Written by Jenny Gaeng

I was twenty-six years old and standing – just barely – in New Mexico. My backpack was already digging into my shoulders. My feet, wrapped in shiny new trail runners, scratched nervously at the desert sand.

The hot air rippled like a curtain. Brown mountains rose in enormous triangles from the flat expanse; they could have been painted, like the backdrop of a play. Behind me stood a small barbed-wire fence: Mexico.

3,100 miles ahead shone a luminous bullseye: Canada.

There was a monument at the trailhead, a sturdy stone obelisk reading: Southernmost Point, Continental Divide National Scenic Trail. The route was engraved on the side: New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana. It took seconds to run my fingers from beginning to end; I figured it would take five or six months by foot.

The shuttle to the trailhead had gone, and I was all alone. I was afraid to start hiking, afraid that I was really here and had no one to blame but myself. The path forward was littered with cholla cacti and wiry ocatilla, their tips like red arrowheads pointing at the sky.

I tried to imagine what I could not see: the promise of rivers and peaks, of strength and redemption. I pointed my body north and began to walk.

The Continental Divide Trail was created in 1978 under the National Scenic Trails Act, joining other long-distance hikes such as the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails. While those trails attract thousands of “thru-hikers” each year, the Continental Divide Trail only sees a few hundred. This is due in part to the challenges of the trail: remoteness, route-finding, weather, and everyone’s favorite fear, grizzly bears. The trail is also incomplete. Today, 20 percent of the trail is on roads, from bumpy dirt roads to actual highways, where hikers’ feet throb on the scorching pavement as cars whiz by. About a thousand miles in, I started sticking out my thumb.

Future hikers may not have to, thanks to the amazing work of land management agencies, the Continental Divide Trail Coalition, and other partners working to complete the trail. This means fun work like mapping and trail-building, but land acquisition comes first.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) was created in 1964 to repurpose taxes from offshore oil and gas drilling to fund something that virtually every American benefits from: public land. Money from LWCF is used to purchase private land and give it back to the people – and it’s not just trails and forests; every state in the country has used LWCF to pay for parks, bike paths, and more. In this case, purchasing those last remaining parcels along the Continental Divide is instrumental in completing the trail from Mexico to Canada.

But these days, there’s not much that we don’t have to fight for. On September 30, LWCF is set to expire, and it will take an act of Congress to keep it afloat. If Congress doesn’t vote to save it, we could lose our most precious resources to the backlog of defunded yet essential conservation efforts. The Continental Divide Trail could forever remain a trail of broken links along the nation’s spine.

Hiking near Knapsack Col, Wind River Range, Wyoming

September 22 was the first day of fall. It was already bone-cold in Montana, ten miles from the border in Glacier National Park.

I woke up to water dripping through the seams of my tentEverything was soaked: my clothes, my pad, my sleeping bag. I didn’t care. “Squirrel!” I yelled to my buddy, who had joined me for the last few days. “Wake up. Let’s get the heck to Canada!”

The trail had turned into a river of mud, two steps forward and big slides back. The rain made it worse. We followed a creek up, up, over a hill, gritting our teeth until finally-

Squirrel was ahead, and I heard him start to whoop. “Oh my god,” I whispered. I opened my throat to join in, but only air came out. I braced myself to feel – what was I supposed to feel?

A bleary parking lot emerged from the fog: a pit toilet, two flags, and a few lonely cars. Squirrel was staring up at the sign and shielding his face from the rain.

“This is anticlimactic,” he said.

“No!” I cried. This was the punctuation mark at the end of a very long sentence. It had started five months and two days ago at the barbed-wire fence, or maybe earlier – the first time I scaled a mountain, or saw the Milky Way, or sat in the city listening to sirens howl and thinking, I wish I was far away.

