Rocky Mountain National Park
A History
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Chapter 8:

"We're loved to death. The resource is going to pot. We're supposed to be an outdoor museum. What we have is an urban park."
Edgar Menning, Resource Management Specialist, 1980

ON AUGUST 9, 1978, a bolt of lightning struck near Ouzel Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park and started a fire in a subalpine spruce-fir forest. In accord with a new philosophy that recognized the ecological significance of natural fires, Park rangers monitored the fire continuously as it carried out its "cleansing" role. For days the fire behaved as expected, spreading slowly and casting only an occasional puff of smoke into the sky. But then on August 23 and again on September 1, gusts of wind caused the fire to intensify and spread rapidly. As public pressure grew Park officials decided that the fire could remain wild no longer and assigned firefighter crews to control the blaze. With the help of snow and rain, containment seemed assured by September 11.

However, on September 15 winds exceeding thirty miles per hour swept out of the west, whipped the fire back into life and pushed it eastward toward the Park boundary. Residents of nearby Allenspark were alarmed at the rapid progress of the fire. People living in a housing subdivision even closer to the Park boundary found themselves directly in the path of the fast-approaching fire. Nearly 350 people prepared to flee or fight for their homes. Facing this emergency, some 500 firefighters scrambled to prevent the "Ouzel Fire" from escaping the confines of Rocky Mountain National Park. After days of strenuous effort, the fire crews successfully controlled one of the wildest elements of nature and kept the Ouzel Fire within the Park.

In 1978 wind-swept flames of the Ouzel Fire tested the preservationist philosophy of allowing natural fires to run their course. (RMNPHC)

Stopping this 1,050-acre forest fire did not silence questions about the wisdom of allowing fires to burn freely. Critics wondered whether every natural condition should really be restored, especially in a region growing ever more populous. Could Rocky Mountain National Park even be considered "wild?" Did its closest neighbors or its millions of visitors really want a wilderness? Or were notions about creating a natural environment in the Park merely idealistic nonsense, spouted by ivory tower eggheads, really impossible to permit or produce? Theories aside, once the Ouzel Fire threatened to leave the Park and endanger private property it ceased being a beneficial force of nature. It became a test for both firefighters and wilderness ideals.

Americans of the late 1950s were a people on wheels. The rapid pace of vacationers, sometimes only driving through the Park in an hour or two, made automobiles and roadways predominant parts of a park visit. (RMNPHC)

Forest fires created very little controversy during the 1950s, for those that occurred were quickly suppressed. Nor were the administrative policies of Rocky Mountain National Park particularly controversial in other respects. An atmosphere of progress and cooperation prevailed as more and more people came to the Park each year.

In this era of prosperity, Rocky Mountain National Park clearly demonstrated its role as a shrewd investment for Colorado businessmen, paying annual dividends in tourist dollars. A study conducted by University of Colorado economists showed that the average tourist party of the early 1950s (comprised of 3.8 statistical people) spent less than three days in the state while visiting the Park. Those mobile travelers expected to see more of the West than just a single park or the central Rockies. Only 10 percent of those vacationers stayed in the Rocky Mountain area for a full two-week period. Yet Park visitors boosted the state's economy, spending some $47 million annually, or an average of $30.78 a person per day. This purely economic analysis as well as the "regional grand tour vacations" of the tourists themselves were approaches to national parks not fully envisioned by idealists at the turn of the century. Yet it was a trend that would continue into the 1960s. "But this is part of the high speed life we live today," admitted one Park official in 1965, "fast cars, fast freeways, and a speed of life which, I'm sure, would have made Steve Mather push back his Stetson and scratch his head in disbelief." [2]

Watching this boom in tourism develop, officials recognized that Rocky Mountain National Park was "suffering from a lag in funds and manpower for general maintenance and modernization of physical facilities." [3] Simple wear and tear had produced shoddy conditions within the Park. In the years following World War II, vacationers had been streaming in, taxing all the roads, trails, museums, and campgrounds. Most other national parks experienced a similar onrush of tourists and also faced deteriorating facilities. As early as 1949, Park Service Director Newton B. Drury saw the pressure from enthusiastic visitors creating a crisis for the parks: roads and trails were badly in need of repair, campgrounds needed expansion, visitor centers and museums proved to be inadequate, and the park ranger and naturalist staffs were undermanned and ill-housed. A decade of neglect and a lack of proper maintenance brought by war and economy measures meant that the national parks appeared unable to meet the growing demands of tourists. By 1953, historian Bernard DeVoto suggested that the national parks simply had to be closed, since "so much of the priceless heritage which the Service must safeguard for the United States is beginning to go to hell." [4]

This widespread deterioration of facilities demanded a major reconstruction program. The National Park Service replied with "a forward-looking program" called Mission 66. It planned to remedy many older problems and to prepare for the future, providing "maximum enjoyment for those who use the parks" as well as "maximum protection of the scenic, scientific, wilderness, and historic resources that give them distinction." [5] When this ten-year program began in 1956, over $9 million worth of improvements were projected for Rocky Mountain National Park alone. With other parks facing similar problems, Congress eventually allocated more than $1 billion to fix and refurbish all the national parks.

