Course Work

Activists, bird watchers band together to protect bird population from reservoir expansion | By Ben Berman | Nov. 22, 2021 | Written for JRNL 4002 (Reporting 2)

In the American West, an increasing number of municipalities are coming up with new ways of bringing water closer to residents who need it the most, primarily through water reallocation and reservoir expansion. The arid state of Colorado is no exception, with dozens of water bodies seeing growth in recent years to meet water needs in a dry decade marked by climate change.

However, Morrison resident Katie Gill was unaware of one of these projects occurring in her own backyard until it fell in her lap.

A retired Jefferson County teacher, Gill has served as a member on Morrison’s town board since 2016. In late 2019, she received a monthly report that detailed the first stages of the Bear Creek Reallocation Project, a proposal to increase the surface volume of Bear Creek Lake, a small reservoir between Morrison and Lakewood, by an amount significant enough to grab her attention.

“It mentioned this proposal would increase the reservoir from 2000 to 22,000 acre ft.,” she said. “And I thought it was a typo. But they put an extra zero because it’s really what they’re going to do.”

That increase, which would increase the geographic size of the lake ten times over, is the primary goal of the Bear Creek Lake Reallocation Project, which seeks to expand the reservoir’s overall volume to meet storage needs. This is an action taken as part of the Colorado Water Plan, federal framework that encourages the state to increase overall water storage by 400,000 surface acre ft. in the coming years to ensure that water availability matches the state’s booming population growth and added constraints of climate change.

Currently the Bear Creek Lake expansion is in a multi-year feasibility study being conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), which includes surveys from USACE’s in-house engineers biologists that will last for another year before the reallocation is finalized.

To Gill, an involved member in the community and an avid environmentalist, these plans for a significant water increase were cause for concern due to potential impacts on local wildlife — namely, calculations that those 22,000 acre ft. would inundate rich habitats that currently lie alongside the park’s modest body of water. At maximum capacity, the lake would balloon from 110 acres to 603, sporadically fluctuating between 53 vertical ft. of sand, shrub and grass, all of which host rich habitats for a variety of species.

“When I first went to the city council in 2019, they largely had no idea what was going on,” Gill said. “But they actually do have a little bit of leverage that they’re not willing to acknowledge. So we’re going to be pushing elected officials to take a stronger stand.”

This prompted Gill to start the Save Bear Creek Lake Park (SBCLP) initiative, a campaign to raise awareness on this topic through an explanatory website, alongside physical distribution of flyers to park visitors. Along the way, Gill has collaborated with several ecology experts to understand the specific species impacts this project would have.

“(The water) will flood out all the vegetation, like cottonwoods,” said Polly Reetz, a Denver Audubon Conservation committee chairwoman. “That’s a serious problem for bird life, because a lot of birds use cottonwoods. But it also floods the lower layers of vegetation, like the grasses and flowers, and then shrubs, and small willows and things like that. That’s really valuable for some species, because that’s where they feed.”

According to Reetz, over 250 bird species have been documented at one point or another at Bear Creek Lake Park. Some of these birds are native and can be found in the park full-time, ranging from small passerines who perch in the park’s verdant for nesting and shade, to piping plovers, a federally endangered species of bird who rely on sandy lakeshores to wade in shallow waters and feed off of invertebrates found in the sand. According to avid birdwatcher and SBCLP ally Joey Kellner, some large predatory birds, such as red-tailed hawks or bald eagles, have also been spotted in the park at times, often finding fuel on long migratory journeys by hunting small rodents who live in the park’s shoreline bushes.

However, Reetz asserts that all of these birds, whether simply passing through or calling Bear Creek Lake Park their home, would face irreparable damage if the lake’s expansion goes through.

“The impact to riparian habitats would be significant,” added Drew Sprafke, a regional park supervisor based in Lakewood. “We believe that the lost habitat could not be replaced within the park, and would need to be mitigated off site.”

Due to Bear Creek Lake Park’s current reputation as a popular bird watching area, the loss of bird populations would be most visible to the community. However, Gill insists that another major focus of SBCLP is the impact on humans, who would lose over 500 acres of trails at the future maximum surface volume.

“It’s about environmental justice,” Gill said.

“For families from Denver, coming to that park, they are not the families that can afford to go up to Vail or Winter Park to experience the great outdoors,” she explained. “And (Bear Creek) is their way to get into an outdoor setting and come to appreciate the values of wildlife habitats and ecosystems. If we take that away, we’re taking it away from the most underserved populations in the Denver Metro area.”

Though SBCLP  is working each day to raise awareness and conduct research on the current biodiversity of the park, they continue to look ahead to the future for the park, its lake’s size and consequent animal populations, one that is entirely dictated by the decision made by USACE.

