The girls are twenty feet off the road, climbing stealthily up an embankment to get a better look at grazing elk. Their woodcraft isn't sneaky enough, though, to evade the iron gaze of Gregg Burgess, who pulls his four-wheeler to the side of the road, steps out and beckons to them to come down.
An ex-Marine a few weeks shy of his 27th birthday, Burgess looks sharp and trim in his National Park Service uniform. This is his first summer as a seasonal ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park, but he's already seen plenty of this kind of action. When he's patrolling the park's St. Vrain/Fall River district, his job consists largely of dealing with traffic accidents and stranded motorists on Trail Ridge Road, checking campgrounds, answering questions -- and trying to keep the public a safe distance from the wildlife.
One of the busted, a long-haired teen in an Old Navy sweatshirt, attempts a winning smile.
"Am I in trouble?" she asks. "Did I do something wrong?"
"How old are you?" Burgess asks.
"Nineteen," the girl says.
"Can I see your driver's license?"
"Oh, my God," she gasps. "Are you going to give me a ticket?"
Burgess takes her license and surveys the group, giving them a look suitable for Texas Hold 'Em. "Approaching wildlife in a national park is against the law," he tells them.
The group says nothing, as if solemnly digesting the concept. Burgess returns to his vehicle and reads off the girl's Oklahoma license information to the dispatcher. But there will be no ticket this time. It's Labor Day weekend -- expected to be one of the busiest weekends of the year in the park, despite the damp weather -- and Burgess can see another elk jam developing up the road. People are pulling halfway onto the shoulder to gawk, heedless of the stream of traffic behind them.
Burgess hands Miss Old Navy her license and a warning and hurries on his way, wading into the next group of elk-struck tourists. In a park that draws more than three million visitors a year, the fifth-most-popular place in the entire national park system, rangering often comes down to crowd control.
"People think the laws don't apply when they get inside a national park," Burgess says. "They think they can camp anywhere, sleep in their car, do just about anything. Some of them think it's a zoo and they can pet the animals."
Yet there's more to protecting Rocky Mountain's 416-square-mile expanse than directing traffic and shooing people away from the rutting elk. Like most park rangers, Burgess is also a commissioned law-enforcement officer. He carries a sidearm and is trained to deal with everything from drunk drivers to drug busts and domestic-violence incidents in campgrounds. He's also part medic, responding to heart attacks and helping hikers with twisted ankles down the trail, averaging one rescue every other week. Although he works in the park only four months out of the year, he's the face of the National Park Service to the people he meets, perhaps the only official presence they'll encounter during their visit to the park.
"People ask me what that white stuff on Longs Peak is, or what you call these things," Burgess says, gesturing at the elk. "I could be stopping some guy for a DUI and then be educating some children on why they shouldn't be feeding wildlife. And then you get someone who really knows the park and wants some detailed hiking information. There's so much, one person can't do it all. You can't be an expert on everything -- but you're expected to be, anyway."
People do expect a lot from America's national parks. They expect them to be chock-full of natural wonders and scenic vistas, preferably attainable by car. They want them to be rich in wildlife, ideally wildlife that's sociable and patient with photographers. They want opportunities for solitude in deep wilderness and for casual recreation of all sorts. They want to be entertained, and they want to escape our synthetic, entertainment-drenched culture for something more consequential, wild, real. They want experts to answer their burning questions, such as when the deer turn into elk, but they also want to be left alone. And, of course, they want clean bathrooms and snack bars and places to gas up and buy film and cheesy souvenirs. The burden of meeting all these contradictory demands falls to the National Park Service, charged with protecting some of the nation's most treasured places while making them available for "public use and enjoyment" by the maximum number of visitors.
The mission has its paradoxical -- some might say impossible -- side, particularly in a place like Rocky Mountain. In many ways, the park is being victimized by its own success. Trail Ridge Road and other accessible attractions now draw such crowds throughout the summer that a kind of theme-park atmosphere prevails. Some popular front-country areas are in jeopardy of being loved to death by the throngs at the trailheads. Peak-baggers of all ages and abilities come to Longs Peak in late summer, an endless procession of Gore-Tex-clad penitentes, gasping in the thin air and trudging to the summit. Meanwhile, the quest for wilderness is bringing more and more hikers into backcountry once considered too primitive or remote to worry about.
