Loved to Death

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

"Build it, and they will come," Magnuson says. "The demand is there for increased capacity, but you have to balance that with the carrying capacity of the resource -- and the visitor experience. We don't want to accommodate use so much that we begin to adversely impact the very things people come here to enjoy."

It used to be that rangers could informally promote dispersal of use by urging visitors to check out some of the park's more primitive sections. Wild Basin, an area in the southeast corner featuring rugged trails leading to a string of lakes, was a spot Magnuson used to suggest to people looking to get away from it all. But even Wild Basin is now becoming a management problem.

"We've seen a shift of use," Magnuson says. "It's not uncommon to get complaints from visitors who say, ŒI was told I could go here to get away from the crowds, and I can't even find a place to park.' Any more, you'd be hard-pressed to find any place in the park on a busy day where you're going to get away from people."

Patrick Merewether
Lone ranger: Gregg Burgess patrols Rocky Mountain's 
front country.
Anthony Camera
Lone ranger: Gregg Burgess patrols Rocky Mountain's front country.

Another strategy for dispersal involves encouraging use outside the peak summer period. But that's already happening without much promotion. Traditionally, the busiest weekend in the park has fallen around the Fourth of July or Labor Day holidays; last year, though, it was a weekend in October, when the fall colors and the bugling elk were at their best. The park is also seeing a sizable jump in winter visitors, primarily snowshoers, Magnuson says.

In high season, when his permanent staff of sixteen full-timers is fortified by another thirty or forty seasonal hires, just keeping up with the basics of the job -- traffic, law enforcement, search-and-rescue and other emergencies -- can be all-consuming. Outnumbered by visitors 50,000 to one, the rangers figure that one of the most important ways they can protect the park is to offer a wide range of interpretive and educational programs, designed to foster appreciation for Rocky Mountain's resources, its dangers and its rules.

Although the latest round of budget cuts have trimmed the number of ranger "walks and talks" by a third, the programs remain impressive in their depth and frequency. There are lectures about history, geology or lightning; walks focusing on birds, wildflowers or beaver dams; workshops on how to read a compass or the night sky. Some of the best-attended events take place in the campgrounds in the evening, with a captive audience of up to a hundred.

"We get people who are out for their first vacation with the kids, retirees with $100,000 RVs, and everything in between," says Larry Frederick, the park's chief of interpretive programs. "Our hope is that we are instilling in visitors something about park values so they'll have a healthy respect for wildlife and the resource challenges we're facing."

Frederick believes that it's important to get visitors to pay more attention to the environment around them. "Some people set their expectations quite high," he says. "They think they can have wildlife on demand. Well, we can't always pick a walk and guarantee we'll see wildlife. But our walks can create surprises. They're used to getting on a trail and finding out how far they can hike and how fast, and we might take an hour to cover a quarter-mile. But they'll see things they would have missed otherwise."

Of course, not all contacts between rangers and visitors are so pleasant. Rangers on patrol often cover vast stretches of the backcountry alone, miles from any backup, which is why the job of park ranger is considered one of the most hazardous among federal law-enforcement officers. The park averages only eighteen arrests a year -- because the park has no jail, the process involves hauling a perp to the pokey in Fort Collins, then to Denver to face a federal magistrate -- but policing the place is hardly uneventful.

"People don't leave their problems at home just because they're on vacation," Magnuson says. "We're seeing more spillover of crime from the Front Range."

Two years ago rangers found a meth lab in the park. Last year there was a sharp hike in car "clouts," the systematic ransacking of vehicles parked at trailheads. Teenage drinking in the campgrounds, gangbangers with outstanding warrants hurling bottles at passing cars, suicides found in parking lots or pullouts -- it's all part of the Rocky Mountain getaway.

Magnuson frets about the crimes his people aren't reporting because the crimes are happening beyond their reach and knowledge -- poachers or illegal camping in the backcountry, for example. "One of the changes over the last decade is that, as we've been required to address more and more workload in the front country, we have to pull people out of the backcountry to do it," he says. "We've always prided ourselves on well-maintained trails and campsites, good signage -- a clean and pristine backcountry, where unacceptable impacts are addressed and mitigated. I don't know that we have as much of a handle on that now."

The folks heading into the park's backcountry are generally better prepared than they were ten or twenty years ago, he says, with better gear and more sophistication about what they're facing. Perhaps they have less need of rangers than they once did. But that doesn't mean the backcountry itself doesn't need more care.

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