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Collaboratives Behind-the-Scenes: Estes Valley Watershed Coalition

Welcome to the Western Collaborative Conservation Network’s profile series “Collaboratives Behind-the-Scenes.” This series features Q&As with different conservation organizations to provide a view into what it takes to run a collaborative organization from challenges faced in building partnerships to tips for budding organizations. Whether you’re already running a collaborative and are looking to increase your efficiency or are thinking of starting a collaborative but want to know more about what you’re getting into, we hope you find this series insightful.

The mission of the Estes Valley Watershed Coalition (EVWC) is to bring together diverse partners and use sound science to protect and improve the waters, forests, and wildlife habitats of the Estes Valley. The watershed group does this through a variety of conservation initiatives including wildfire prevention, environmental education, and flood reparation projects. EVWC is a 501c(3) nonprofit.

We had the pleasure of speaking with Wilynn Formeller, the Development & Programs Coordinator of the EVWC, who began working with the Coalition in May 2019. Wilynn spoke about the diversity of EVWC initiatives as well as some of the challenges of working in collaborative conservation. She notes that having an incredibly active and passionate Board makes all the difference.

Note: This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

How did the Estes Valley Watershed Coalition get started?
After the 2013 floods, the state, through the Colorado Water Conservation Board, had some federal funding for disaster relief, so they wanted to help form watershed coalitions to create place-based projects with local grassroots connections. We had a group of developers, land managers, community members, who all came together and put together a framework for the watershed coalition. For a while, they worked in partnership with the Estes Valley Land Trust, who were a fiscal sponsor and helped to set some of the policies that guide the Coalition. 

What types of programs and services does EVWC provide to the Estes Valley community?

We mostly help land owners and managers with environmental projects in the Estes Valley sub watershed, but we also do some outreach and educational events as well. We do have the opportunity to work with other nonprofits and we partner with the Land Trust and other groups like the Estes Land Stewards Association and the Estes Park NonProfit Resource Center. Being a part of the Northern Colorado Fireshed Collaborative has been a great experience also. 

We’ve worked with a lot of agency partners as well, working as their local Estes rep. We are working with the State Forest Service right now on a fuels reduction/forest mitigation project and they are providing support and a little bit of direction but we are the face of the project. This way they can work towards their goals and their mission while having someone local that the community members know and can get in touch with regularly. We’ve helped the fire district update the Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP) acting as a facilitator and outreach coordinator for them. And we are still doing flood and watershed restoration projects. I know our website published that we got $4.1 million for flood restoration projects, and there’s still so much that needs to be done that’s left over from that event, so we continue to work with landowners on those projects as well. 

We also work with the Estes Park schools up here. The school has a great science program and outdoor education classroom, and sometimes we’ll talk to the classes. The middle school science group also came up with a really cool idea to put signs out around Lake Estes; The students are going to compete with drawings and then a little blurb of information– whether it’s about wildlife, or their habitat, or whatever. So we’ve helped them get grants to make that project happen. So, lots… lots of different things!

There are different board members who are interested in different parts of our mission–some who are interested in wildlife and others who prefer to do forestry projects. The current water project that we’re working on has to do with beavers too, so I get some support from the wildlife group and it can all be interrelated. For our mission and vision we have divided projects into water projects, forest projects, or wildlife projects but honestly they’re each designed to meet all those components. It’s kind of fun to get to have all of those pieces that come together to make up the project. 

How did EVWC form the partnerships it has and how have you been able to grow and maintain those partnerships?

I think a lot of the partnerships were formed during flood recovery, maybe out of necessity. The town or county couldn’t do all the work and so people came together to coordinate separate pieces of these really large projects. 

We’ve continued to reach out to different partners telling them about the projects we are planning and asking them if they have any thoughts or input. We were able to have planning support from Rocky Mountain National Park on a project. They have been happy to provide technical expertise and recommendations. And so, I think continually involving all of those partners has been wonderful. 

