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Changes at Gilpin’s CSU Extension Office

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We’ll miss Irene Shonle and Heather Pearce

By Jaclyn Schrock

The Extension Office in Gilpin County opened in 2001. County Commissioner Craig Nicholson envisioned the benefits of Gilpin County having its own Extension office, as most US counties either have their own office or share with neighboring counties. It took much preparation, encouragement and cooperation with county agencies to bring the office into being. With funding from the State of Colorado and Gilpin County, our CSU Extension Office has given us 17 years of environmental education for decision making leaders and homeowners.

Gilpin’s Extension Office has been directed by Irene Shonle, Natural Resources Agent, since November 2002. With great appreciation for her services, we extend wishes of wellness to Irene Shonle, who is stepping down after nearly 17 years of service to Gilpin County. CSU celebrated her years of service in a number of ways. Jennifer Cook will be serving as interim director one or two days a week after Sept. 25, until the next director steps into the position.

Gilpin County Fair, our treasured community gathering, sharing and rodeo time has been coordinated by Heather Pearce, the last several years. We all so appreciate her life of growing up in our community and serving in this position after her mother had done so before her. Fair Coordinator shares the Extension office, working together for Gilpin County. Heather has taken a new position with the American Sheepherders Association. So, the fair coordinator position is also open. We’ll miss you Heather!

Gilpin’s Extension office has been in the Exhibit Barn next to the Gilpin Recreation Center 230 Norton Drive, since 2001. The office is partially funded by CSU and Gilpin County, with County Manager overviews. There is an Extension Advisory Committee (EAC) currently guiding the Gilpin Extension office affairs. EAC members include: Erin Trumble, Curt Halsted, Christy Hoyl, Kym Mercier, Harv Mastalir, Julia Shaw, and Constance Reid.

We know we can always get information needed about living in the mountains at Gilpin’s Extension office from Irene, the resources she guides us to, or from the website; https://gilpin.extension.colostate.edu. There are an abundance of resources and valuable information at the website.

The website introduces Gilpin County Extension office as: “The CSU Extension in Gilpin County helps mountain residents improve their quality of life by offering a website, classes, and programs that provide unbiased, research-based information on forestry, wildfire, wildlife, mountain gardening, noxious weeds and many other issues. Through our 4-H programs, we help youth develop life skills and to become more interested in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) learning.”

Gilpin residents appreciate the many ways the extension service guides us in wise choices from recovering from past abuses, current environmental educational needs, and future hope of a long lived community in Gilpin County. Topics which benefit us most on the website include: Mountain Horticulture, Natural Resources, Renewable Energy,  Weed help, Critters in the garden, classes and events, youth activities (4-H and afterschool), and seeds for sale.

An few examples of practical opportunities available to Gilpin residents recently have been our youth programs, community garden with a water tank available, master gardening classes, the Fire Mitigation Grants, check out of equipment for weed control and many others not listed. Testimonies from those who get a free Food Bank box sure appreciate local, organic produce from Gilpin County’s community garden.

Ms. Shonle recognizes Gilpin County residents need to be proactive concerning the invasive species of noxious, non-native weeds. Education and training to use Gilpin’s check-out sprayer with safe pesticides for those weeds is a unique opportunity to Gilpin County Extension. There are CSU Extension offices, most in larger counties, but only Gilpin offers weed spraying check-out systems.

This last year, 25 more grant opportunities were extended to Gilpin County residents for fire mitigation. We all live in a forest and fire is the greatest concern for our insurance companies. The cost of making defensible space according to our insurance companies that cover our homes is often beyond the savings they would offer us, even in the long run. Our Gilpin County Commissioners and Colorado State Forest Service provided a grant reimbursement program for those who invest in taking out the trees that would most easily spread a wildfire. Previously, 125 homeowners received granted reimbursements with funds from the Department of Natural Resources. These grants were made possible through efforts of our Gilpin Extension Office.

We appreciate the monthly articles in the paper Ms. Shonle posts about things that matter to us who live in the forest; like fire dangers, bears, deer, feeding humming birds, or best practices for your well and septic system. If she doesn’t have a hand-out or brochure to answer our questions, she finds the answer. The ‘find an expert tab’ on the website has seldom been used by me, because the classes, events, a call or email to Irene has given me just what I needed.

The hands-on helpful classes gently encourage us to make wise choices for our mountain living. A few of this year’s classes offered included: Winter Bird Feeding and Identification, Composting for the Mountains, CPR, Solar Energy and Electric Vehicles, Mountain Vegetable Gardening, Attracting Birds to Your Yard, Planting for Bees, Bee Keeping, and Wildflower Walk Identification.

