus is circulating in Gunnison County, the county where RMBL is situated.  For the latest updates on the local situation in Gunnison County, please visit this page on the Gunnison County website: https://www.gunnisoncounty.org/938/Coronavirus-COVID-19. 

Director’s Blog 3/13/20

RMBL

Director’s Blog Post by Ian Billick, PhD

Friday, March 13, 2020

Field Science in the Spring (Summer… Fall….Year(s)) of Coronavirus?

As we teach in our courses, the exponential growth of disease transmission can be hard to comprehend much less plan around.  What made sense yesterday can be foolhardy within days.

How is RMBL approaching the coronavirus?

We will communicate.  We are updating our webpage regularly with information specific to RMBL; we will be posting FAQ’s for students on the webpage soon.  Our site includes links to information from Gunnison County, the state of Colorado, and the CDC.   The state includes regular updates on the number and location of coronavirus cases.  When there are significant changes or decisions, we will post them to the PI listserv.  We will be responsive to individual queries by email and phone.

We will be flexible.  Not only are things changing quickly, but you are navigating complicated personal and professional lives.  Beyond dealing with the possibility or reality of your own sickness, you may be pressed to help family, friends, and community.  It may be unclear how your home institution will handle travel.  We will waive cancellation fees, including reimbursing student deposits, for any coronavirus-related change of plans.  We will leave it to you to tell us whether your cancellation is coronavirus related.  We will do our best to accommodate any other needed last-minute assistance.

We will do our best to avoid moving too slowly, ……. Or too quickly.  We are planning for summer as normal, accepting students and processing research applications.  But any decision/outcome is on the table, from business as normal, to heightened cleaning, to social distancing in Gothic (no seminars or cricket games??), to strict restrictions on summer visitation.  The main prediction I will make is that right now we have little idea what summer will bring.

Currently we have time, with about two months before we would normally see a big uptick in visitation to RMBL.  China looks like a best-case scenario, involving about 3 weeks from an initial diagnosis to the peak number of cases (with no guarantee China won’t see a second wave).  Italy looks like a worse-case scenario, with an overwhelmed health care system and slower to impose strict social distancing.  Italy is about 2 weeks in with no evidence they have hit their peak.  The US is under two weeks in.  We will know a great deal more with every week that passes.

We will put you first!  RMBL is here for the long haul.  Whether you are a long-time community member or hope to visit for your first summer, you are our family.  We will move forward within a legal and ethical framework that prioritizes how we can best support you in challenging times.  Whether you are worried about institutional travel plans, losing a critical field season as part of your thesis, or the loss of critical summer income as an REU student to pay school bills or support the family, we will do our best to support your needs.

What does it look like at RMBL right now?  There are about 40 coronavirus cases in Colorado, with about 5 confirmed in Gunnison County.  These are underestimates because, like across the country, the local hospital lacks testing kits, a problem I expect/hope will be remedied by this weekend.  With a small local hospital, the Governor has suggested, for the time being, that individuals over 60 or with underlying conditions avoid travel to Crested Butte, and similar high mountain resort communities.  The local schools are closed for at least two weeks and the local community emergency response are actively coordinating.  RMBL is allowing staff to take additional time off as they need to deal with sickness or family, and supporting people working from home.

I will close by repeating that the world is only going to need more from field scientists and RMBL, whether we are talking about population growth, climate change, food, or disease.  Coronavirus, and ultimately human health, emerges from the interface between humans and the environment.  What you all do as field scientists matters.  RMBL will do everything we can to support your work and accelerate discovery, both in our short-term response to coronavirus, and our long-term institutional planning.

As always, don’t hesitate to reach out with questions, or just to let us know how you are doing, mentally as well as physically!  I’m always curious to know what you are thinking about when it comes to RMBL, and appreciate suggestions for blog topics.  You will hear more from us as we get closer to summer!

COVID-19 FAQs for Education/ REU Program

Frequently Asked Questions

For RMBL’s Education/REU Program for undergraduates and post-graduates during summer 2020

Last updated: 3/13/20

RMBL is committed to the health and safety of our community and acknowledges that the current global pandemic is causing lot of uncertainty about summer 2020 plans.  Below is a list of questions and answers directed to our undergraduate and post-graduate students and is meant to help students make decisions about their participation in our summer 2020 program.  Every year, RMBL actively manages many risks, and we are actively monitoring the situation and will enact appropriate measures as necessary.  Any additional questions can be directed to Rosemary Smith, RMBL’s Education and Research Manager, at rsmith@rmbl.org.

Is RMBL still offering the education program in summer 2020?

