Americans love their national parks. And Colorado people love, love, love Rocky Mountain National Park, a 416- square-mile expanse of towering peaks, glacial lakes, tundra, forests and meadows less than two hours' drive from Denver. Despite being much smaller in size than Yellowstone or Yosemite, RMNP typically ranks among the five busiest national parks in the country and last year drew more than 3.4 million visitors, a new record -- just as the park's on the verge of marking its hundredth birthday.
Of course, too much popularity can be a problem. We took a hard look at the park a few years back in my feature "Loved to Death," and found its pristine qualities threatened by overuse and Front Range pollution. You got your peak-baggers, your tourists trying to take selfies with bugling elk, and rangers called upon to respond to domestic violence incidents in campgrounds; you also have the effects of natural gas development, increasing nitrogen deposits and other effects of climate change altering the park's air quality and its ecosystems.
"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," I wrote. "Can wilderness survive, in any meaningful way, with three million visitors a year and another three million polluting neighbors at its doorstep?"
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Park officials are still wrestling with the headaches of its popularity and its proximity to a major metropolitan area. But they're also in the mood to celebrate a special place that's provided respite, solace and inspiration to generations of visitors. Next Monday, January 26, marks the actual anniversary of the day in 1915 when President Woodrow Wilson signed legislation that removed the park's treasures --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 logging companies, mining companies and speculators.
The occasion will be marked by free birthday cake ("while it lasts") for arrivals at the Beaver Meadows and Kawuneeche visitor centers. But there are a bunch of other events scheduled in various places, including a talk at the Estes Park Museum on local climbers who've made history and a photographic exhibit at the Loveland Museum/Gallery of the work of longtime Longs Peak shutterbug Harold Dunning.
Closer to Denver is a Saturday night benefit at the Boulder Theater, featuring photos, film, music and food. The work of award-winning park photographer Erik Stensland, author of the handsome coffee-table tome Wild Light, will be on display; the event will also feature the Front Range premiere of the short film Wilderness, Wildlife & Wonder, produced by an Estes Park production company. Doors open at 6 p.m. and the $15 ticket also gets you hors d'oeuvres, a cash bar, a chance to bid in a silent auction (outdoor gear and more), and bluegrass music. Tickets are available here; proceeds benefit the National Parks Conservation Association, which hopes to keep the party in the park going well into the second century. For more information, call the theater at 303-786-7030.