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Managing the Wild: Rocky Mountain National Park Turns 100

RMNP managers have learned a thing or two in the first 100 years — here’s a look back, and forward, to the challenges ahead

“It had taken five years of lobbying, debate, conflict, and compromise ... But it happened. On January 26, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson signed the bill into law. Rocky Mountain National Park was born.”

– Mary Taylor Young, “Rocky Mountain National Park: The First 100 Years”

To look at it, the landscape — a flat, open, riparian meadow — appears easily navigable. But walking across it is comically challenging. In one step the snow supports me, and then suddenly, upon the next step, gives way with a crunch and I'm knee deep in the fluff beneath the icy shell. The snowless patches are hardly better. Clumps of long golden grasses — laid flat by some prior rush of water — make for unsure footing. The 8,300-foot elevation and fierce, frigid wind don't help either. I'm panting and tripping and squinting my way toward an aspen grove in Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP).

 Elk Rocky Mountain National ParkPhoto by Kent Kanouse, on Flickr Elk on Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. Trail Ridge’s above tree line traverse is the engineering centerpiece for Rocky's more than three million annual visitors.

The aspen grove is itself odd — tall, wizened, mature trees clustered by a seeming weed field of shoulder high shoots. It's like grandparents day at an aspen tree daycare, with the middle generation conspicuously absent. One hundred feet or so in any direction there's a tall fence, and beyond that, meadow, roadway, and ancient granite stretching upward into cold January sky.

The absence of the middle generation and the presence of the fence can both be explained with a single word: Elk. This grove sits within an exclosure built to keep the elk out; and without the over-grazing elk, the aspen are thriving. Pre-exclosure it was otherwise: old trees dying, middle trees becoming old, and youngsters being wiped out by an overabundance of hungry elk. The ripple effect of this is a spiraling ecological puzzle in which, without sufficient young aspen, beavers are without sustenance. Without beavers — park populations are down 90% from half a century ago — and the ponds they create, the water table drops, further compromising aspen populations and the migratory birds and butterflies who summer among them. 

Taken individually, the exclosure is a simple human construct addressing a complex ecological problem. But viewed in the context of countless other park management programs, a rich philosophical paradigm is revealed: Rocky Mountain National Park is itself a human construct. This is, after all, a landscape influenced by thousands of years of native human activity, hundreds of years of Euro-American settlement and resource exploration, a singular political demarcation 100 years ago yesterday, and a century of complex and changing park management. 

“Although we would not know it by simply looking, the trail that winds along a rushing stream, the trout that swim in that stream, and the stately trees that shade our campsites are… products of humans and our ideas,” writes historian Jerry Frank in his book Making Rocky Mountain National Park. “Even more difficult to apprehend are those things that are no longer present. The predators that do not live in the park, the native fish that do not swim in its waters, the fires that have not burned its forests.”

I'm a bit rattled by this. I come to “Rocky” to experience the WILD, far from human contrivances — aside from the minimal infrastructure that accommodates my visit. I regard this landscape as a swath of untainted nature simply protected and made available. But it does not take extensive analysis to see the truth in Frank's statements. For starters, infrastructure extends beyond the overt — roads, campgrounds, outhouses — to more subtle expressions like trails, backcountry campsites, fire policy, and elk exclosures.

Looking back over the century shows even more human manipulation, detailed in Frank’s book. Like placing salt licks to attract bighorn sheep for roadside photo-ops, stocking non-native trout in waterways for sport fishing, and installing chairlifts in Hidden Valley for downhill skiing. Later, a more ecological focus shifted management to the careful favoring of native species and the removal of the ski area. Still, Frank writes, “So much of Rocky Mountain National Park is a product of people imagining a space free from the human stain and then setting out to make that place a reality.”

Is the park, then, a fabricated wild; a landscape that’s more presentation than preservation? I reached out to Frank and park managers for perspective. 

“The tendency to hide or erase the human imprint in national parks is at once understandable, fascinating, and problematic,” Frank told me. "It’s understandable because most Americans believe or assume that parks are natural. Most Americans, however, hold a definition of nature that… precludes a human presence. Year after year [park personnel] have to maintain areas where millions trod, but do so in a way that minimizes… any admission that these great ‘natural’ preserves are, to a large extent, both mental and physical creations of human beings."

Park chief of resource stewardship, Ben Bobowski puts it this way: "Rocky was created by the people, for the people, and for their enjoyment over a long period of time." This, he says, speaks to relevancy. But this is the rub, too. Relevancy and enjoyment are near relatives of overuse. "As you expand your narrative,” he continues, “it’s about enjoyment of the people, yes, but it’s also people of future generations. Enjoyment today at the expense of the next generation is the true conundrum. 

Perhaps it’s presentation as a means for preservation — and it always comes back to people. "There is no shortage of massive challenges ahead," Frank says when I ask about the future. And, yes, "Perhaps the biggest is visitation."

