Loved to Death

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

Baker is understandably diplomatic about the controversy. "It's cyclical," he says. "Some administrations tend to focus on the infrastructure, others will emphasize adding new parks or resource management. We're definitely in a period where the focus is on this deferred maintenance."

The maintenance backlog at Rocky Mountain is estimated to be around $80 million, more than half of which is simply road repair. Since 2000, the park's base operating budget has remained flat, at around $10 million a year, and its visitor numbers have even declined slightly, thanks to droughts, fires and a weak economy. Still, this park is in better financial shape to tackle its backlog than many others. In the late 1990s, Congress restructured how user fees were allocated, allowing more of the money to stay in the park where it's collected -- an arrangement that benefits much-used parks such as Rocky Mountain. This year the park is receiving an additional $23 million in funding, most of it earmarked for maintenance projects.

The park is now spending $8.2 million on the first phase of rebuilding Bear Lake Road, one of its most popular routes. Maintenance crews next hope to tackle Trail Ridge Road, which has seen little attention to its deteriorating road base in seventy years. But while money is becoming available for capital-construction projects, Baker acknowledges that he's had to cut visitor-center hours and leave some positions unfilled, including that of deputy superintendent. The park now offers 97 interpretive programs a week in high season, down from 131 a year ago, and the seasonal ranger staff is down slightly from last year's numbers as well.

Science officer Terry Terrell oversees Rocky 
Mountain's research programs.
Anthony Camera
Science officer Terry Terrell oversees Rocky Mountain's research programs.
Charismatic megafauna: The park's proliferating elk 
draw hordes of fans -- and controversial proposals to 
reduce the herd.
Anthony Camera
Charismatic megafauna: The park's proliferating elk draw hordes of fans -- and controversial proposals to reduce the herd.

"We probably have as much construction work now in any one year as we can handle," he says. "Our problem is finding enough people to clean the bathrooms."

There's a certain irony in pouring millions of dollars into infrastructure -- which attracts more users -- while being strapped for the funds necessary to provide adequate services for those users. Baker's office sits in a building that was designed to accommodate 200,000 people a year but sees 500,000; the place now has handicapped-accessible bathrooms but arguably not enough staff to handle the crunch of visitors in mid-summer. The greater scandal of park funding, though, is how little of the NPS budget is devoted to managing and protecting natural and cultural resources: less than 10 percent.

Two years ago, the National Parks Conservation Association released a detailed study of Rocky Mountain's resources and challenges. The park scored well overall in its biodiversity, stewardship and degree of external support, but the NPCA found park management lacking in its approach to a range of pressing issues, including the elk overgrazing and air quality. Among other drawbacks, the park's master plan hadn't been updated since 1976. "The park lacks specific resource management plans that would guide resource protection and allocation of funding and staffing," the report noted.

Two months ago, Secretary Norton visited Rocky Mountain National Park as part of a tour aimed at defending President Bush's environmental record. Colorado's former attorney general boasted that the administration has spent $33 million on projects in the park over the past three years. She acknowledged that there have been cuts in "short-term items" but insisted that the administration was investing in the stuff people demand in a national park, including good roads and law enforcement.

Painted sepulchral white, five aging school buses rattle through the construction zone on Bear Lake Road, making one of the twice-an-hour shuttle runs to popular trailheads. With all the bulldozers, trucks and other heavy equipment along the route spewing out fumes, dust and noise, the ride is closer to a T-Rex commute than a journey into wilderness.

Rocky Mountain has run shuttle buses to popular park sites since the 1970s. The school buses were retired in favor of newer models a few years ago, but they've been pressed back into service since the upper portions of Bear Lake Road have been closed to auto traffic. Most visitors don't seem to mind the free shuttles, which have allowed the trailheads to stay open during the road repairs. Half a million people rode the buses last year, and park officials want to encourage people to use them even after the roadwork is finished in a few months.

But the shuttles, like many other welcome amenities at the park, have their downside. The more accessible already popular areas become, the more likely it is that those areas will become overwhelmed. The traditional limit to trail capacity has always been the number of parking spaces available in the nearest parking lot; the shuttle system allows even more people to reach the trail than the parking lot can accommodate. Once the lots are reopened -- and improved parking is one of the goals of the Bear Lake project -- the use will escalate even further.

On this July morning the buses are almost full, despite the darkening clouds overhead. Most riders stay on until the last stop, Bear Lake itself, the starting point for trails that lead in all directions. Out pour solitary hikers, outfitted for long treks; families with small children, heading for a quick picnic along the lakefront; a trio of Russians, hauling unfashionable rucksacks; a cadre of determined seniors armed with tall, elaborately carved walking sticks; and dozens more.

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