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?
"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.
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.
"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.
Many of them are back at the bus stop ninety minutes later, after an unusually vigorous and prolonged cloudburst has turned the trails into gushing streams and thoroughly soaked those who forgot to pack a poncho. They huddle under the bus canopies, waiting for the next shuttle to a nice, dry place.
Yet on the bus I ride, there are no complaints about the weather. Aside from a couple of young men shivering in T-shirts, most seem to have expected the rain, or at least accepted it as part of the excitement of a brush with the backcountry. Across the aisle, a college student from Texas tells a woman from Louisiana about the youth group he brought to the park and what fun they had, and how he came up in late May on his own and had to stumble down a trail in a whiteout. He serves up the details with relish, savoring the element of raw risk. My seatmate, an elderly woman from Michigan whose bulky, hooded poncho lends her a monkish air, tells me she's been coming to the park every summer since 1948 and has a cabin nearby.
"I knew it was going to rain," she says, "but I only have a few days left before I go back. I want to spend as much time as I can out here."
Uncertainty about weather and crowds is part of the great unscripted experience of visiting a park like Rocky Mountain. Some people hope to lose the crowds a mile or two down the trail; others may not mind them. The hiking purists tend to avoid Bear Lake altogether in favor of the park's less populous west side. Regulars know that Rocky Mountain is actually two parks. Its east end, anchored by Estes Park, has more roads, more amenities, more ponderosa pine -- and more people. On the west, reached through Grand Lake, one finds more lodgepole pine, a web of trails that snake along the Colorado River and offer views of the Never Summer Range, and at least the possibility of solitude.
On a recent hike to Cascade Falls, which started at a trailhead on the edge of Grand Lake itself, I met up with seven people in three hours -- too many, no doubt, for true Waldenites, but a lonesome morning by east-side standards. Several of the other hikers were park volunteers, hauling sledgehammers to remove rocks that were choking a creek bed. The grumpiest encounter was with a radio-collared mule deer, who studied me for long moments, then moved, grudgingly, from the middle of the trail.
When he became a district ranger four years ago, Mark Magnuson came across a file folder stuffed with staff memos about Longs Peak dating back to the 1960s. The oldest one noted, with some alarm, that the parking lot at the trailhead was filling to capacity on weekends and that rangers were seeing more trash on the trail and problems with human waste.
The next memo was from the 1970s. It stated that the parking lot was now full all the time, with vehicles parking down the road on weekends.
The third memo was a 1980s update: parking and trash problems increasing, summer overflow becoming unmanageable.
And so it went. The folder was a capsule history of the growing craze for climbing Colorado's favorite fourteener -- and the growing dilemma faced by the rangers, who are supposed to protect the mountain and manage it for recreational use at the same time.
These days, Longs Peak, like Vegas, is a 24-hour operation. "We have hikers and climbers coming and going at all hours of the night," says Magnuson, now the park's chief ranger. "Sometimes we have cars parked along the road all the way down to the highway."
Magnuson and his predecessors have tried to address the more obvious impacts of the rush-hour atmosphere on Longs. They've erected four solar dehydrating toilets along the most popular route to the summit, a painful tradeoff between natural scenery and the call of nature. But park management is reluctant to take stringent measures to control the number of people on the mountain, even though the sheer volume of use may be making an often-underestimated climb even more hazardous.
"Longs' popularity makes people feel like they are safer, but the opposite is the case," writes Gerry Roach in his climbing guide, Colorado's Fourteeners. "Many people believe the greatest climbing hazard today is being below other people." Roach likens late-summer ascents of the Keyhole Route to "walking on a crowded city sidewalk through a construction zone."
The park has been able to manage overnight use by limiting the number of camping permits it issues, but day hikers -- including peak-baggers who set out at one in the morning -- are another story. Magnuson doesn't believe the park is at the point yet where more drastic caps on climbers are needed; wet weather and gas prices this summer, and drought and fires the previous two years, have given the staff a little breathing room for considering options. But the debate over what to do about Longs and other inundated areas -- build more parking lots? hand out numbers? put a limit on group size? -- is far from settled.
"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."
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.