RMBL is committed to the education program and doesn’t see any reason to cancel or alter the program at this time.  The start of our summer research season is over two months away, and we expect the situation will continue to unfold in the coming weeks.  We will continue to closely monitor the situation and communicate with students regarding any changes.

The acceptance deadline in my award/scholarship letter is coming up soon.  Do you anticipate extending that deadline?

Not at this time, but we encourage any students with questions or concerns to reach out to Rosemary Smith, RMBL’s  Education and Research Manager.

What about my deposit?  Will students have their deposit refunded if they can’t attend or the program is cancelled?

Yes.  We have already waived any cancellation fees associated with coronavirus, and this would include student deposits.  Our intent is to interpret coronavirus related cancellations quite broadly.

If the education program is cancelled or if a student declines to attend, will students who have an REU award or scholarship get priority for a future summer?

Yes, although at this time NSF currently does not fund students who have graduated, so some students may not be eligible for an REU award in future summers. Both undergraduates and post-graduates are eligible for scholarships in future summers.

Will RMBL have any travel bans, including for international students?

At this time RMBL has not enacted any travel bans.  We don’t anticipate doing so, but if we do, we will follow the guidance and recommendations of public health officials.  Any changes or updates to this policy will be posted on our website.

My acceptance letter says I need to submit my travel plans by May 1.  Given the uncertainty around the pandemic and traveling, will there be flexibility around that deadline?

Yes.  We will do our best to accommodate students as this situation evolves, and that includes re-evaluating deadlines as appropriate.  Many airlines are waiving “change fees” for travel plans, so we encourage you to make sure you understand your airline’s cancellation policies before you book travel.

I heard there is community transmission of coronavirus near RMBL.  Where can I get the most current updates on the local situation?

Coronavirus is circulating in Gunnison County, the county where RMBL is situated.  For the latest updates on the local situation in Gunnison County, please visit this page on the Gunnison County website: https://www.gunnisoncounty.org/938/Coronavirus-COVID-19.

As of 3/11/20, the Colorado Governor’s office recommended that travelers over 60 years of age and those with underlying health issues avoid nonessential travel to mountain resort towns in Colorado.  This is primarily due to the limited capacity of mountain community health systems to handle a surge in demand for their services.

Communication on COVID-19

To read a blog post from RMBL’s Director Ian Billick on COVID-19 and RMBL, click here.

For the latest updates on the local situation in Gunnison County, please visit this page on the Gunnsion County website.

To read a list of FAQs for scientists, click here. 

To read a list of FAQs for our summer Education/REU program, click here.

As of 3/11/20, the Colorado Governor’s office is recommending that travelers over 60 years of age and those with underlying health issues avoid nonessential travel to mountain resort towns in Colorado.  This is primarily due to the limited capacity of mountain community health systems to handle a surge demand for their services.

We value safety and welfare at RMBL.   We are closely monitoring the rapidly evolving situation with COVID-19 and will post updates here as we learn more and as is appropriate.  Because of how dynamic the situation is, and our desire to minimize disruption to summer planning, for 2020 we will waive  RMBL’s cancellation fees for any RMBL community members impacted by the COVID-19 virus, including but not limited to situations in which individuals cancel visits or shorten stays because of sickness, and/or because of travel policies (e.g., colleges or universities limiting travel), travel advisories issued by governments, or cancellation of flights or other forms of travel).

As we plan for any potential impact to the research season and assess the risk to the RMBL community, we are looking to the following sources for guidance: the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Colorado Department of Health, the Gunnison Valley Hospital and the Gunnison County Health and Human Services Department. 

To find the most up-to-date information about any reported cases in Colorado, please visit the Colorado Department of Health’s website:  https://www.colorado.gov/pacific/cdphe/2019-novel-coronavirus 

To learn more about COVID-19 and the current situation in the United States, please visit the CDC website: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html 

As summer approaches we will continue to communicate what the situation looks like locally, as well as whether we have adopted any further responses to the coronavirus.  We will post subsequent updates on the RMBL website and the PI Listserv. 

If you have any questions or concerns, including clarification about this change to our cancellation policy, please contact Kelly Sudderth, RMBL’s Chief Operating Officer, at kelly@rmbl.org or (970) 349-7736. 