“It sort of looks like they’re pushing to get away with an environmental assessment, which is not nearly as thorough as an environmental impact statement,” Reetz said, lamenting a perceived lack of consideration for all the birdwatching data compiled in recent years.

However, for Reetz, Kellner and others, this is nothing new. Three years ago, they felt the birdwatching community was blindsided by USACE when Chatfield Reservoir, located west of Highlands Ranch, saw an expansion similar to the one proposed for Bear Creek.

“I gave the environmental agency doing Chatfield over 55,000 records from Denver Field Ornithologists, Audubon trips and my personal records,” Kellner said frustratedly. “They never used any of them. Instead they had their quote-unquote expert visit two times, both in the summer, and called it good. They had no idea which birds winter at Chatfield or what birds migrate there.”

“They went at the wrong time of day at the wrong time of year,” Reetz added. “They underestimated the impact that reallocation would have on birds in that place.”

Though USACE has stated on the project’s official landing page that they are relying on comprehensive data from in-house surveyors, Reetz and Kellner believe the project would go in a different direction if input and data sourced from local birdwatchers like themselves were more comprehensively included.

“What kind of environmental assessment misses these birds?” Kellner questioned.

Beyond frustrations with government forces, Gill feels the added pressure of conveying this forthcoming issue to the general public. Though USACE hosted a public forum on the lake expansion in mid-October that Gill believes Morrison residents “overwhelmingly opposed,” she insists that there’s still work to be done when it comes to changing minds — one involving engaging her neighbors more actively.

“Generally speaking, a lot of people go ‘oh, that would be so terrible if this happened.’” But you know, they don’t want to go into a public forum, make a statement, learn about it, or submit a public comment,” Gill said.

“Folks need to read (USACE) reports, attend public meetings and cry foul when they miss common species,” added Kellner.

Beyond the immediate pressure of Bear Creek Lake, drought conditions and volatile weather patterns show no sign of going away worldwide. Just as Chatfield Reservoir underwent and Bear Creek seems destined to as well, future bodies of water will follow suit with expansion, drastically altering Colorado’s open spaces.

“There are proposals like this all across the state,” Gill said.

How SBCLP manages to preserve Bear Creek Lake Park’s natural habitats and shorelines in the coming year may very well serve as a template for how to effectively balance human water consumption needs with the impact it has on wildlife in future expansion proposals.

“You always hear that an increase in human population and an increase in water consumption are necessarily coupled,” Gill said. “And that’s not the case, if we choose to do the right thing by minimizing our use. So in terms of human water consumption, we wouldn’t need to impact so many environments.”

Huzzah for the national game: how history buffs bond over a love for sport and theatrics | By Ben Berman | Oct. 1, 2022 | Written for JRNL 4802 (Feature Writing)

In 1864, the plains now occupied by the bustling metropolis of Denver were home to cattle ranchers. The ever-congested lanes of I-25 were instead dusty pathways traversed upon by fortune-seekers looking to revel in a settlement not yet the capital of Colorado, or even part of the United States.

For most current Denverites, picturing such an anachronistic landscape would be a tall task — not so for Roger “Digger” Haddix.

On a clear Sunday afternoon atop Flagstaff Mountain, less than a dozen miles from the city of Boulder, Haddix digs his leather cleats into the crude chalk markings that denote the playing diamond. His team, Star Base Ball Club of Colorado is trying to win the afternoon matchup against the farmhands and ranchers who make up the Walker Ranch Homestead squad. He squares his hips and takes a mighty cut on the crudely stitched mass of cowhide that makes up the playing ball. No, it might not have the crisp, high-altitude thwack of the no-doubt home runs seen at modern day Coors Field, but it’s enough to send the ball sailing into the unkept broom grass that dots the outfield at Walker Ranch. The ball lands with a thud in one particularly scraggly section of the pasture, and in the time that it takes for the Walker Ranch left fielder to locate the ball, the five-foot-eight Haddix has already legged it out to second base with a stand-up double, driving in his teammate with a run. Of course, this decisive play prompts his teammate Paul “Yank” Langendorfer to ring the cowbell on the Star bench and let out a boisterous ‘huzzah!’ — no high fives or fist-bumps necessary.

In moments like these, Denver’s past is more than pictureable for Haddix – it’s brought back to life. And it’s all through the lens of baseball.

Such is a common experience for members of the Colorado Vintage Base Ball Association (CVBBA), a baseball league, who, for 30 years now, has barnstormed the Centennial state as its various teams put on a show and compete against one another using Civil War era rules: no gloves when fielding, no helmets at the plate. A ball can bounce once, get caught and still count as a fly-out. Balls and strikes aren’t counted, resulting in a lively, action-packed game compared to the ‘three-true-outcome’ modern game, where strikeouts, home runs and walks are king. Aside from the on-field rules, each element of the game on display is meticulously researched. The batters’ box is hand-painted onto the grass using thick chalk, all league uniforms are custom fabricated through a professional vintage sports outfitter, even the brass cowbell rang upon each Stars run batted in is period accurate.

