Before she goes, Ann Gerber wraps her arms around Patrick Dobey and holds him tight.
"We'll keep in touch," she says. "I promise."
Inside the stucco building on Aiken Canyon Preserve south of Colorado Springs, they are among friends gathered to say goodbye - to each other, and to this place that's been like their home for the many years they've volunteered at these 1,600 acres on the Front Range foothills. The day was one of the last for the field station, built in 1996 to be an educational hub for the Nature Conservancy's preserve. The 1,700-square-foot building at the canyon's trailhead was closed last week, and the conservancy plans to demolish it as early as this month.
A judgment call
Gerber and Dobey were here 21 years ago, when the hay bales arrived to insulate the field station. Straw buildings are energy-efficient ideas, as explained by the information that hung inside the field station, on a wall beside a window proudly displaying the hay inside. But the idea has spelled the building's doom, the Nature Conservancy has determined. The hay has collected water and grown moldy, according to an inspection that essentially recommended a rebuild.
And rather than continue to spend on the field station, the conservancy has decided it best to altogether cut ties with it.
"Given that we have limited resources, like any nonprofit, we have to make decisions on where to focus those limited resources," said David Ray, director of lands for the Colorado chapter of the Nature Conservancy, which is eyeing preservation easements on ranch lands east of Aiken Canyon. "We were faced with a judgment call, and we felt this was the best judgment given the totality of our programs and future direction."
The decision has left those longtime protectors of Aiken Canyon Preserve feeling bitter. For two decades, a group of about 15 men and women, mostly retired now, have formed the core of what has been a unique management setup for the conservancy. None of the agency's other 23 preserves across the state has a dedicated group of volunteers based in a field station, Ray said.
Last month, during a thank-you party complete with sandwiches and wine inside the field station, Ray expressed to volunteers his hope that they'll continue to help around the land. Without the building, they sound less than interested.
The Nature Conservancy plans to build a pavilion with picnic tables in the station's place, but the volunteers who affectionately call themselves the "geriatric crew" worry about their well-being without the shelter they have known.
"We're all finished," Dobey, 85, says under his breath in resignation.
In 1993, after the Nature Conservancy acquired Aiken Canyon Preserve, he played a part in designing the 3.5-mile trail that braids through meadows and rises gently into forests of ponderosa pine nestled in the red cliffs. For the Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays that the preserve is open to the public, Dobey and other volunteers have sat inside the field station, greeting hikers and telling them about the land worthy of preservation.
Its history as an ecological gem of record dates to the 1870s, when Charles Aiken surveyed its expanse. Over the years, volunteers have collected fat binders with plants in sleeves and filing cabinets with records of bird and butterfly sightings. Before the field station's closure, Ann Adnet, 83, brought from her Monument home notes that she had left over from the 1990s and 2000s, when she actively watched the preserve's birds at the request of the Nature Conservancy. In recent years, she's scheduled volunteers for shifts at the station.
"I wouldn't call any of the work that I've done there work. It was fun," she says. "And I always had in the back of my mind that I was doing something important. For those of us who have been there for many years, it hurts."
From 8 a.m. to noon on summer Saturdays, the volunteers have taken to the trails with shovels and weed trimmers, ending the workday with beer in the field station. Inside, they've had Christmas parties together every year.
"I hiked this for about 10 years," Chris Martinez, 51, says in the building, "then one day I waltzed in here and found out there were people who knew more about it and loved it more than I did. And I found a group of people to be around. That's what I'll miss."
The conservancy plans to dedicate staff to maintain the preserve, but the ones who have been there regularly through the years can't help but worry.
"I don't know," Dobey says. "I just don't know. I really like the conservancy . But I just can't anymore."
Outside the field station, the volunteers gather around a spot in the ground that has been home to honey ants. "They're fairly small in number," Eldon Cornish, 79, begins about the ants. He tells about their unique characteristics, about how they rely on each other.
He isn't sure they'll survive the field station's demolition.
"I have a feeling it's the end of the line," he says. "It's a sad, quiet closure."