Loved to Death

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

Regardless of how the elk controversy is resolved, the superintendent sees even more formidable challenges on the horizon. "The emerging resource-management issue is in the air-quality arena," he says. "The upslope conditions we get in the winter deposit a lot of stuff from the Front Range right here."

The park has been monitoring airborne pollutants for two decades. The research, spearheaded by U.S. Geological Survey ecologist Jill Baron, has shown increasing levels of nitrogen being deposited in the park -- now fifteen times the levels that could be found in the park prior to the 1950s. The prime contributors to the increase appear to be Front Range auto exhaust, emissions from oil and gas wells and refineries, feedlots and agricultural fertilizers. The excess nitrogen favors some plants over others; the park has already seen a shift in the types of algae thriving in its high mountain lakes. Eventually, the process can acidify the park's lakes and streams, harming fish and creating other imbalances in vegetation that could affect a wide range of species.

"If you have a change in the lower orders, that will affect higher orders of life as well," notes park biologist Karl Cordova. "We're not a regulatory agency. There's nothing we can do about this independently. But we are sharing the data we've collected with agencies that can do something."

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

Park officials have been working with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to devise a voluntary program for controlling nitrogen emissions. It's a daunting task -- industries facing substantial retrofit costs tend to argue that they're not the polluter at fault -- but a similar effort is already under way to try to reduce ozone levels along the Front Range, including inside the park. Park researchers believe the two problems are closely related, since the sources of the emissions are similar, and they hope to see measurable results from the ozone program over the next three years. If the voluntary effort fails, it's possible the Environmental Protection Agency could impose stricter standards.

The pollution problem may be a more subtle threat to the park's resources than too many elk, but that doesn't mean it's invisible. On hot, dry days, when Denver's brown crud seems to have taken up summer lodging on the pine-studded slopes and visitors complain about the haze, Cordova likes to talk about the park's sixteen alternative-fuel vehicles and the 20 percent of its heavy equipment fleet that's now running on biodiesel.

"We tell people that Rocky Mountain National Park is located near a large metropolitan area," he says. "And we tell them we do what we can with what's under our control. We try to set an example."

Two years ago, a research team from Colorado State University distributed surveys at Rocky Mountain trailheads to find out who was using the backcountry and why. The results gave park management a more detailed view of their most active visitors, particularly day hikers, than they'd ever had before.

On the whole, the survey group tended to be highly educated, with above-average incomes. More than two-thirds were over the age of 36. The day visitors hiked an average of nine miles, while overnight campers averaged twice that. One in five admitted to leaving the trail at times, for various reasons -- for example, to get somewhere the trail didn't go, "to get a better view of something," or simply out of the desire to find a more natural environment.

Nearly a third of the group reported that the park felt crowded to them, and many were ambivalent about whether they were truly having a "wilderness experience" during their visit. The traffic and parking problems they encountered on their way to the backcountry loomed large in their comments, but so did the behavior of other hikers -- who were noisy, harassing wildlife, camping illegally or otherwise violating park rules.

"There were an awful lot of users complaining about other users," says George Wallace, the CSU College of Natural Resources associate professor who headed the study. "It takes a while in the backcountry to get past frequent human encounters, to get that wilderness feeling. There's an in-between zone that has a mixture of expectations, where serious hikers meet up with more casual users. When you have as much access as this park has, you're going to have a mix of users."

Wallace questions whether the park can keep up with the increasing impacts on the backcountry from so many visitors. "Carrying capacity is a big issue," he says. "If we truly do love our parks, we're going to have to have an administration that manages them within acceptable limits."

The same summer that Wallace's people were handing out surveys at trailheads, another research project conducted by the USGS put cameras in the hands of backcountry visitors. The visitors were asked to document sights and sounds that either enhanced or detracted from their wilderness experience.

Most of the photographs that resulted from the study reflected positive experiences. Many of them showcased lakes, streams, ponds or other water features. A surprising number of the photos of "negative" aspects of the visit focused on horse droppings along the trails. The most frequently cited discordant element, though, wasn't a sight, but a sound -- the sound of some knucklehead chatting on a cell phone.

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