“We’re getting as close of an approximation as we can,” Haddix says, showing off his thick, navy blue uniform, now caked in dirt. For Haddix, getting a chance to revel in history is what CVBBA participation is all about. A Colorado Springs native, Haddix and his brother grew up clamoring to the nearest radio or television to follow their beloved St. Louis Cardinals — then the nearest team, as the Colorado Rockies were still over 20 years shy of their inaugural season on Blake Street. Separate from baseball, history was another passion for Haddix, a natural writer who held an inquisitive mind about anything thrown his way. He’ll be the first to shout out Mrs. Wilcox, his fourth grade teacher who ignited a love for local history in him.

“She had a lot of pride in Colorado Springs,” he says. “That kind of pointed me in the direction of it all.”

Merging baseball with history nearly happened in a single instant for Haddix, who attended a screening of Ken Burns’ ‘Baseball’ miniseries at Denver’s Loretto Heights University in 1994, hosted in part by members of the CVBBA, then their second season in operation.

“There were all these guys in vintage uniforms, blue and gray with an old English D on the front. They were so funny and engaging,” Haddix recalls.

Right away, Haddix knew he had to get involved, in part because he already owned a 1916 Colorado Springs Millionaires uniform purely for the sake of it.

“They told me, ‘Wear what you have, come to Four Mile Historic Park, and we’ll teach you the rest.’”

Now a veteran of the league, slamming outfield hits and grazing down ground balls like a lawnmower at Walker Ranch, Haddix still recalls his first at-bat, where he knew he made the right call by joining.

“My first time up at bat, there was a gentleman that was hurling. He was rather rotund and had mutton chops. I mean, he looked like he walked out of a vintage photo. He looks at me and goes: ‘Sir, are you standing in a hole?’ I said, ‘No, but I’ll be standing on second in a moment.’ I only got a single, but still!”

“There’s quite a bit of gentlemanly trash talking going on,” he admits.

Such is the origin story for Cooper Mikel as well, who joined the league on a whim seven years ago, out for a stroll with his roommate when he noticed an ad for the league in a Denver liquor store. After attending a single game, Mikel knew he found a worthy weekend pastime.

A self-described Civil War buff, Mikel now finds a home each weekend as “Soda Boots,” donning a curly, waxed mustache and top hat as the league commissioner. Between his off-field duties: monitoring the league’s email account and handling scheduling, Mikel enjoys himself most when it comes to the most vintage elements of the game.

“There’s always a hint of theatricality with what we do,” he says. On Sunday’s Walker Ranch contest, Mikel found himself officiating the game, everything from deciding whether runners were safe or out to prompting the two teams to introduce themselves via song before the first pitch while his father Mike “Texas” Mikel acted as the official scorekeeper while smoking a massive cigar on the sidelines. “I love that aspect of it too, because we get to portray a really interesting time in history and in baseball.”

Painting a vivid picture of Colorado’s strange history with baseball is at the forefront of the league’s ambitions.

Far removed from the golden age of Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams — even Ty Cobb or Babe Ruth, the CVBBA turns to the most archaic form of the game. Fresh off the heels of the Civil War and amidst a push for statehood, the fledgling metropolitan area of the Front Range was host to dozens of spotty teams formed from the miners and ranchers who brought their beloved game from out east.

“It was the big driving game of the 19th century. Every little town seemed to have at least one team, if not more,” Mikel explains.

The relative ease of getting into this era of baseball: an absence of gloves, or most materials aside from a bat and a few balls, for that matter, proved to be the leading factor behind the persistence of baseball as the blue-collar pastime in boomtowns ranging from Colorado Springs to Cañon City beginning in 1866. Mikel is quick to reminisce on the humorous aspects of the game from this chaotic time period, everything from the commonplace of drunkenness and gambling within virtually each game, to the presence of the Louisville’s Fat Men’s Base Ball Club, a squadron that considered a weight of 175 to 400 pounds a hard requisite for membership.

“We’re here to promote the history of Colorado baseball and keep the spirit of 19th century baseball alive. They were doing weird stuff back then,” Mikel says.

Until 1885, when the Denver Athletic Club broke ground at 32nd and Larimer, making their foray into the Rocky Mountain League, the first minor league in Colorado, records for all the teams coming and going were admittedly spotty.

“It gives us a bit of artistic license,” says Paul “Yank” Langendorfer, a member of the Star team who boasts an 1886 Buffalo Bisons uniform, a way to honor Star’s role as the eclectic “all-star” superteam and his heritage as an upstate New Yorker, the origin of his team nickname.

