Fall colors are not yet this far along in 2012, but to the south on Fremont Pass outside Copper Mountain, stands of aspen already are peaking. This image of Rabbit Ears Pass is from 2009.

Larry Pierce/courtesy

Fall colors are not yet this far along in 2012, but to the south on Fremont Pass outside Copper Mountain, stands of aspen already are peaking. This image of Rabbit Ears Pass is from 2009.

Aspens already turning gold south of Steamboat on Fremont Pass

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Aug. 26, 2012: Deb Babcock: Why leaves change color

— Labor Day road-trippers who headed south from Steamboat Springs to the Collegiate Peaks, the Sawatch Range and over Cottonwood Pass to the Gunnison National Forest could not overlook the signs of early autumn color during Labor Day weekend.

From the back side of Copper Mountain traveling over Fremont Pass all the way to the Taylor River, there were stands of aspen trees that appeared to already have peaked.

The Rocky Mountain Region of the U.S. Forest Service annually maintains a Web page that updates fall color hot spots, but that service has not begun for the 2012 fall color season. Similarly, the 1-800 line still is reporting on fall color conditions for mid-October 2011.

Steamboat landscape photographer Rod Hanna, who follows the changing autumn colors across Colorado’s Western Slope each autumn like a younger generation follows jam bands, said he has not detected that the aspens from Buffalo Pass to Stillwater Reservoir are changing early this year.

Hanna is counting on the aspens to deliver on schedule and is leading a fall color photography workshop from Sept. 27 to 30.

His sense is that Steamboat received enough rainfall in July and August to keep the aspens healthier than they may be in other parts of the state.

“My theory is that statewide, the fall color may be spotty,” Hanna said. “But to me, the aspen trees here look very healthy. I know where to find fall color near Steamboat from the middle of September until the middle of October, from Rabbit Ears Pass to the south side of Dunckley Pass.”

Despite just a hint of changing leaves in the Priest Creek area of Steamboat Ski Area, the visual evidence to the south of Steamboat is unmistakable.

In an article published in the Aspen Daily News, Aspen city forester Chris Forman said yellow leaves popping up unusually early in the Roaring Fork Valley could be a sign of drought-related stress and could signal an early and shorter fall color season.

Aspen leaves turn from green to gold every fall as the length of daylight hours declines and the chlorophyll that is responsible for the green pigment in the leaves, as well as converting sunlight into sugar for the plants, begins to shut down.

In addition to the shortening of daylight hours, weather conditions (moisture and temperature) contribute to the change. According to a Forest Service report, cold nights contribute to the chlorophyll shutdown by triggering the production of a membrane between an aspen leaf stem and the branch from which it grows.

The Forest Service reports that the brightest fall color displays are observed when dry, sunny days are followed by cool, dry nights.

Genetics also play a role in the phenomenon motorists are seeing in the high country right now because patches or stands of aspen most likely are one plant. Neighboring aspen trees actually are clones of one another, linked by their root systems. The result is patches of yellow in the midst of otherwise green aspen forests.

The Salt Lake Tribune reported in May that the 100-acre Pando aspen clone, thought to be the world’s largest living organism, no longer is producing new shoots and is in danger of dying.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com

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