As a result of this program, thousands of dollars were spent in Rocky Mountain to improve the road system and rebuild or relocate entrance stations. A new eastern approach road was developed into Beaver Meadows, replacing an older entrance on a narrow roadway that edged the Big Thompson River. Widening highways, filling in "chuck-holes," fixing "dips and weaves," and enlarging parking areas and picnic spots along Trail Ridge Road all constituted projects within the "urgently needed" Mission 66 program. [6] Many other mundane but necessary elements were included, such as expanding campgrounds, reconstructing water and sewer systems, modernizing telephone and power systems, and building new housing for employees.

The Mission 66 construction program, a ten-year effort started in 1956, contained a myriad of projects to replace outdated facilities and prepare the Park for a busy future. (RMNPHC)

Quite a number of the Mission 66 projects enhanced the Park for the pleasure of the automobile-oriented visitor. The Park was envisioned as "an outdoor museum with unsurpassed accessibility." Linked to improved roadways were "visitor centers," where those entering the Park could receive a "general interpretation of the Park's resources." [7] One such structure was placed near the western entrance of the Park; another was developed at Fall River Pass; and a third was planned for Bear Lake. Not every facet of the Mission 66 plan was accomplished, but among the more noteworthy construction projects was the combination visitor center and Park headquarters building placed near the new eastern entrance. There, in a scenic meadow, the largest of the visitor centers was combined with administrative offices. Completed in 1967, the structure reflected the architectural style of Frank Lloyd Wright. Described in contemporary accounts as "pure American" with its long, low profile, sheltering pines, stone walls and steel ornamentation, its natural colors made it blend into the surrounding landscape with Longs Peak dominating in the background. In that building alone, the Mission 66 program, with its desire to improve accessibility and also explain the Park to its mobile clientele, gained a fitting monument. The dozens of other Mission 66 accomplishments, from shelters to signs, from picnic tables to improved trails, were far less conspicuous even though they fostered a polished appearance for the Park. Considering all the projects undertaken, historian Lloyd Musselman critically concluded that "by making travel in the Park more attractive and comfortable," Mission 66 "detracted from the Park's scenic naturaliness." Campgrounds dominated where pioneer resorts once nestled and visitor centers could be judged too obtrusive in the context of a natural scene. "Roads wide and with gentle grades made Park travel easier," Musselman observed, "but not necessarily more meaningful." [8]

Purchasing property from inholders continued to be a lengthy and expensive process. Removing structures which some might term "historic"—like those of Stead's Ranch in Moraine Park—was not always popular with people who had a sense of nostalgia. Many cabin and resort sites were restored to their natural condition. (RMNPHC)

Nevertheless, restoring natural scenes within the Park had also been an important objective of Mission 66. The purchase of privately held land within Park boundaries was tied to that plan. Due to a long history of boundary adjustments, buying land from inholders could be traced back to 1923. By 1963, some 11,080 acres of land had been purchased at a cost of $3,235,000. The price of restoring the natural scene was high. Merely providing land for a new eastern approach road and entrance, for example, meant acquiring forty-three tracts of private land. Most of those land owners sold their property quite willingly; only a few contested the Park's plans or the purchase price.

This flurry of land buying included the purchase of most of the remaining old resorts. Rather than rehabilitate or modernize these pioneer structures, their removal became the order of the day. For example, Sprague's Lodge ceased its operations in 1958 and within a few years its main structure and outbuildings were totally removed. By 1960, the Brinwood Ranch-Hotel in Moraine Park, the Fall River Lodge in Horseshoe Park, and the Deer Ridge Chalet all faced a similar fate. Stead's Ranch, the Moraine Park remnant of Abner Sprague's 1870s homestead, was purchased in 1962. Bought for $750,000, the 600-acre ranch, with its accommodations for 185 guests, soon saw its barns, lodge, cabins, and its golf course disappear as its land was restored to a natural meadow. Not everyone applauded the destruction of these old hostelries, especially as they were replaced by new automobile campgrounds. "We can't quite understand why folks who desire lodge accommodations are to be denied the same privilege of 'living in the park,'" read the Estes Park Trail. "A hundred people living at a lodge create less confusion, less muss and fuss, than a hundred camping out." [9] Yet, in the view of Mission 66 advocates, "many of these lands are devoted to such uses as grazing, timber cutting, fencing, etc., which do not conform with the National Park theme of preserving the natural scene." [10]