“Oh yeah, and I’m a huge Yankees fan,” he adds with a grin.

A Buffalo transplant living in Aurora, Yank boasts his uniform and the research that went into finding the right buttons, stitches and typeface for the ‘BUFFALO’ script across the front, as virtually no photos existed of the team he wanted to portray.

The one extant photo of that Buffalo Bisons team? “They’re all wearing suits,” Langendorfer says. “So, you kinda go with what you can get.”

From an afternoon spent on the yard, it’s clear that virtually everyone here puts the history aspect first. Sure, experienced players like Haddix are more than willing to hustle out a close play for the sake of competition, but especially now, thanks to the pandemic, the league is still recovering in participation numbers. Only three full-time teams are presently fielded, with many of the games in 2022 being a contest between them and the makeshift teams of museum or municipal employees and volunteers at places like the Walker Ranch Homestead Museum or the Louisville History Museum.

Mikel says the league naturally draws in folks with a penchant for history, regardless of their playing experience — before joining the CVBBA, he himself hadn’t played organized baseball since the eighth grade, when he was fielding ground balls off the hot pavement from his dad, who was coach.

“One thing I tell everybody? If you’re playing vintage baseball and you’re playing to win, you’re playing for the wrong reasons,” Mikel says. “I was never a blood and guts, win-win-win type player. I personally find traveling to different towns throughout Colorado half the fun. I get to go to all these different places, meet a bunch of people and talk about my love for the game.”

That isn’t to say there isn’t an element of real baseball in these contests: with no modern-day protection, participants know all too well how real the sting of a rogue baseball can be, especially players like Haddix, who says he’s broken a finger or two trying to snatch a line drive when playing the infield.

“That’s the biggest adjustment,” Mikel says of the absence of mitts. “The first grounder you go after, a lot of people watch it go between their legs. It’s kind of that instinct thing.”

By far the most daunting aspect of the game, playing for over two decades has afforded Haddix time to develop a method of fielding these hits.

“I’ve kind of developed a thing where if I’m in the outfield and a ball gets hit to me, I’ll put my hands together and do a volleyball set. I’ll hit it back in the air and then catch it on the way back down.”

On Sunday, Haddix put on something of a defensive clinic, showing off that “volleyball set” and hurling the ball back towards the plate, stopping a runner from scoring another run for Walker Ranch. Playing hard is always the name of the game for Haddix, whose nickname “Digger” is direct evidence of his competitive nature.

“I start out with a clean uniform, and then tend to dive for the ball. I dig up a lot of dirt. So, that kind of stuck.”

Nearly 65 years old, Haddix relishes the fact that he can still play a game that keeps him on his toes no matter the competition.

“It’s kind of like Civil War reenacting, but they always know the outcome of the battle,” he says. “We never know the outcome of the game. So, everybody wants to win. Winning is better than losing. Nobody wants to be foolish and bobble (the ball), but hey, you don’t have gloves. You’re gonna make errors.”

With a smile, he adds, “But, they didn’t keep track of errors back then.”

For all the dirt, stings and bobbled balls that this old play style might cause, the players generally seem to agree that it also affords some positives. For one, each ball is pitched underhand, quite literally a fraction of the speed thrown by the blistering three-digit pitches of modern closers. Not to mention that CVBBA members are hobbyists, not professional athletes. What makes for a lively game based on the ease of hitting the ball also makes for an environment that rewrites the narrative of old-timey baseball — and just how exclusionary it could be back then.

Mikel is quick to acknowledge the darker history of baseball, one that mirrors the discriminatory practices of the United States as a whole, severely limiting who could take the field.

“We’re very inclusive,” he says. “If you can breathe, we want you to play. Baseball shouldn’t be restricted to age groups, like it would have been back then. At the end of the 19th century, pretty much anyone playing over 25 years of age was considered senior.”

By that logic, the Star team fielded a super-senior in Ed “Not So Fast” Evans, a Longmont resident who just turned 86. As his nickname might indicate, his days of dashing it out to first base are beyond him, but that didn’t stop him from cranking out a hit to right field as his pinch runner scored safely in his place, taking off for him the second the bat made contact with the ball.

“On any given day, he can go three for four,” says Langendorfer.

Langendorfer is also grateful for a version of the game that welcomes his 14-year-old daughter with open arms. On Sunday, she joined the team in uniform and earned a few hits of her own to raucous applause from her mother and Langendorfer’s wife.

“Out here, we’re all just a band of brothers,” says Langendorfer with a smile.

Mikel seems to share that sentiment, looking forward to each weekend where he and his dad can don zany costumes, relish in nostalgia and play a childhood game for as long as they’d like.

“He enjoys it just as much as I do,” says Mikel. “It’s such a great thing, to get to play baseball with my dad still.”