Yet Magnuson's rangers are too busy on the roads and in the campgrounds -- and on Longs Peak. Technical climbers may be getting into trouble less often, but the number of search-and-rescue incidents involving general hikers is shooting up. Some are poorly equipped, improperly dressed or overcome with altitude sickness. Some just don't know what the hell they're doing.
"They drive out from sea level in two days, try to summit Longs Peak in a day and overexert themselves," the chief ranger says. "We pull someone off there several times a week. Sometimes it seems like several times a day."
Rain turns to sleet as Gregg Burgess heads up Trail Ridge Road. Near the Alpine Visitor Center, elevation 11,796 feet, a heavy fog grips the ridge. Visibility drops to thirty feet, then ten. Burgess switches on his hazard lights. The dispatcher says the temperature is around 35 degrees Fahrenheit, but the wind chill is 15 and falling.
The park usually keeps Trail Ridge open until mid-October, but it's been shut down briefly even in July because of snow, ice or visibility problems. On a clear day, the highest state highway in America can be a journey out of time, a communion with wind and spectacular jagged peaks and the sprawling miles of tundra that make up one-third of the park -- or a miserable slog behind a wide-ass motor home with Arkansas plates that declare ELVIS1. Today it's simply a cautious crawl through gray soup.
Some days Burgess is stuck on Trail Ridge for most of his shift, dealing with vapor locks, failed brakes and accidents. Not long ago, staff had to arrange for a helicopter ride from the Alpine Visitor Center for a food-service employee who was suffering an allergic reaction to the pineapple in her lunch. Like most rangers, Burgess would prefer to spend more time in the backcountry, but it just isn't possible; the backcountry rangers tend to be veterans, and Burgess is still working toward a shot at a permanent position. He didn't even have a chance to climb Longs Peak until a few days ago.
On the way down from the visitor center, the clouds begin to lift and the sun breaks through. Flashes of crimson and gold ripple through the tundra, already primed for winter. Burgess marvels at the scene. "A lot of our rescues," he says, "come from a lack of respect for Mother Nature."
Past Deer Ridge Junction, the pullouts are crammed with people viewing the elk mating rituals in an adjoining meadow. Burgess pulls over and joins a group huddled around volunteer Dave Chambers, who's explaining why the bull elk in the meadow has such a dark chest.
"He's been wallowing for the rut," Chambers explains to a middle-aged man. "A bull will find a good mudhole and pee in it, then rub it all over himself to attract the ladies. When you were a young guy, you probably did the same thing."
Volunteers such as Chambers are a godsend to the rangers. The park has 2,000 of them, putting in around 100,000 hours a year. They can be more places than the sparse ranger staff and are often the wildlife's first line of defense from the overly curious. Chambers has worked 4,000 hours over the past nine years. In the fall he watches over the elk rut at least twice a week. "We used to have to chase people out of the meadow all the time," he says. "People still don't bother to read the signs, but most of them seem to understand why they need to keep their distance."
As Burgess returns to his four-wheeler, a call comes over the radio about an "overdue party" on Longs Peak. The missing hiker set out from the Keyhole for the summit more than five hours ago, leaving two companions behind; he never returned. His two friends headed down to the trailhead, and the rangers have just been notified of the situation.
It's been snowing most of the afternoon on the peak, with strong winds. It's now six o'clock, and night is fast approaching. The overdue party, a 26-year-old Fort Collins man, was wearing tennis shoes, jeans and a hooded sweatshirt.
The search team finds his body the next afternoon. According to the Boulder County coroner, the man, identified as Sudheer Averineni, died of exposure. It was the first fatality on Longs Peak since three people died there in 2000.
Born in India, Averineni worked as an engineer for Hewlett-Packard. He had tried twice before to climb the 14,255-foot peak.
This time he reached the summit.
As the science officer for Rocky Mountain National Park, Terry Terrell presides over an essential yet oddly secondhand enterprise. A 1997 law requires the park service to base its management decisions on solid science -- as opposed to, say, the lobbying pressures exerted by snowmobilers or other recreational groups. But an administrative maneuver had purged the parks of their scientific research staffs three years earlier.
The parks have responded to the challenge by establishing centers that provide bunks and other support for outside researchers. The Continental Divide Research Center, established in 2001 at a renovated dude ranch in the park, now hosts 400 people a year, usually researchers from other government agencies or universities.