Besides the county fair, another annual event we enjoy is the Mountain Plant Sale in June. Providing transplantable species that benefit our habitat in our elevation and temperate zone has helped us all fine beauty while supporting habitat needs of local critters. Ordering just what trees or shrubs you want to revegetate your property begins each January and arrives in mid-May. The June plant sale is “first come, first serve.”

One of the greatest success stories from the Gilpin Extension Office was the response to the prediction that 2008 would see the Mountain Pine Beetle (MPB) epidemic spreading through Gilpin County. Central Front Range lodge pole pine population was predicted to be killed by this epidemic leaving devastation and potential for much fire danger. Fearful concerns of 90% of Gilpin’s lodge pole pines being infested and killed found encouragement of best practices through the Gilpin Extension Office.

The bottom line of the 2008 MPB epidemic was the realization of the facts, rather than fear of unknown consequences from predictions and inactivity.

Gilpin County Extension Office statistics from 2008-2010:                     

–Provided 19 hands-on educational workshops, programs and presentations – the pine beetle ecology, creating defensible space, fire preparedness, and planning, Using a chain saw safely, creating diverse and resilient landscapes, and more.

–Answered 1,673 walk-in, email and phone MPB and forest related questions.

–County citizens planted 11,660 tree seedlings diversifying species with revegetation.

–Gilpin County residents, though only 5,000 in numbers, saved hundreds of acres.

Gilpin County with Irene Shonle’s aggressive efforts provided educational programs and outreach to the public and at levels of government where county decisions are made, technical assistance, regional collaboration, greatly improved public understanding and community safety, and economic benefits with cost saving and grant funding.

  Technical assistance: Irene spurred the county to develop and adopt a county-wide Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP) adapted in 2009. With the threat of many infested trees, fire became an even greater concern. Establishing a cooperative plan throughout the county for fire protection and prevention improved responses and danger of wildfire.

Transportation and recycling of infested timber facilitated more control of the epidemic. Shonle encouraged Gilpin County Commissioners to purchase an industrial quality wood chipper that met our needs far better than a rented chipper with the sudden overload of cut timber. Wood chips were stockpiled from wood and used to heat the biomass boiler in the country’s road and bridge maintenance shop.

Beginning the annual seedling sale through the Colorado State Forest Service encouraged landowners to reforest private land areas devastated by the beetle.

  Regional collaboration was developed with the Northern Front Range Mountain Pine Beetle Working Group. Shonle represented Gilpin County and the CSU Extension to integrate agencies with cooperation across county lines. Assurance on consistent messaging and public information established a cooperative effort to resist the MPB epidemic. Multiple county agencies working together presented informative opportunities in Gilpin, Boulder and Jefferson Counties.

Shonle’s leadership, education programing and forest managing recommendations supported local residents and government officials. Gilpin was better equipped to make wise decisions and cope with changes in our forest. Recognizing changes to the community initiated by the infestation, hazardous trees, declining property values and the threat of fires led to improvements in safety and cost savings.

  Understanding and safety of MPB clarified how and why the epidemic occurred, what to possibly expect with research based facts. Best practices encouraged ways to reduce the threat of fire, mitigate the spread of the beetle, and create diverse and resilient landscapes.

Safety from wild fires activities were increased as education program evaluations indicated more than 50% of attendees learned and intended to implement practices to participate in CWPP mitigation projects. Many included; creating a defensible space around homes, develop an evacuation plan, volunteer for community MPB management projects, and share facts with neighbors.

Results from developing CWPP were recognitions of fire hazards and risks in the community. Priorities for mitigation risks and improving community safety is unique to the Wildland Urban Interface (the area where wildland and human development overlap).

  Cost savings were a part of the pleasant success story initiated by understanding MPB forest changes. With the improvement of an effective chipper, residents brought dead and dying trees for free to the county. This reduced fire dangers as well as provided fuel for the roads and bridges boiler. Residents did not have to pay to drop off wood, and the county reduced its woodchip purchases by 75%. It is possible that tree removal and wood chipping also reduced the spread of MPB.

With the Gilpin County’s adoption of CWPP, the government and people were able to apply for and also receive funding for planned fuels mitigation projects. CWPP established the base for Anchor Point, a fire mitigation group, to receive $250,000 of grant funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Funding was intended for high-priority tree trimming and fuel break projects on 73 acres of Gilpin County public right of ways and private land. Grants Irene applied for from the Department of Natural Resources provided the funding for 125 Gilpin private land owners to receive reimbursements for fire mitigation.

Gilpin County has a higher quality of life having survived the beetle infestation of 2008. We are more likely to survive the next round of beetles by cooperation established with neighbors and knowing how to mitigate. Experience of working together with our neighbors to be prepared for fire dangers has kept our county in a reduced record to wildfires. Timberline Fire District has had fewer wildfire calls than our neighbors, thanks to everyone working together to preserve and diversify our forests.

Thanks for keeping our forests vibrant Irene – we will miss you!

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