Loved to Death

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

"I didn't realize how much people hate cell phones," says Jonathan Taylor, a research social scientist with the USGS in Fort Collins. "They just don't enhance the experience."

Taylor did a follow-up survey with his group that yielded results quite similar to Wallace's study. There were many of the same complaints about noise and boorish behavior, many of the same questions about whether one could be "in wilderness" in a park like Rocky Mountain -- and the same clash of expectations and attitudes between casual and more hard-core visitors.

"You have a variety of people using the wilderness," Taylor says. "The managers have tended to identify with the wilderness purists, but they may not even be the majority of those who are using the wilderness. There are some shorter-term hikers who want to see an outhouse somewhere."

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

Both studies indicate that there's no consensus among Rocky Mountain's visitors concerning what wilderness means or how it should be managed. Yet the future of the park's backcountry hinges on the answer to those questions. This month marks the fortieth anniversary of the passage of the Wilderness Act, which has safeguarded 105 million acres across the country from development and allowed citizens to advance their own wilderness proposals. For decades, large portions of Rocky Mountain have been "under consideration" for wilderness status, but to this day the park contains only 3,000 acres of officially designated wilderness.

It's National Park Service policy to manage potential wilderness in the same manner as if it had already received the designation; park officials say most visitors wouldn't notice the difference if Congress ever approves the languishing proposal. But official wilderness status would add a formal layer of protection to the backcountry that it doesn't now have, making it less likely that the most primitive areas of the park will ever see more roads, motorized vehicles or other developments. Park officials haven't pursued the issue under the Bush administration, which has been ardently opposed to adding wilderness, but it's something that many staffers would like to see resolved soon.

Taylor points out that official wilderness status would certainly bring more people to the park who are specifically seeking wilderness. "But I don't think it would be a problem," he says. "The people who really love wilderness want to get back into it. You'd have increased usage, but I don't think you'd have noticeably increased contact."

Through his survey, Taylor discovered that people have several different reasons for valuing wilderness -- aesthetics, escape, adventure, communing with God or nature, even "socializing" with loved ones. "Most users fall into several different categories," he says. "Within the individual, it's a diverse experience."

Whatever the experience of wilderness means, there first has to be a wild place to have it. For generations of Coloradans, Rocky Mountain National Park has been that place. But the time is long past when its riches could be taken for granted.

Click Here for related stories in the Places Worth Saving special report.

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