What bothered some critics was the rapid destruction of resorts that might have had some historic value. A swift end came to decades of vacationing in those rustic, western-style lodges. Replacing those resorts were newer facilities nearby, such as Moraine Park and Glacier Basin campgrounds, along with new picnic areas and livery operations. To some nostalgic observers, campgrounds and liveries offered poor substitutes for the old resorts. "Change generally is a wonderful thing," pined the Estes Park Trail, "but sometimes its manifestations are difficult for the Old Cowpoke to swallow." [11] Nevertheless, efforts to acquire every acre of private property continued, playing a significant role in the march of progress and not stopping when Mission 66 ended. In 1974, for example, resort owner John Holzwarth who was then aged seventy-one, made sure that his western slope dude ranch would become a part of the Park. Several times he "refused to be swayed by dollar signs" when developers offered him more than $1 million for 500 acres. Instead, he expressed concern about the aesthetic value of his property and its future use. "I can live with and die knowing that this valley will be for all and not a select few," Holzwarth commented. "It was a wonderful experience having the ranch, he reflected. "I am a part of it." [12] As private land owners such as Holzwarth were disappearing from the Park scene, many of them received compliments for their stewardship of the land. As one spokesman suggested: "It would be well for us who have enjoyed the park for two generations to thank those private people—inside the park and not on its fringes—for helping keep it beautiful and primitive." [13]

As soon as roads were cleared of snow and trails were passable, Rocky Mountain National Park received its annually increasing number of visitors. (RMNPHC)

While the period of owning private land within the Park was almost at an end, increased use of the Park for recreation was beginning to boom. In 1956 alone, nearly 1.6 million visitors entered Rocky Mountain. Throughout the late 1950s and into the 1960s and 1970s that number increased annually, with visitation topping three million people in 1978 before finally slackening its bursting pace. Not only were more travelers coming to enjoy a drive across Trail Ridge Road, they were also venturing into the backcountry in greater numbers. Nearly 2,000 people each year were climbing Longs Peak during the late 1950s and that number in creased to nearly 10,000 by the late 1970s. Indicative of trends to come, on August 11, 1955, a single party containing 61 climbers stood on the summit of Longs Peak.

More mountain climbing and backcountry use meant a steadily increasing number of accidents. Hazards of the hills produced a greater toll as urbanites, flatlanders, and those with a reckless nature flooded into the Park. Rangers honed their rescue skills, always preparing for the unexpected. Dozens of searches and rescues began punctuating the rangers' record books. On May 30th, 1956, for example, while seasonal ranger Norm Nesbit was climbing on Hallett Peak, he learned that another climber, Patrick Dwyer, had taken a tumble nearby. Dwyer had fallen several hundred feet off a steep rock face. Fortunately, he had hit a slope of soft snow, which prevented his death, and then he slid another two hundred feet downward, eventually coming to rest on a rocky ledge. There he lay, badly injured with lacerations, head injuries, a dislocated shoulder, and overcome with shock. Ranger Nesbit quickly assessed Dwyer's condition and sent a companion dashing for help.

Hearing of the accident at Bear Lake, ranger Frank Betts immediately called two additional rescuers, Robert Frauson and Jerry Hammond. These three, like Nesbit, were "seasonal" rangers hired just for the summer, but all were strong mountaineers and skilled at their task. Jogging up the trail late that afternoon, the three men toted packs containing their personal climbing gear and ropes along with a lightweight litter upon which to haul the stricken Dwyer. Swiftly these men moved upward, climbing across fields of snow and ice until they reached the rocky ledges where Nesbit tended the fallen climber. Toward dusk that evening, the rangers loaded Dwyer into the litter and began the painstaking task of lowering him very cautiously down the steep snowfield onto Tyndall Glacier. Gingerly, they worked their way across the glacier's snow and ice, establishing frequent belay positions for extra safety. There, a single misstep sent ranger Betts slipping into a crevasse. He nearly disappeared from sight. Fortunately, each ranger had tied himself to the litter and Bob Frauson was belaying the litter itself. Disaster was averted. Betts was able to pull himself up out of the crevasse, allowing the men to continue hauling their semi-conscious victim toward medical help.

