Loved to Death

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

Most people think of national parks as inviolate sanctuaries, where natural resources are guarded as if under an invisible dome. But Rocky Mountain's experience shows that the protection the parks offer is fragile. Overuse can compromise the very "wilderness values" people are seeking in the park. So can well-intentioned efforts to manage its resources as naturally as possible. In Rocky Mountain's case, a laissez-faire attitude toward the elk herd has led to such a proliferation of the critters that park managers are now considering a range of unpleasant alternatives to protect other wildlife and vegetation jeopardized by the elk infestation.

Yet the greatest threat to the park's resources isn't the elk herd. It's the hordes of people, both inside and outside the park. Overuse is only part of the picture. Rocky Mountain's proximity to a major metropolitan area -- 75 miles from Denver, a short drive from Fort Collins or Boulder -- puts it at greater risk than most national parks. There's no dome to protect it from smog, industrial chemicals and other pollutants, which are fouling its air, boosting ozone levels and altering the delicate chemistry of its alpine lakes. Airborne contaminants from the burgeoning Front Range population are slowly poisoning the place.

Rocky Mountain has become a living laboratory for studying the effects of 21st-century civilization on wilderness -- and a focal point in the debate over what to do about it. Can wilderness survive, in any meaningful way, with three million visitors a year and another three million polluting neighbors at its doorstep?

Elk jams and other traffic woes can consume much of 
Gregg Burgess's day.
Anthony Camera
Elk jams and other traffic woes can consume much of Gregg Burgess's day.
Fighting the backlog: Superintendent Vaughn Baker's 
office is located in a building that's designed to handle 
200,000 visitors a year but now hosts 500,000.
Anthony Camera
Fighting the backlog: Superintendent Vaughn Baker's office is located in a building that's designed to handle 200,000 visitors a year but now hosts 500,000.

"Parks are presumably set aside forever," notes Rocky Mountain science officer Terry Terrell. "They're places where you can see the impact of the things human beings are doing to this planet in the least perturbed systems. But even in the most pristine places, there is no place that is pristine. We're the early-warning system. We can't change it by ourselves, but we can alert society to what's happening."

A century ago, Enos Mills, naturalist and owner of the Longs Peak Inn, tried to persuade Congress to set aside a substantial chunk of Colorado's mountain scenery for future generations. Mills envisioned a 1,000-square-mile national preserve that would stretch from the Wyoming border to Pikes Peak. What he got, over the protests of logging and mining companies, was a park about a third that size. President Woodrow Wilson signed the legislation in 1915, taking the new park's prized holdings -- 114 named peaks above 10,000 feet, 147 lakes, the headwaters of several river systems flowing down either side of the Continental Divide, hundreds of species of plants and birds, as well as black bears, deer, bighorn sheep, mountain lions and moose -- out of the grasp of speculators for good.

Over the years, the federal government has managed to expand the park's boundaries, creating a buffer zone to lessen the impact of nearby development; the most recent acquisition, the 469-acre Lily Lake parcel, was added in 1992. But the additions have been modest in light of the park's surging use in recent decades. Rocky Mountain is one-ninth the size of Yellowstone yet hosts more visitors. In fact, all four national parks that exceed Rocky Mountain in attendance -- the Great Smokies, the Grand Canyon, Olympic and Yosemite -- have from two to five times more acreage than it does.

Nine years ago, in the most recent survey of visitors conducted by park staff, respondents ranked "crowding" and "funding" as their top concerns about Rocky Mountain. Things haven't changed much. The park's current superintendent, Vaughn Baker, spends a great deal of his time dealing with those twin headaches.

Baker came to Rocky Mountain two years ago from Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area in Washington. He's no stranger to Colorado, having worked for the Bureau of Land Management in Kremmling in the 1980s. Still, the pace of development along the park's eastern flank, and the degree to which Rocky Mountain has become an urban fringe park, took him by surprise.

"The first time I drove down from Fort Collins to Longmont, I thought, 'Whoa,'" Baker recalls. "Right after I got here, the state demographer issued a study that said the Colorado population will grow by another two million people in the next twenty years. That's 50 percent growth, and most of that will occur along the Front Range -- right at our front door."

These are difficult times for the National Park Service. Revenues are flat, budgets lean, and forest fires, hurricanes and terror alerts have drained reserves. The backlog of deferred NPS maintenance projects, everything from crumbling roads, bridges and historic structures to antiquated sewer systems, is now estimated to require between $5 billion and $7 billion -- more than double the agency's annual operating budget. President George W. Bush has pledged to eliminate the backlog, but critics of the administration's public-lands policies say the parks remain badly underfunded -- while Department of Interior officials continue to promote more intensive park use.

Last spring, a group called the Coalition of Concerned National Park Service Retirees released a scathing report on Interior Secretary Gale Norton's handling of park operations. The group noted that many parks, including Rocky Mountain, were being forced to cut programs and services and leave key positions unfilled. They also produced e-mails from NPS officials that urged park superintendents not to discuss the cutbacks -- or, if pressed by the media, to characterize the actions as "service level adjustments" rather than budget cuts.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help