From a Permian reef, to Ice Age forests, to today’s desert lowlands and high country woodlands, the Guadalupe Mountains have experienced dramatic changes. As a wilderness, change is recognized as a valuable and necessary process, but certain changes brought by humans present challenges to park management. Air quality has been monitored within the park since 1982. An analysis of the data gathered from 1990 –1999 indicates that visibility is degrading on the haziest days and slightly improving on the clearest days. There is still concern as urban populations continue to grow and the pollutants from as far away as Los Angeles are transported to the region. Nighttime visibility is also a concern. Currently, visitors to the park enjoy pristine nighttime skies. The National Park Service has retrofitted its facilities with light shields, high efficiency fixtures, and low-sodium lights to minimize light pollution and provide a leading example for nearby communities.
Returning fire to the environment as a natural part of change is another challenge park managers face. Very little is known about the historic role of fire in the Guadalupe Mountains. It is not clear whether Native Americans used fire here like they did in other parts of the country or to what extent the area’s ranching history changed the fire regime. Today, relict woodlands in the high country and canyons have accumulated dangerous levels of fuels, which could potentially burn at catastrophic levels. Scientists are currently studying scarring in cross sections of trees to determine fire history, so that all fire management decisions have a scientific basis. In order for park managers to allow fire to return to its natural role, fuels will be reduced (through prescribed natural fire, controlled burns, and mechanical removal) to prevent catastrophic fires from occurring. However, when lives, property, or unique resources are threatened fires will be suppressed.
Drawing lines on a map and protecting everything within the park boundaries is often not enough. Environmental factors like air pollution, light pollution, and fire don’t stop at the fence line. The greatest challenge is to cultivate a land ethic and encourage lifestyle changes that will guarantee that once people journey to the park’s wilderness, their experiences will not be marred by pressures from outside the boundaries.