The agriculture industry is teaming up with scientists and other experts, looking to possibly take the “biggest step yet” in addressing what’s been a major concern at Rocky Mountain National Park for several years.
While most farms, ranches and dairies in Colorado, Wyoming and western Nebraska are miles away from the park, ammonia drifting from ag operations, among other sources, has impacted the park’s ecosystem, according to studies.
Biologist Jim Cheatham said the 2006 Rocky Mountain National Park Initiative report revealed that nitrogen levels in the park are about 15 times more than natural amounts — with the excess coming in the form of nitrogen oxide from sources like fossil fuels, and also ammonia from ag operations.
Such levels, according to Cheatham, have altered the vegetation composition, aquatic communities and overall natural processes of the alpine tundra the park was created to protect under its designations as a National Park, an International Biosphere Reserve and a Class I Airshed.
Now, the Colorado Livestock Association and others in the ag industry are voluntarily working with climatologists and other scientists in hopes of controlling the problem.
The Greeley, Colo.-based organization is spearheading an effort to develop a warning system that will tell ag producers throughout the region — based on atmospheric conditions — when they should or shouldn’t scrape manure from pens at feedlots and dairies, fertilize crops or perform other tasks that release ammonia into the atmosphere.
Only when weather conditions are right does ammonia drift from ag operations to Rocky Mountain National Park.
“So if we can just get more exact data about how and when that ammonia is moving into Rocky Mountain National Park ... and then develop a warning system ... that could really go a long way in fixing the problem,” said Bill Hammerich, CEO of the Colorado Livestock Association. “We know we’re not the only contributor to the issue, but we certainly want to do our part to help fix it.”
Such a warning system has been in discussions for about two years, Hammerich said, and it finally got off the ground this month, thanks to a recent $100,000 boost from the Conservation Innovation Grant program.
Cheatham said he’s “very appreciative” of the efforts being made by the Colorado Livestock Association and others, saying the development of a warning system could be the “biggest step yet” in addressing the high nitrogen levels in the park.
There’s no exact numbers showing how much of an impact agriculture operations have on the high nitrogen levels, but he said the 2006 report showed that about 55 percent of the excess nitrogen was coming from sources in Colorado, while the other 45 percent drifted in from outside the state — including Wyoming and Nebraska.
Cheatham said ongoing studies are attempting to pinpoint precisely how much ag and other industries are affecting nitrogen levels, however, “we know agriculture’s impact is significant.”
William Brock Faulkner — a professor at Texas A&M University’s Biological and Agricultural Engineering Department, who’s helping with the warning-system endeavor — said the Colorado Livestock Association and other parties involved (Cheatham, the Colorado Corn Growers Association and Colorado State University Atmospheric Science Department professors Jeffrey Collett and Russ Schumacher, among many others) are hoping to have about 30 to 40 producers throughout the region participating in a “pilot” program by March or April of next year, after more data is collected.
Faulkner said some of the effort will be determining whether a warning system would even be economically feasible — not requiring producers to delay practices like manure removal, needed as part as of animal-health measures, for too many days.
But local producers say they’re willing to do their part.
“Myself and others in agriculture certainly don’t want to have a negative impact on the environment,” said Steve Gabel of Eaton, Colo., former president of the Colorado Livestock Association, and also operator of Magnum Feedyards, which has the capacity to hold nearly 25,000 head of cattle.
Gabel explained that many producers already have practices in place that help reduce the release of ammonia into the atmosphere, but added that, if a warning system can be developed, he could hold off on performing ammonia-releasing tasks for as many as a few days at a time, or even up to a week, if needed.
Cheatham said the overall goal is to ultimately cut nitrogen levels in the park by half — 1.5 kilograms of reactive nitrogen per hectare per year.
He noted that it’s a “realistic and achievable goal,” but those levels would still be about seven or eight times the natural amounts of nitrogen in the park.
“We understand that, with human activity, natural levels are not achievable anymore,” he said, describing Rocky Mountain National Park as ahead of the curve in addressing the nitrogen issue compared to other parks. “But we certainly need to do what we can to control the problem.” ❖