"We're not funding most of this research," Terrell notes. "We're putting $188,000 a year into it, and we think we have about a $4 million program. This is the best bargain the federal government is getting anywhere."
The park is fortunate to be so close to several major universities, whose researchers have helped the park service get a better picture not only of the resources at Rocky Mountain, but also at the Great Sand Dunes and Florissant Fossil Beds, which are served by the center as well. "The parks didn't know what resources they have," Terrell adds. "It's hard to manage them wisely if you don't even have a complete list of the plants and animals you have."
Current studies at Rocky Mountain focus on an astonishing variety of topics, from the "charismatic megafauna," such as elk and mountain lions, to butterflies and lowly lichen. Researchers want to know why the park's black bears seem to be two-thirds the size of bears elsewhere and have fewer cubs. They want to know how the bighorn sheep are faring now that they have to cross a busy road, escorted by volunteers, to reach a mineral lick. They want to crack the mysteries of chronic wasting disease, which was first detected in the park's elk in 1981 and has since been confirmed in a total of twenty elk and twelve mule deer, all in areas east of the Continental Divide. They want to better identify the habitat of the boreal toad, so that people aren't fouling their breeding grounds by washing dishes in a campground stream.
It's Terrell's job to review the proposals and make sure they take a scientifically valid approach. She turns down researchers who want to bring non-native plants or radioactive isotopes into the park and those whose interests don't seem to have any connection with park-management issues.
"Somebody came to us and wanted to prove that chronic wasting disease and blowdowns were caused by aliens," she recalls. "It was not... science. It was just to prove a preconceived notion. I couldn't come up with a way to do it scientifically."
Terrell would like to see more projects addressing Rocky Mountain's most elusive creatures, such as wolverines, which may not exist at all in the park anymore. And she would welcome more big-picture studies. "The direction I would like to see us go is more integrative -- larger ecosystem research instead of individual species," she says. "At what point do we need to encourage people to go to a different part of the park? We see some impacts. How serious they are, we don't know. On a large scale, climbers aren't having a lot of impact. But are they having an impact on bat nursery areas or rare plant communities? We have no idea."
Research findings often lead to changes in the way the park is managed. This winter, after years of study and public meetings, Rocky Mountain will unveil its long-awaited management plan for dealing with the staggering elk population. Given the attachment visitors feel to the elk and their importance to the tourist industry in Estes Park, this is easily the most difficult decision administrators have faced in years.
After being virtually eradicated by settlers in the late 1800s, elk were reintroduced to the area by the U.S. Forest Service two years before the park was born. Since the wolves and grizzlies had been killed off, too, the elk thrived. For decades, rangers kept the herd down to a manageable size through regular hunts, but the culling stopped in the 1960s, after public outrage over massive elk kills in Yellowstone. The herd has tripled since 1969, with as many as 3,000 elk moving into the park in the summer and 2,000 wintering there. Aside from causing property damage around Estes Park, the elk are devouring willows and aspens, slashing through precious vegetation and endangering habitat for beavers, songbirds and butterflies.
"It's not just a park problem," superintendent Baker says. "It's a town problem, a county problem, a golf course problem. There's no agreement on how to deal with it."
Because of the chronic wasting disease, park officials can't simply relocate a substantial percentage of the herd. Hunting is illegal in national parks -- and even if that law were suspended, opening the park to hunters would restrict access to too many popular areas. Other possible options include contraceptives, reintroducing wolves to the park and bringing in marksmen for tightly supervised culling.
"We realize not everyone is going to like whatever's selected," says Therese Johnson, the management biologist overseeing the plan. "There are people on both sides of every alternative. But we want to make sure we're not overlooking something, some information or technique we don't know about."
Baker suspects the plan will feature a combination of different methods. "I don't think any one technique is the silver bullet," he says. "We're certainly not an intact ecosystem, and they couldn't contain wolves even in a park the size of Yellowstone. We have a town right here. Would you like to see wolves running down Main Street? I suspect we'll have some fencing, some culling, possibly some predator control. The wolves may show up on their own. The prey base is certainly here."
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."
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.
"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."
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."
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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.
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