Night descended as the team worked its way down Tyndall Gorge. The men resorted to using headlamps to light their path. Slowly they crossed Emerald Lake, its still frozen surface offering them an easy passage. With only four rangers and two companion climbers for help, carrying the loaded litter proved to be a gruelling task. But the men kept trudging with their burden, hoping that relief crews might arrive to assist them. When they reached Dream Lake, they discovered that the deep snow on the trail was too soft to support their weight. The ice on the lake had also disappeared. Their only choice was to wade in the icy water along the shoreline as a substitute for the covered trail. About a mile farther on, almost at midnight, a relief crew finally joined the rangers, carrying the litter the rest of the way to Bear Lake Ranger Station. Patrick Dwyer's life had been saved.

Rangers were faced with increasing numbers of accidents as urbanized Americans explored the mountains. Mountaineers such as ranger Bob Frauson found their skills always in great demand. (RMNPHC)

Rangers' efforts, like those of Bob Frauson, Frank Betts, Jerry Hammond, and Norm Nesbit, were seen simply as "part of the job." Though it was only a "seasonal" job, these men still risked their lives to protect Park visitors. They displayed a professional sense of dedication. At the same time, they also supplied their personal climbing equipment to effect the rescue, worked through the night without expecting "overtime" pay, and did not await relief crews or expect helicopters to land nearby. They were men who understood survival in the mountains. Never guessing that they would receive recognition for their efforts, those four seasonal rangers gained the rarely given National Park Service Valor Award in 1957 for the Hallett Peak rescue. No one was more surprised about that award than they were. They knew that many other rescues could have been considered far more dangerous, or "hairier" in their jargon. Rangers like themselves had helped many Park visitors without hearing even a word of thanks. And many rescues occurring in the years after the Hallett Peak affair would remain equally unrecognized. Yet on this rare occasion someone "higher up" had decided that their initiative, their courage, and their accomplishment deserved some recognition.

One problem rangers had to confront was the increased daring of a new breed of mountain climbers who were attempting to scale previously "unclimbable" rock faces, such as "The Diamond" high on the eastern face of Longs Peak. The Diamond consisted of eighteen acres of sheer granite, slightly slanting outward at its top, offering only a few fractures and ledges to aid a possible ascent. It remained one of the only unclimbed walls in the nation and that fact provided plenty of temptation for those seeking to challenge the "impossible." For years the National Park Service refused to allow climbers to attempt the face. Reasons given for placing the Diamond off limits included the obvious risks to rangers' lives if rescue became necessary. Park officials also claimed that they lacked sufficient ropes and other technical equipment to succeed in plucking a climber off the Diamond. Nevertheless, the revolution in big wall climbing techniques and the abilities of climbers, combined with their persistent requests, challenged the old prohibition against "stunt and trick climbing." [14]

In 1960 a new climbing policy went into effect, still demanding strict procedures and proper experience and equipment from the climbers, while finally allowing the Diamond to be attempted for the first time. Much to the dismay of several Colorado climbers, two Californians, David Rearick and Robert Kamps, both experts on the big walls of Yosemite, were first to apply for permission and meet all the necessary requirements. Their previous technical climbs, attention to safety, and agreement to help provide for a possible rescue all combined to give them first chance at the Diamond. Their climb began on August 1, 1960. After fifty-two hours on the face, of which twenty-eight and a half hours were spent climbing, Rearick and Kamps achieved the Longs Peak summit. One can only guess what was going through the minds of rangers Bob Frauson, William Colony, and John Clark as they watched the ascent. The presence of a twelve-hundred-foot coil of rescue rope placed at the summit in case of emergency must have offered the rangers little comfort. Any rappel off the overhanging Diamond would have caused a rescuer to dangle some twenty feet away from the face itself. The walls that those adventuresome mountain climbers considered a challenge became an added responsibility to the Park rangers.

