Chasing Orchids and Fireflies in Central Colorado

© Jennifer Hattam
After decades of use, Filoha Meadows in central Colorado is being allowed to return to its natural state.

A refuge for the Ute Indians and a transit corridor for the marble quarried for the Washington Monument, Filoha Meadows in central Colorado has been used as farmland, an arthritic retreat center, and a movie set. Developers eyed it to build 15,000 square-foot homes, while others envisioned the entire area under the waters of a dam. But people seeking to preserve the meadow as open space were the ones who succeeded -- even though they didn't even really know what they had there.

Sarah Johnson, a naturalist with the Roaring Fork Conservancy, explains this history as our small group of curious locals (and a few out-of-towners) stands in the meadow, looking out across the tall grasses to some small shacks near the old railroad grade and beyond to the hills cradling this part of the Crystal River Valley. Though Filoha Meadows Open Space is now public property, this is a rare opportunity to see more of the area that what can be glimpsed from the road: It's off-limits to most visitors as Pitkin County Open Space & Trails manages it for conservation and preservation, trying to return the fragile landscape to its original state.

Fireflies, Bats, And 46 Bird Species
"We didn't known much about the land when it was preserved," admits Johnson, whose organization runs educational programs on Pitkin County open space as well as various watershed-protection efforts. "There have been many surprises." Among them are the 46 species of birds found on the 50-acre property, as well as fireflies, which are rare in the West. An abandoned mine tunnel in the rock face to the north of the property is now habitat for a local bat population, and we see prints from elk and bighorn sheep where a standard-gauge railroad brought marble from the Yule quarry down the valley until 1941.

© Jennifer Hattam
The old railroad grade will likely become a walking-only path.

Rare stream orchids are one of four predominant species of orchid -- along with hooded ladies tresses, bog, and green bog varieties -- in the grassy wetland near the river that runs below the road. A sign of a well-established wetland, orchids, Johnson says, "are declining by hundreds of species a day because they are being hybridized for people, not the environment." The orchids in Filoha Meadows show how important it is for the flowers to be in tune with their surroundings.

Thermal Wetland Draws People, Animals
Unlike their showy tropical cousins, orchids in this high, cold valley have evolved smaller, heartier blooms -- in the same green-yellow-white-brown palette as the plants themselves -- that can withstand chilly nights. The thermal water running underneath the ground helps too, melting the snow from below so it never gets too deep, and allowing the wetland to serve as a refuge of warmer temperatures in winter, a place where animals can find something to eat.

© Jennifer Hattam
The Crystal River that runs through the property is one of the few undammed rivers in the West.

"The area was special to the Utes for the same reason," Johnson adds. Later, landowner Doc Johnson pumped the warm water all over the property and used the thermal pools to treat arthritis patients. Formerly a doctor in Ethiopia, he gave the meadow its name after the Ethiopian word for hot water.

The Aphid-Orchid Connection
The stream orchids also provide an example of the unintended consequences of human actions. The plants are pollinated by syrphid flies, which lay their eggs on top of aphid larva. "They are attracted to stream orchids because they smell like aphids," Johnson says. "People in the valley are trying to kill aphids, but that means they're killing orchids too." Though the RFC's riparian conservation easement on the property protects the area itself from development in perpetuity, it is vulnerable to actions by landowners and officials throughout the watershed.

Hunting in the Forest Service land around the meadow and development throughout the Roaring Fork Valley also pose potential threats to Filoha's recovery as animals seek refuge in the meadow, potentially overgrazing the area and trampling its delicate flora. "We're squeezing them into just a few places," Johnson says. Though the old railroad grade may be opened as a walking path next summer, RFC volunteer land stewards will be on hand to remind people that they are just privileged visitors in a place that really belongs to nature.

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Tags: Bats | Birds | Colorado | Conservation | Ecology | Preservation