Wherever it began, it snaked here over five million footsteps. Ten for the sirens, one hundred for an illness, one thousand for a broken heart – and all the rest for the people who told me I wouldn’t make it. The Continental Divide Trail was every oozing blister, every misstep that sent me face-first into the dirt. It was every time someone asked, Are you alone? and their tone said, You shouldn’t be here. It was every basin that drained my breath, all the mountains that washed over me and carried everything else away.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund isn’t just about land or water. It’s the currency of the human spirit, of challenge and healing. It keeps us alive and free.

“I knew the trail wouldn’t let us down easy,” Squirrel groaned.

My nose was numb from the rain. I scraped my teeth against the my peeling lower lip and looked out at the fog. I didn’t know how to get home or even where home would be. But I knew that I could keep moving, even if it took another five million steps to get there.

I said, “This is perfect.”

Read more from Jenny Gaeng, Field Organizer at Conservation Colorado, and her outdoor exploits at adventuresofcloud.com. Next week she will begin a traverse of the Sangre de Cristo range, a wild area currently under threat from oil and gas drilling. Her blogs will explore the Sangres’ history, geology, and the intersection of indigenous activism and environmentalism.

From the valleys of the West Slope, Colorado rivers are a cornerstone of our communities, economy, environment, and shared way of life. However, our state’s landlocked status means that the rivers’ water isn’t naturally accessible for a lot of Colorado communities; most often, we have to bring the water to us. Snowpack melts from mountain peaks and irrigates through tunnels and pipes to reach communities throughout the state. Water, as a seasonal and limited resource, is increasingly scarce as snowpack peaks earlier and warm temperatures arrive earlier.

Learn more about how water travels from mountain tops to our taps in our latest edition of “Conservation Chats.”

Despite the fact that Colorado is home to some of the best water recreation opportunities in the West, we’re facing a prolonged drought — and all the environmental issues associated with it.

Consequently, many Colorado rivers aren’t in great shape. The damaging effects of climate change and lingering impacts of overuse, poor management, and energy development continue to devastate our water supplies.

Summer after summer, our rivers seem to be shrinking. However, something about this summer is remarkably different. Currently, abnormally dry conditions are impacting approximately 4,023,000 Coloradans — about 80% of the state’s population.

Let’s look at a few of the rivers across the state to reflect on the past and what our new normal may look like.

Hold On: How Do We Measure Water?


We use the measurement of cubic feet per second (cfs) to measure water in motion. One cfs represents 7.5 gallons of water flowing by a particular point per second.

Imagine one unit of cfs as roughly the size of a basketball. So when we say a river has 449 cubic feet per second, imagine about 449 basketballs bouncing downstream every second!

Colorado River


Image Credit: Don Graham.

Glenwood Canyon:

Flows on July 23, 2018: 2190 cfs

Average flows on July 23 over the last 51 years: 4270 cfs

That’s over 2000 cfs less than the past average; that’s roughly 51 percent less than the average.

Also known as the “American Nile,” the Colorado River supplies more water for Coloradans than any other river in the state through pipelines from the West Slope to the Front Range. As one of the southwest’s most utilized bodies of water, the Colorado River is also one of the most vulnerable to increasing demand and the long-lasting impacts of climate change. Decreasing flows, increased evaporation resulting from higher temperatures, and dwindling snowpack levels continue to increase the gap between supply and demand.

Yampa River


The confluence of the Green and Yampa Rivers

Deerlodge Park:

Flows on July 23, 2018: 98.1 cfs

Average flows on July 23 over the last 33 years: 914 cfs

That’s over 800 cfs less than the past average; that’s roughly 10 percent of the average amount of water.

The Yampa River remains as the last major free-flowing tributary to the Colorado River, the backbone of the West’s water supply. As the Colorado River continues to get exhausted from increasing demand, the Yampa is emerging as a source to meet growing water demands. There have been a number of proposals over the years to dam and divert water from the Yampa to send it to thirsty cities east of the Continental Divide, which would be a disaster for one of the West’s last wild rivers.

Dolores River


Image credit: Gabe Kiritz

Near Bedrock, CO:

Flows on July 23, 2018: 6.04 cfs

Average flows on July 23 over the last 34 years: 93 cfs

That’s less than the past average; that’s roughly 6.5 percent of the average amount of water.

