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Rocky Times in Rocky Mountain National Park, by Karl Hess Jr

Review by Ed Quillen

Wildlife – May 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine

Rocky Times in Rocky Mountain National Park – An Unnatural History
by Karl Hess, Jr.
Published in 1993 by University Press of Colorado
ISBN: 0-87081-309-9

THE 265,000 ACRES OF Rocky Mountain National Park sit 150 miles northeast of central Colorado, but this book deserves attention here for two reasons:

1) The foreword was written by the author’s friend Tom Wolf, who lives near Westcliffe, and

2) Rocky Mountain National Park is managed by the same Department of the Interior which keeps coming up with plans to prevent ranchers’ cattle from overgrazing public lands all over the West, including this area.

In Rocky Times, Hess demonstrates that the Interior Department could teach ranchers how to overgraze mountain land. Too many critters on not enough land, and when they run out of grass, they eat willows and aspen. Without willows, the beaver leave. Without willows or beaver dams, creeks erode into gullies — a familiar process in too many places.

It is somewhat different in Rocky Mountain National Park. The voracious critters are elk rather than Herefords, and the park isn’t supposed to be operated for meat production. It was established in 1915 “for the preservation of the natural conditions and scenic beauties thereof,” and in 1976, the park was declared a United Nations Biosphere Preserve, to provide “a standard against which the effect of man’s impact on his environment can be measured.”

Thanks to heavy hunting, elk were almost extinct in Colorado when the park was established, and their predators, grizzlies and wolves, were also on the way out. The elk returned with 49 from Yellowstone herd, and they flourished so well that now there are about 1,600 — the park’s winter grazing range will support from 600 to 1,000 elk.

Hunting is forbidden in the park, and the result of this overpopulation is a landscape that looks pleasant to the casual eye, but horrifies Hess, a trained range ecologist. “My aversion to trampled, denuded, and scat-covered landscapes is in no way mitigated by the knowledge that ‘natural’ elk rather than ‘unnatural’ cattle committed the travesty.”

The other major threat is fire suppression. For the past 75 years, few fires have burned in the park, causing large uniform stands of diseased trees.

The breaks created by small fires allowed for greater biotic diversity, and the big stands are a disaster waiting to happen — a fire of the same size as the 1988 Yellowstone blaze, except in a much smaller area.

The park suffers in other ways from elk and fire suppression. It doesn’t support nearly as many beaver and bear as it should, and alien grasses are invading the meadows.

Why does the Park Service allow this to happen — in a biosphere preserve, of all places? Every person who visits the park is a potential voter who might persuade a congressman to increase appropriates for the Park Service.

Park visitors like to see elk, and they don’t like to see smoke-filled skies. The Park Service aims to please by managing “nature” to keep the turnstiles clicking, and the result is a scarred Rocky Mountain National Park that is about as “natural” as Fryer Hill.

Hess shows that managing land for tourism and scenery can be just as destructive to the environment, though not as easily visible, as managing for cattle or timber. He raises good questions about what is “natural” and whether it is even possible to manage land in such a way as to pretend that humans never came near it.

His proposed solution, park management by a conservation trust, sounds appealing. Under it, “Preservation of the park would remain, as always, a matter of national interest, but achieving that preservation would be the job of local interests — interests that become local by virtue of commitment to place rather than attachment to distant, impersonal bureaucracy.”

Hess knows his subject intimately and he marshals his arguments well, although his style is sometimes too academic. Given the current controversies over the management of public lands in the West, and the assumptions by some environmental groups that the Park Service is always right, this book couldn’t be more timely or provocative.

— EQ