A Road Runs Through It

As my car rounds a switchback the view is suddenly breathtaking. A range of wintry high peaks — white against vivid blue — that form the Continental Divide present a singular jagged wall, snow swirling chillingly into the sky. I’m on Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuously paved road in the US. Both access and destination, Trail Ridge’s above tree line traverse is the engineering centerpiece for Rocky's more than three million annual visitors.

"Early park managers knew that for their experiment to last they had to attract as many Americans as possible," says Jerry Frank. But, "Just as the park has a carrying capacity for elk, it also has a threshold for how many people — and their honking, rumbling, smoking, automobiles — can be in the park at any given time.” He mentions the possibility of visitor limits and mandatory busing. “In the next decade or two, if the visitation projections are right, something will have to be done." 

“We get a really intense level of visitation," says David Pettebone, social scientist and the park's wilderness coordinator. With a record 3.4 million visitors in 2014, Rocky is just a hair behind Yellowstone — but with one-ninth the landmass — “So we have very intense use on our land." 

I ask what excessive visitation looks like. Is it car exhaust, traffic, parking; is it people lining up at the toilet, or tramping off trail onto wild flora?

"The answer is YES," Pettebone replies. "One of the purposes of the park is to provide a respite for the population to get away from an urban environment, and what you just described is an urban environment. The more we accommodate what you just described, the further we are from achieving our purpose as a park."

He continues, "If you're going to accommodate high levels of use you're probably going to have to develop infrastructure — a trail system, for instance… a certain level of development in a backcountry area — and if you don't want to develop infrastructure, the tradeoff is that you might have to limit use to an unacceptable level.” But, he warns, “while visitor limits may be a solution to your carrying capacity issues, it's not identical.” What if you impose daily limits but everyone goes to Bear Lake? Or you limit weekend visitation only to create overcrowded weekdays? He asks, “Are you really achieving the objective of protection and quality visitor experiences?"

Increased infrastructure is not synonymous with increased impact, Pettebone points out. "Before we established campsites in popular locations like Fern Lake, the lakesides were trashed. Now you don't see that anymore."

It's complex stuff. “We might think we have our head around a condition or some type of activity or location,” Pettebone adds, “and it may change before our eyes."

Change Before Our Eyes: Adaptive Management for the Next 100 Years

"We've seen more fires in the last five years — of significant size and scope — than we did in the 95 years that preceded it," Ben Bobowski explains.

"Fuels will dominate a system, they’ll blanket it, smother out the other plants and you have a fuel that’s extremely volatile…" He's speaking of cheatgrass, a non-native grass that is spreading throughout the park, moving to higher elevation forests , and  increasing fire risk. "A good estimate of what that might look like was during the Fern Lake fire. The fire moved — at 1:30 in the morning, on December 1 in the cold — three miles in 35 minutes with a good wind and a grass fuel. So, now imagine all of Rocky changing to that. Those are the kinds of things we’re anticipating and trying to steer away from."

Park fire policy offers an example of changing management attitudes. When RMNP was first established, fires were suppressed, but "as fire was thought to be beneficial... for not only the environment but also for protecting the people, we slowly evolved toward that," says Bobowski. Today, to address fires, the park must look at climate change — the engine behind cheatgrass expansion. 

To be sure, climate change is altering much more than fire management. "To go from not having climate change in our portfolio of issues a decade ago, to it being not only the number one issue but the most complicated issue we’ve ever faced, is a pretty dramatic shift,” says Bobowski. “We currently support actions that put us in the best place for a resilient ecosystem." That is, "Minimizing exotics, maximizing native species and restoring landscapes wherever we can... to give the species that have adapted for thousands of years the best chance to figure out how to go forward." 

One approach is adaptive management. To explain this process, Bobowski brings us back to the elk. “It’s not trial and error, it’s getting information relevant to the issue and trying to best project the outcomes. It’s implementing the management actions and then assessing those actions in a periodic way." The Elk and Vegetation Management Plan is a 20-year program with assessments at five-year increments. “We ask ourselves along the way, ‘were our predictions accurate?’ and if not, ‘why not?’ If they were, ‘how can we improve?’” 

And that just might sum it up. Always managing, always adapting, and always ensuring satisfaction for the necessary human visitors.

I steer my Subaru through the Fall River gate, pass the Visitor Center sign boasting a restaurant, souvenirs, ATM, “buses welcome.” A few minutes later with the snowy peaks in my rear view, I’m rolling through the center of Estes Park — a town exhibiting that half-open awkward charm of off-season tourism. On my left at the stoplight, bright blue salt water taffy is mechanically stretched and folded in a display window. Some things are uncomplicated, it seems to be saying.  This is not the wild.

Bill Giebler
Bill Giebler is an award-winning writer based in Boulder, Colorado. He’s been visiting Rocky Mountain National Park for over 40 years.

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