An interest in how landscapes form has led Patrick Dooling to study volcano geology in Iceland, earthquake geology in southern California, and sedimentation in southern Utah. Since 2016 he's focused on protecting the lands, air, water and wildlife resources in the Lower Gunnison Watershed. He even gets to study sediment in the West Muddy drainage and Paonia Reservoir.
Last month, Dooling was named executive director for the Western Slope Conservation Center. WSCC has roughly 600 members, numerous volunteers, and is overseen by an eight-member board of directors. Now in its 42nd year, the non-profit's mission is "to build an active and aware community to protect and enhance the lands, air, water and wildlife of the Lower Gunnison Watershed."
Dooling succeeds Alex Johnson, who moved to Alaska to be program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association.
"We have an incredibly talented team here," he said of the four-member staff. "All of us in the office are so thankful to have the opportunity to protect and enhance these incredible landscapes."
Dooling, 30, is a Penn State University graduate. On a trip to the Yellowstone and Grand Tetons National Parks, he paid attention to the iconic landscapes and wanted to understand how they were formed. He went on to earn his master's degree in geosciences from the University of Utah, then worked for three years in Texas as a petroleum geologist and project manager for Conoco-Phillips. "I needed to make a change to something more personally rewarding," said Dooling.
In 2016, he and wife Marla Korpar came to Paonia. An environmental systems engineer, Korpar was committed to working for a year at Solar Energy as an AmeriCorps VISTA member. They joined WSCC, and Dooling began volunteering.
When the organization planned a workshop on the Paonia River Park, one of WSCC's many conservation projects, WSCC found funding to hire him as the event coordinator. "I really enjoyed learning about river restoration and mine reclamation in the area and the history of the organization," he said. After the workshop he continued to volunteer, and in the spring of 2017 was named associate director.
After a year, they decided to stay in the North Fork Valley.
Since 1999, WSCC has completed 19 river restoration projects along the North Fork River, rehabilitating floodplains, stabilizing channels and banks, improving diversion structures and enhancing aquatic habitat.
They run three main programs, public lands, watersheds, and education. Projects involve stewardship through events like Trail Work Day; mapping of the Lower Gunnison Watershed including oil and gas leases and wells, irrigation ditches, restoration sites, soil data and more; and overseeing a water monitoring program that has continuously kept a watchful eye on water quality since 2001 in order to better identify and understand the impacts that development and changes in the watershed have on the resource. "We feel good about the current state of the North Fork water," said Dooling.
He also feels good about the future of WSCC. "The board is very committed to growing the team and finding talented staff." They also bring a wide range of professional experiences and talents to the organization. Some have been involved for 30 years and know its history, and others who joined more recently bring great ideas to the table. "They're all coming together to protect the landscapes and resources where they live and play."
To prepare the generation of conservationists, the Youth Outdoor Network provides high school students opportunities to learn about and enter the natural resources sector job market. This year, WSCC will host its eighth annual Conservation Days. The event gives every fourth-grade student in Delta an educational and fun day at Paonia River Park learning from partner organizations including the Forest Service, USGS, SEI, West Elk Mountain Rescue, The Nature Connection and many others.
A big part of the organization, volunteers participate in work projects and trail maintenance, monitor water quality, and serve on the watershed, public lands and outreach committees. "Volunteers are such a tremendous help at improving our organizational capacity," said Dooling. "We are always looking for more volunteers."
One of its most ambitious projects, the Paonia River Park was once an in-stream gravel mine. Thanks to its many partnerships and collaborations, today the park offers walking trails, educational signage, and one of the only public access points on the North Fork of the Gunnison River. This year they will put the final touches on the in-stream restoration portion of the project, said Dooling.
In June, WSCC will host its 19th annual River Festival at the River Park, including the annual float trip from Paonia to Hotchkiss, depending on spring runoff. Also depending on spring runoff, a new river take-out at the Delta County Fairgrounds could be completed in time for the trip.
In the coming year, WSCC is waiting for the release of the Bureau of Land Management Uncompahgre Field Office draft Resource Management Plan. The plan will guide agency decisions affecting the North Fork area for many years.
They're also partners in revising the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests to write the "Forest Plan Revision," and are working with Delta and Gunnison counties and other stakeholders on the Coal Mine Methane working group to find solutions to the venting, capture and mitigation of coal mine methane in the upper North Fork area.
They're also ramping up on stewardship projects, including partnering with the U.S. Forest Service and BLM to maintain and improve area hiking trails, and protecting habitat for the federally-protected Gunnison sage grouse and other wildlife. "All of us in the office are so thankful to have the opportunity to protect and enhance these incredible landscapes," said Dooling.
The best part of his job, said Dooling, is "getting to work with the people who are so inspired by this area and these landscapes and want to do right by them."