The Dolores River has faced numerous challenges over the years, including dams, high water demands, mining pollution, and climate change. This river is severely threatened, recently scoring a D- on our Colorado Rivers Report Card. However, recent local efforts to revitalize the water have helped build a drumbeat to reinvigorate one of the most unknown and underappreciated rivers in the state.

The steps we take now to protect and improve our rivers will determine the viability — and future — of Colorado’s water. More importantly, what we do now will determine if we have healthy rivers and enough drinking water in the future.

Written by Audrey Wheeler

A year ago, we reported on the West Elk Coal Mine, a highly contested mine in Colorado’s Gunnison National Forest. At that time, we and many other Coloradans were concerned about Arch Coal’s proposal to expand its coal mine, which would destroy 1,720 acres of forest.

Now, those concerns have become reality. Just two weeks ago, the Trump administration’s Forest Service announced that it is forging ahead with a plan to allow the company to expand the mine. If approved, this decision will cause irreparable harm on the national forest in more ways than one.

To take a step back, the West Elk coal mine is located in western Colorado, north of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. It’s an extremely controversial mine for a variety of reasons, including its location inside a roadless area of a national forest, its exemption from a new moratorium on coal leasing, and the fact that it is owned by formerly bankrupt company Arch Coal. But perhaps the most disturbing issue is the air pollution that it already causes, which would increase if the mine expands.

Mount Gunnison towering over the Sunset Roadless Area. The aspen forests on the right would be damaged by the mine expansion. Photo by Ted Zukoski of Earthjustice.

The West Elk mine has already been the single largest source of methane pollution in Colorado, spewing 58,000 tons of methane into the air every year. Methane — an immensely potent greenhouse gas — has more than 80 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide, and is a major contributor to climate pollution.

Although Colorado has some of the strongest rules in the nation for methane pollution from oil and gas activity, as the Colorado Independent reports, “Unlike methane from oil and gas drilling, coal mine methane remains unregulated at both state and federal levels.” The proposed expansion to the coal mine could mean emitting enough methane to negate half of the emissions prevented by Colorado’s methane rules for oil and gas.

Plus, under Arch Coal’s plan, more than six miles of forest will be bulldozed for roads and up to 48 drilling pads will be built in the Sunset Roadless Area, which connects to the West Elk Wilderness. The area is a rolling landscape of aspen and spruce-fir forests that provide habitat for native black bear, elk, lynx, and cutthroat trout.

The actions by the Trump administration to move forward with this mine expansion are even more disturbing because of how they deal with the impacts of government projects on climate change. Previously, government environmental reviews like this had to take into account the impact of the project on climate change. Now, the Forest Service claims that calculating climate impacts is not an “appropriate tool at the project level” and is “no longer representative of governmental policy.” This comes out of a Trump executive order that disbanded the agency working group associated with it.

Hikers in the Sunset Roadless area near the West Elk mine. Photo by Ted Zukoski of Earthjustice.

The Forest Service wants to give Arch Coal access to more than 17 million tons of coal — but at what cost? The West Elk Mine already has over a decade of coal in reserve, and this decision not only ignores the economic realities that face the coal industry, but it generates even more greenhouse gas emissions, further exacerbating climate change. Coal has been central to the local economy in this area for generation, but this coal mine expansion is a bad idea for the forest and for our climate.

The negative consequences of expanding the West Elk Coal Mine and the damage it would cause to our national forest are obvious. The U.S. Forest Service is asking the public to weigh in on this problematic West Elk Coal Mine expansion. Take action today to send a message to the administration that we value our public lands too much to watch them be destroyed. Follow this link to sign a petition to the Forest Service.

This one decision could destroy aspen groves, displace native wildlife, and vent methane pollution into our air. It’s a sign of what to expect under the Trump administration in terms of our public lands — and it’s up to us to stop it.

Cover image: The West Elk Mine. Image from WildEarth Guardians flickr.