 

Director’s Blog 2/17/20

Directors Blog Feb, 17,2020

Written by Ian Billick, PhD

Brett Biebuyck starts as Director of Administration April 1, reporting directly to Kelly.  Brett and his family (his wife Leah Swasey has taken a job as a nurse at the Gunnison hospital and they have 2 younger boys) are moving from Fairbanks, AK where Brett was the Associate Director of Operations and Finance for the Toolik Field Station.  He oversaw staff, finances, and operations and served on the management team, serving as co-PI on Toolik’s $17 million cooperative agreement with NSF.  In his 15 years he helped Toolik develop winter operations on the North Slope of Alaska (think ice road truckers), a highly successful Title IX program, and a centralized online portal to make working at Toolik easier for scientists.  He is Vice President of the Organization of Biological Field Stations.

Katie Harper starts as our Admin Coordinator Feb. 24, replacing Samantha in the front office and reporting to Brett.  With a degree in hotel management from Oklahoma State Univ., she has been working with a local property management company.  After 5 years with the Department of Defense and NATO she is looking forward to working with scientists [Image result for ben calvin RMBL] from all over the world.

Ben Calvin started last fall, which makes him feel like an old-timer!  A river rat with a degree in accounting, economics, and business administration from Western, he had been working for the country’s largest accounting firm specializing in nonprofits.  After some time in Idaho he and his wife wanted to get back to Gunnison County.  We originally hired him to replace Samantha, but when Matt Boyle’s previous employer lured him out of our development office, we decide to reorganize multiple positions.  Ben is going to be focused on RMBL’s finance, development, and admin databases, including financial reporting.  Katie, with her strong background in customer service, will focus on interacting with the public, with an emphasis on students and scientists.

Rick Horn, who has been running the Visitor’s Center for five years and in a prior life had a career opening restaurants, will oversee the dining hall, also reporting to Brett.  While Rick hasn’t worked out all the staff, we expect some familiar faces cooking meals next summer (including James Brown, godfather of good gothic meals)!  The Visitor’s Center will be handling check-in for students and scientists at 7 days a week (details to follow as we get closer to summer).

By November 2020 we plan to implement a new online system for managing stays, a recommendation from Dr. Will Petry in response to one of my first director’s blog posts.  Our goal, both with this system as well as with the staff changes above, is to make coming to RMBL easier for scientists and students, freeing up time from paperwork to connect with you as individuals and to help you in more interesting ways.

It is a lot of change and we anticipate some confusion as the new staff learn RMBL, and the long-time community members learn new ways of doing things.  Katie, Rick, Brett, Kelly, and I all look forward to spending more time with you next summer, and helping you have a great and productive time!  We appreciate your patience (thanking you in advance) as RMBL continues to adapt!

Director’s Blog 1/29/20

Directors Blog January 29, 2020

By Ian Billick, PhD

I have a scientist (not a scientific)  mystery.  Why did scientific activity at RMBL take off in 2014?  After decades of stability, use started climbing rapidly.  From 2013 through 2019 the number of scientists doubled, while the number of research projects and scientists (including postdocs and grad students) has increased 50%.  As a data hog, I find the graph below quite striking.

Approximately half of the increase in the numbers of scientists is associated with the Watershed Function Science Focus Area set up by Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.  Those scientists tend to have very short stays, so they probably account for about one-third of the increase in research days.

A major element of RMBL’s strategic plan is to facilitate unique scientific insights by making RMBL a data rich environment.  We do this by attracting and retaining scientists, increasing the accumulation of knowledge concerning the local ecosystems, and promoting synthesis and collaboration.

A big part of attracting and retaining scientists is doing a good job of meeting their logistical needs.  It could be that part of the jump that started in 2014 was in response to RMBL investments.  2012 was a big year for RMBL scientists.  We opened the Gothic Research Center and Dr. Jennie Reithel started working full-time as RMBL’s first Science Director.  Maybe new scientists were more excited about the potential of working at RMBL, and also/or found it easier to get started?

Another driver of the increase may be that as the urgency around climate change grows, RMBL offers novel research opportunities.  Not only do we have one of the largest collections of long-term studies, but we have an elevational gradient that allows scientists to substitute space for time.  Or maybe we are attracting climate refugees– scientists who want to do great science in a relatively cool (and beautiful) summer environment?

The jump in scientific activity is exciting.  We are a nonprofit formed to support science and education after all.  But it comes with challenges.  We have increased our housing, lab space, and staff capacity to serve more scientists, but not always at a rate to keep up with the pressures.  And while diversity can make organizations stronger, it takes work to harness the power of that diversity.  The community feels different because it is different.  We have more earth scientists running around, staying offsite, and living in Gothic for shorter stays.  The diversity can be unsettling, disrupting historic patterns of communication and decision-making.

