Inside Diary of Jade Van Kley: Trek Through the Colorado Rockies

Last week a group of Arbor Day Foundation members went on an exclusive trip with Jade Van KleyDonor Relationship Coordinator and Bradley BrandtReforestation Program Manager. The trip included a guided tour of Big Thompson Canyon, outings through Rocky Mountain National Park and a visit to Pike National Forest to witness members replanting efforts firsthand.

Day 1:


The seedlings growing at the Colorado State Forest Service Nursery.

On Wednesday, October 7th, we arrived in Denver International Airport to incredible weather. It seemed the Centennial State was welcoming us with open arms. We began our trip with a tour of the Colorado State Forest Service Nursery with Nursery Manager Josh Stolz, and CSFS Forester Boyd Lebeda at the Colorado State University Foothills campus. They showed us the process for growing seedlings which are used for reforestation and tree recovery after natural disasters.

That afternoon, Boyd traveled with us to visit community activist Mary Myers, who is perhaps one of the most inspiration people I’ve ever met. Mary had gotten trapped in two great floods in her lifetime while living in Big Thompson Canyon, one in 1976 and in 2013. In 2013 Mary and her husband were trapped in their home due to the Big Thompson Flood which devastated the canyon. Their house remained undamaged, but all of the trees in their front yard, as well as the road leading to their house were completely washed away. Mary has taken it upon herself to ensure that the people in her community were able to have some hope after this disaster by advocating on their behalf to receive trees as they begin to rebuild their community. With the help of the Colorado State Forest Service Nursery and the Arbor Day Foundation’s Community Tree Recovery project, this community was provided the trees they needed to begin repairing their devastated canopy.


The Arbor Day Travel group with Big Thompson Canyon community activist, Mary Myers, and Colorado State Forest Service Forester Boyd Lebeda, who assisted with the Community Tree Recovery project.

As a former nurse, Mary is a natural care taker. “Now that I don’t have patients to look after, this canyon is my patient.” This was the second devastating flood Mary has survived, but she has not lost her sense of humor. “I knew when I saw a 500 gallon propane tank floating down the way in front of my house that I would have to be lifted out by helicopter, again. The first time we were lifted out by a Chinook. The second time, we got a Blackhawk. Now, I never thought I’d become a helicopter snob, but if you get the chance, the Blackhawk has a better view.”

Day 2:

On Thursday we spent the entire day in Rocky Mountain National Park with Public Information Officer Kyle Patterson, and Forester Brian Verhulst. Rocky Mountain National Park historian and author Mary Taylor Young also joined us and shared her deep knowledge of the park and its history.


Part of the Arbor Day Travel group with Public Information Officer, Kyle Patterson in Moraine Park.

We traveled 12,000 feet up to the Alpine Tundra. I had never been in this kind of elevation before, so this experience was both literally and figuratively breathtaking. The plants that live in this region must be hardy enough to survive extreme temperatures, and many of the plants we saw had been there for hundreds, even thousands of years. Visitors are asked to not stray from the paths so as not to disturb the flora. The views from this area were nothing short of spectacular.

In the afternoon we visited the alluvial fan in Rocky Mountain National Park, where Mary, Kyle and Brian all shared the stories of two floods – in 1982 and 2013. In 1982, due to a dam failure, the town of Estes Park was flooded by a depth of six feet. Brian and Kyle shared personal stories of the Big Thompson Flood of 2013, which was caused by torrential rainfall. Brian lost his home in the flood, but still considers himself to be fortunate. He shared that by the time he received word to evacuate, he realized that this was not just a precaution, but a necessity. So, he was able to gather all of his important belongings and leave before the flood took his home. This was an extremely eye-opening experience for those of us who have never experienced a flood event.


Rocky Mountain National Park author and historian Mary Taylor Young talks about the floods of 1982 and 2013 at the alluvial fan.

“People don’t realize the power of water. I work here, and I didn’t even realize its power until this flood,” Public Information Officer, Kyle Patterson said.

