Loved to Death

Besieged by crowds and Front Range pollution, Colorado's premier national park is a vanishing wilderness.

The girls are twenty feet off the road, climbing stealthily up an embankment to get a better look at grazing elk. Their woodcraft isn't sneaky enough, though, to evade the iron gaze of Gregg Burgess, who pulls his four-wheeler to the side of the road, steps out and beckons to them to come down.

An ex-Marine a few weeks shy of his 27th birthday, Burgess looks sharp and trim in his National Park Service uniform. This is his first summer as a seasonal ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park, but he's already seen plenty of this kind of action. When he's patrolling the park's St. Vrain/Fall River district, his job consists largely of dealing with traffic accidents and stranded motorists on Trail Ridge Road, checking campgrounds, answering questions -- and trying to keep the public a safe distance from the wildlife.

One of the busted, a long-haired teen in an Old Navy sweatshirt, attempts a winning smile.

"Am I in trouble?" she asks. "Did I do something wrong?"

"How old are you?" Burgess asks.

"Nineteen," the girl says.

"Can I see your driver's license?"

"Oh, my God," she gasps. "Are you going to give me a ticket?"

Burgess takes her license and surveys the group, giving them a look suitable for Texas Hold 'Em. "Approaching wildlife in a national park is against the law," he tells them.

The group says nothing, as if solemnly digesting the concept. Burgess returns to his vehicle and reads off the girl's Oklahoma license information to the dispatcher. But there will be no ticket this time. It's Labor Day weekend -- expected to be one of the busiest weekends of the year in the park, despite the damp weather -- and Burgess can see another elk jam developing up the road. People are pulling halfway onto the shoulder to gawk, heedless of the stream of traffic behind them.

Burgess hands Miss Old Navy her license and a warning and hurries on his way, wading into the next group of elk-struck tourists. In a park that draws more than three million visitors a year, the fifth-most-popular place in the entire national park system, rangering often comes down to crowd control.

"People think the laws don't apply when they get inside a national park," Burgess says. "They think they can camp anywhere, sleep in their car, do just about anything. Some of them think it's a zoo and they can pet the animals."

Yet there's more to protecting Rocky Mountain's 416-square-mile expanse than directing traffic and shooing people away from the rutting elk. Like most park rangers, Burgess is also a commissioned law-enforcement officer. He carries a sidearm and is trained to deal with everything from drunk drivers to drug busts and domestic-violence incidents in campgrounds. He's also part medic, responding to heart attacks and helping hikers with twisted ankles down the trail, averaging one rescue every other week. Although he works in the park only four months out of the year, he's the face of the National Park Service to the people he meets, perhaps the only official presence they'll encounter during their visit to the park.

"People ask me what that white stuff on Longs Peak is, or what you call these things," Burgess says, gesturing at the elk. "I could be stopping some guy for a DUI and then be educating some children on why they shouldn't be feeding wildlife. And then you get someone who really knows the park and wants some detailed hiking information. There's so much, one person can't do it all. You can't be an expert on everything -- but you're expected to be, anyway."

People do expect a lot from America's national parks. They expect them to be chock-full of natural wonders and scenic vistas, preferably attainable by car. They want them to be rich in wildlife, ideally wildlife that's sociable and patient with photographers. They want opportunities for solitude in deep wilderness and for casual recreation of all sorts. They want to be entertained, and they want to escape our synthetic, entertainment-drenched culture for something more consequential, wild, real. They want experts to answer their burning questions, such as when the deer turn into elk, but they also want to be left alone. And, of course, they want clean bathrooms and snack bars and places to gas up and buy film and cheesy souvenirs. The burden of meeting all these contradictory demands falls to the National Park Service, charged with protecting some of the nation's most treasured places while making them available for "public use and enjoyment" by the maximum number of visitors.

The mission has its paradoxical -- some might say impossible -- side, particularly in a place like Rocky Mountain. In many ways, the park is being victimized by its own success. Trail Ridge Road and other accessible attractions now draw such crowds throughout the summer that a kind of theme-park atmosphere prevails. Some popular front-country areas are in jeopardy of being loved to death by the throngs at the trailheads. Peak-baggers of all ages and abilities come to Longs Peak in late summer, an endless procession of Gore-Tex-clad penitentes, gasping in the thin air and trudging to the summit. Meanwhile, the quest for wilderness is bringing more and more hikers into backcountry once considered too primitive or remote to worry about.

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