RMBL has been doing our best to keep up with these changes, increasing housing capacity, squeezing out more lab space, prioritizing communication and engagement with the community including more board engagement with individual scientists, and even starting these blog posts.  But it is a lot to keep up with.  We appreciate people’s patience because we don’t always get it right.

The importance of what we are doing makes up for the heartburn.  From emerging disease, to food security, to climate change, to maintaining biodiversity, society has never needed more from field scientists.  The past is what got us to this point.  To be serious about these challenges means getting out of our comfort zone to be more than we have been.  We have to hold ourselves accountable, striving to accelerate discovery and translating those discoveries to improving the world.  So we will keep pushing forward to make RMBL a great place for science, with increasing emphasis on data management science communication, community engagement, and facilitating collaboration.  While we won’t be the solution, we can be part of it.

Thanks to Dr. Ian Breckheimer for suggesting the topic.  As always, I encourage suggestions for blog posts.  And don’t hesitate to contact me directly with questions or suggestions.  If you have time next summer, let me treat you to a coffee so I can learn what brought you to Gothic, and/or why you returned!

Directors Blog 1/17/20

Directors Blog January 17, 2020

By Ian Billilck, PhD

RMBL’s Board will be deciding whether to put a conservation easement on the Gothic property at their next meeting in Houston on Feb. 22.  This has been an on and off again topic of conversation for over 5 years.  But the easement is forever, so I wanted to put it in front of the community one last time.

The easement would be placed on RMBL’s core property of 270 acres in Gothic and held by Colorado Open Lands, a mature and respected conservation organization with a strong record of working well with landowners.  The purpose of the easement would be to dedicate the property to public outdoor recreation and education.  This would be achieved by limiting the use of the entire property to nonprofit research and education; private commercial recreation or other commercial and industrial uses would not be allowed.  It would limit all residences and general use buildings (e.g., dining hall,

admin) to a 50 acre building envelope.  The total square footage of the buildings could only grow about one-third above current space (which doesn’t mean that it would grow).  All existing structures would be allowed, as would research and education, including equipment or structures needed to support those activities, throughout the entire property.

One advantage of the easement would be to demonstrate to RMBL’s partners such as the forest service, the county, and the towns, that we are here forever.  Just as we were excited to see development rights limited on the adjacent ranch, our neighbors will be excited to know historic use of the property will continue, with limitations on further development.

Scientifically, it reinforces RMBL’s emphasis on place-based research, the accumulation of knowledge about the ecosystem and the synergies that emerge from juxtaposing diverse research programs.  The easement is also consistent with the objective of limiting our impacts of the ecosystems we study by channeling further scientific growth (e.g., cabins and lab space) as much as possible to North Village.

Another benefit of the move is financial.  We are following a strategy developed by other field stations.  Black Rock Forest in NY and Archibald in Florida, have used conservation easements to “monetize” the land they own without losing control.   We estimate that donating the easement will generate approximately $1.2 million through a state tax credit program.  The Board will decide on a financial strategy for the funds.  My sense is that such a one-time infusion will used to maintain the value of our assets in perpetuity, such as endowment or to purchase a critical property.  We have a number of strategic priorities, including stronger data management/IT, increasing our capacity to maintain/replace buildings and IT systems, and support of scientists through fellowships and direct support of long-term research, that could potentially be sustained through investment returns.

While $1.2 million is a lot of money, the spendable investment returns would be about $50,000/year.  We could easily add $10 million to the endowment without people much noticing.  Such an endowment would allow regular building improvements, data management and IT services as is standard at LTER sites and major field stations, long-term continuity of staff, and improved support for scientists.  In other words, all of the things we need to make RMBL viable for another 100 years.  So while the easement would be a nice step in the direction of financial sustainability, we would still have a ways to go.

We hope to continue filling the financial sustainability gap, at least in the long-term, by gathering planned giving pledges.  These would be non-binding pledges to include RMBL in estate plans.  While supporters may not be able to make large annual or capital gifts now, many have the capacity to have a big impact through estate planning.  Planned giving pledges will help inspire others who can make donations now by showing that we are here to stay and are well positioned to pass RMBL on to the next generation of students and scientists.  So a planned giving campaign could pay dividends now, even if funds came in decades later.

If you are interested in knowing more about the easement please don’t hesitate to reach out.  I can handle technical questions but if you have opinions for the Board, I encourage you to reach out to Dan, Kailen, or other Board members.  And if you are interested in learning more about estate planning and planned giving, Development Director Erin Fabbre would love to connect.

As always, feel free to reach out to me with any questions you have, large or small.  And I always encourage suggestions for future blog posts.  If there is something you are curious about, chances are there are a bunch of other scientists wondering the same thing!!