Across the state, the floods killed at least eight people and damaged or destroyed as many as 2,000 homes. It also washed out hundreds of miles of roads and left many small mountain towns completely cut off. The floods caused damage across nearly 2,000 square miles.
Reflections on a Flood
What we call a “natural” disaster occurred in September 2013. The Board of Directors and Staff of Estes Valley Land Trust (EVLT) are saddened by the destruction this powerful event caused in the lives of our valley’s residents. Not only did the tragedy rearrange human life, it changed the landscape, it moved the rivers, and it even altered the expansive views of the distant horizon.
For conservationists, the disaster presents a unique challenge. EVLT, along with its 160 public and private owners of conserved land, works to protect open space, valleys, wildlife habitat, wetlands, and streams. Having set aside almost 10,000 acres in the Estes Valley, EVLT’s mission is to guard those lands “in perpetuity” from development and change.
But after a natural disaster, what once was a pristine mountainside now must have access for a public road. What once was lovely meadow and wildlife habitat is now a lake or a new riverbed. The riverbed has broadened, carelessly depositing rock and debris at random on the forest floor. The gorgeous private nook, where fish always lingered and time stood still, is gone forever.
The dilemma of preservation goes even further than a parcel of land. It goes to the heart of who we are as Coloradoans.
We live in one of the most spectacularly beautiful areas of the country. Colorado’s greatest appeal is the natural splendor that blesses the state. From the vast plains to the rugged mountains, residents and tourists alike take advantage of all the outdoors offers—hiking, climbing, skiing, photography, mountain biking, river rafting and more. Everywhere in the state are constant reminders of nature’s grandeur: the deep canyons, the valleys filled with lush meadows and meandering streams, the soaring mountain peaks.
Within that gorgeous scenery, however, are many signs of nature’s tremendous power and destructive forces at work for millions of years, well beyond human control. The clues of devastation are not always obvious. They are hidden under moss and trees, coded in geologic history, and easily mistaken as permanent topography.
In our short lifetime, what catches our eye is the beauty of the moment. We see an “untouched” vista without registering the preceding demolition. However, the recent flood was a geologic event that, unlike most such events, occurred quite rapidly. It was one episode of thousands over the eons that have shaped Colorado, resulting in the scenery and wildlife habitat that draws so many to this area.
This can be seen through a closer look at our mountains. For those who have recentlytraveled Colorado Highway 7, two new spectacular mudslides are now visible near the boundary of Boulder and Larimer Counties. One is behind Aspen Lodge and the other is behind Saint Malo’s Retreat Center and Chapel on the Rock. EVLT Director Art French and a friend, both retired geologists, hiked up the side of Mount Meeker to view the devastation caused by the miles-long mudslide behind the chapel. What they discovered is not surprising. This is not the first time there has been a mudslide. In fact, there is clear evidence of at least two other larger mudslides in the same area in the past few millennia. And of course, these are the mudslides that built the lush meadows and gorgeous resort areas that have been enjoyed during the last century.
As conservationists who love the untouched wilderness, recent floods remind us of the broader view. Nature’s timetable and agenda are different than our own. The need for change, flushing the meadow, sending the river to a clear, cobblestone-lined state of grace in a new location, bringing the mountains’ rich sediment to the valley, are all part of the “natural” process.
We would do well to accept this natural process with the improvement of habitat that it brings. We would also do well, in the course of rebuilding, to recognize the ever-occurring force of nature which will surely trump any future human effort to contain it. The Board and Staff of EVLT, along with its many other conservation-minded members and friends, will be working with town and county officials in the future to ensure this broader perspective is considered during reconstruction and recovery.