We’ve been able to facilitate the CWPP (Community Wildfire Protection Plan) update with the fire district and I feel that has strengthened that partnership as well. We knew we could help provide some planning and funding and that was a great project to support.  

How do you get stakeholders involved in your work? And what have you found works and what doesn’t work to get stakeholders involved?

I think what works and doesn’t work depends on the stakeholder. Some people, we have found, respond to us mailing letters, which we just did for a fuels reduction project that’s in its planning phase. We sent out letters to all the landowners within the project area and said, “Hey, reach out to us. We’d like to schedule a meeting.” And we had a pretty good response. Word of mouth is certainly big up here. We get quite a bit of support from one of the newspapers, The Estes Park News, so they help us with outreach as well. 

We have found that early involvement with stakeholders, agencies, property owners, everybody, is great, rather than going through the planning process and then having people come in and say “Hey, this is what we want to do.” We found out that we get better results and better participation if we say, “Hey, it was mentioned that we might want to do a fuels reduction project in this area and these are the reasons why. What do you think?” I have some landowners who say “Go do whatever, let us know when you’re done.” But I think other landowners, just making an effort to communicate with them… I have one who likes to chat once a week, and so I just make sure I set enough time aside that we can talk about it and if questions come up, we can address those with the project. Keeping that line of communication open has proven to be successful for us. 

Estes Park has a tremendous amount of tourism as people are going to Rocky Mountain National Park. How are you able to connect with that group of people who are not local residents?

That can be split into two subgroups. We have our part-time residents that come up and stay for about four to six months at a time. I think we’ve had pretty good luck reaching those property owners, just including them into the project. We have had to shift a lot of our meetings into a Zoom format in order to make sure we can include everybody, but it hasn’t been too difficult. 

As far as the visitors go, that’s something that I think everybody up here is working toward having better communication with visitors. The Fire District just recently launched a visitors webpage on their website with specific things that visitors can do in regards to wildfire safety, campfire safety, and different things like that. I think just communicating with these different agencies up here and trying to promote the different resources that are available might be successful. 

In order to reach out visitors and residents, we did a video with the fireshed collaborative; There is a local TV channel, the Rocky Mountain Channel, that plays in a lot of the hotels and Airbnbs, so we’re going to share the video on that channel. The video has a section that discusses what visitors can do to help keep Estes and the forests safe up here. We’ve also worked with the fire district, the town, and the fireshed collaborative to put together fliers about how people can be safe with campfires too. We’re just trying to find the right thing that gets everybody’s attention. 

And another way that we’ve had some success connecting with residents and visitors was that our wildlife subcommittee has put together an outreach group that works with the police and the Parks & Wildlife representative officer. We printed cards that have a picture of an elk on the front and this group goes out on the trails, mainly where these elk are found. They tell people a little more about the elk in Estes and give them a card with facts on the back, (for example, that elk can run 45 mph if they’re really upset). There’s no enforcement involved. So if somebody is maybe a little combative, the volunteers will take a step back and either call the wildlife officer or police. They’ve had pretty good success and we always run out of those cards. 

How do you sustain internal and external interest in your organization over time?

Interest over time, I think having a really involved Board helps. My Board does a lot of outreach. They have all lived in the community anywhere from eight to 20-something years. So having those connections and being able to find a space to talk about the organization has helped quite a bit. We meet monthly and the members pick the subcommittees that they’d like to be involved in. Having the option to help out with different kinds of projects or projects that align with personal interest helps to keep the interest of the Board members as well. 

I feel like we’re part of some of these larger collaboratives but we have kind of a unique position in that there are so many people that live up here, which means we don’t have many projects that deal with one landowner. Typically there are three or five or more landowners that we need to coordinate with and we need to help them meet the goals that they want for their property. Active board members have made all of the difference, I know I can just call and someone will take the initiative and run with it.

A special thanks to Wilynn Formeller for her insights and experiences! Find out more about the work Estes Valley Watershed Coalition is doing to protect Colorado’s watersheds and find their Monthly Wildlife Talks here.

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