We ended the day watching the famous elk rut in the park. This was an amazing sight. I was fortunate enough to see these animals up close that morning, but many of our travelers had not yet heard the incredible bugling of the bull elk. It was a spectacular display of animal behavior.

Day 3:


Arbor Day Foundation supporters Joe Banno (left), and Dr. Beatrice Ting (right) with Arbor Day Foundation Reforestation Manager Bradley Brandt (middle), displaying their strength by “holding up” the Balanced Rock formation in the Garden of the Gods.

On Friday we traveled to Boulder to meet with Colorado State University’s Keith Wood and Boulder City Forester Kathleen Alexander. We learned about the impact of the Emerald Ash Borer, and the ways in which the city has gone about controlling this infestation. We were shown the impact of this pest on Ash trees on the University of Colorado campus. They believe that this outbreak was caused by infested firewood that was brought into the town. They are now using predatory wasps among other methods to control this infestation. Their proactivity on this matter was extremely impressive.

We then traveled to Colorado Springs to see the Garden of the Gods. I had heard of this sight many times, but honestly did not know what to expect. The rock formations in this park are truly a sight to behold. We learned about the park at the Garden of the Gods Visitor and Nature Center. I did not realize that this was not a national park, but a city park of Colorado Springs. The passion these people had for their city park was so inspiring. It is clear that it is a community effort to preserve the park’s natural beauty, and they are extremely passionate about it.

Day 4:


United States Forester Ryan Kolling talking to the Arbor Day Travel Group about the replanting efforts in Pike National Forest that are made possible in part by Arbor Day Foundation supporters.

Saturday was perhaps the most exciting day for our members, as they got to see the trees they have provided to Pike National Forest through their support of the Arbor Day Foundation. We spent the day in the forest with United States Forester Sage Finn and his crew. We traveled into the forest to see the devastation of the 2002 Hayman Fire, which burned 138,114 acres of forest and is the most devastating fire in all of Colorado’s history.

I was not prepared for the devastation that we would see. Even thirteen years later, this area still has an eerie appearance at first glance, with so many charred and dead trees still standing on the landscape. But, as we got closer, we saw hope.

Forester Finn taught us about the concept of “legacy planting.” This is where they plant a new tree next to the remains of a dead tree to increase its likelihood of survival. They plant the new trees on the northeast side of a dead tree, so that at 2pm, when the sun is the hottest and coming from the southwest, the new tree will be shaded. They said the Colorado sun is the primary cause for new trees not surviving. As we walked into the forest amongst tall, charred trees, we were able to see the impact that Arbor Day Foundation supporters are truly making. We saw small trees with pink ribbons residing next to the remains of burned trees. These trees are thriving amongst what, at first glance, appears to be a desolate landscape.


In the foreground there are new trees with pink ribbons that have been planted amongst the remains of charred trees. In the middle is a small colony of Aspens. The aspens were able to regrow themselves, as they are able to propagate through their roots rather than relying on a seed source.

Sage shared that their planting crew can plant 90 to 100 acres per day, with 170 trees per acre. It was incredibly inspiring to see the new growth and hope in this region as a result of the support of Arbor Day Foundation supporters, and the hard work of the United States Forest Service. “If we’re using Arbor Day money and government money, I’m going to make sure we’re doing it right,” Sage said, “We are so glad that you’re here, you are helping us do so much more than we could do on our own.”


As we all went our separate ways and headed for home on Sunday morning, we were all leaving with more knowledge and inspiration than ever before. I feel fortunate that I got to see Colorado for the first time with people who are so passionate about inspiring people to plant, nurture, and celebrate trees. “What made this trip so unique was all the foresters, rangers & knowledgeable locals we interacted with,” said Arbor Day Foundation Legacy Circle member, Mary Rose Fillip. “Everyone was very excited to meet us and share their expertise. This trip enlightened me. Thank you to everyone who had a hand in this experience!”