In the years following Kamps's and Rearick's feat, climbing the Diamond increased in popularity and numerous additional routes were pioneered. By the early 1980s rangers had to restrict the face to a single party climbing per day. Even then, no one would call climbing the Diamond commonplace. Aside from giving rangers more hazardous tasks, most of those daring mountain climbs are better classified as personal achievements rather than acts of historical significance. As the Denver Post editorialized about Kamps and Rearick: "They have pushed themselves to the outer limits of human capability . . . to find exhilaration and personal fulfillment through hardship, danger and challenge." The personal achievement of those climbers, the Post concluded, might also have served to challenge "a society grown soft and stale." [15]

The 1960s marked a new era in mountain climbing in Rocky Mountain National Park. New techniques and equipment made many rock faces scalable for the first time. (RMNPHC)

For Americans "grown soft and stale" by the 1960s, Rocky Mountain National Park was offering more than just the Diamond. Activities of all sorts drew people into the out-of-doors. Ranger-naturalists at every visitor center encouraged travelers to investigate the Park more fully by parking their automobiles and walking away from the roadways. Naturalists helped reintroduce people to nature. In 1965, for example, ranger-naturalists offered the public a wide variety of free guided trips, tailored to many tastes and various levels of endurance. Listed among their engaging efforts were "Bird Walks," two-hour "Nature Walks," five-hour "Walks to the Lakes," "Half-Day Walks," "Three-Quarter-Day Hikes," "All-Day Hikes," and "Beaver Walks." Keeping a tradition from the 1920s alive, naturalists also provided nightly campfire talks. Many of those lectures were illustrated with slides and they continued to be educational, entertaining, and promotional as well as a means of meeting people and encouraging them to broaden their experiences in the Park. Just in case the naturalists failed to convert people into willing walkers, they carried their message to automobilists by offering "caravan" tours.

Too many people attempting to climb Longs Peak at the same time diminished the wilderness flavor of that experience. At times, by the late 1960s, the cable route was virtually jammed with climbers. (RMNPHC)

Car caravans, climbers, crowds, and the construction activities of Mission 66 all made preservationists wonder whether Rocky Mountain and other national parks were really being used properly. In one critic's view: "Mission 66 has done comparatively little for the plants and animals." [16] He inferred that a great deal had been done for the automobile-borne visitors. The "Parks are for People" motto of the era meant to some that the ideal of preservation was being sacrificed. By the late 1950s, demands came for greater protection of the wilderness within the national parks. David Brower of the Sierra Club simply stated: "The wilderness we have now is all that we will ever have." [17] So the question became whether national parks could really serve every recreational enthusiast equally—or whether the parks were intended to serve a special function. In 1965, Assistant Park Service Director Stanley Cain summarized the problem of the day: "The needs of our growing population, living in the immense and complex urban environment, having diverse and rapid means of transportation, with ever-rising personal income and tens of hundreds of thousands of hours of leisure time, require park and recreation programs of broadened and diversified dimensions." [18]

Naturalist programs helped to reintroduce people to the wild environment of Rocky Mountain National Park. (RMNPHC)

An old national park dilemma, the "dichotomy of preservation and pleasurable use," hit Rocky Mountain National Park hardest as it was welcoming "a continually exploding number of visitors." [19] People started to ask whether the Park could honestly be a wilderness preserve and also supply such things as automobile camping sites for every traveler who expected one. Observers wondered whether park planners had curried too much favor with concrete and Cadillacs. Was it possible for Rocky Mountain National Park ever to satisfy everyone? Seeing the continuous demands people placed upon their parks, one Park Service spokesman commented: "The problem of today is simply that the parks are being loved to death." [20]

A possible solution to all these demands was to define more carefully the purpose of the Park. That meant defining what sections should remain "wilderness" and establishing guidelines for acceptable activities that could occur within its confines to also insure preservation. Yet even in the most preserved sections of the Park, recreational pursuits would still occur. "Within our park concept there can be no question of locking up the wilderness," wrote Interior Secretary Stewart Udall in 1965. "The wilderness proper serves all park visitors. Those who penetrate it gain its fullest rewards. More often than not the undeveloped park wilderness beyond the roads furnishes the setting and the background that make each national park a unique and outstanding attraction." [21] And like many other national parks, Rocky Mountain still contained sections of wild land in a reasonably primitive condition. At the same time, it also had roads, campgrounds, visitor centers and other elements of civilization. What sections of the Park would remain "unimpaired for future generations" had to be decided.

Congress proposed to resolve the concern for wilderness. On September 3, 1964, the Wilderness Act became law, establishing the National Wilderness Preservation System. Wilderness was viewed as a place "where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." With an area containing at least five thousand contiguous acres, a wilderness also had to retain "its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions." [22] Here the preservation aspect of national parks finally received equal attention with recreational use. For decades the "playground" idea was emphasized; now the "preserve" aspect gained the spotlight.

Defining exactly what "wilderness" meant in Rocky Mountain National Park proved to be a difficult task. Studies of possible wilderness areas in the Park began in the mid-1960s and Park officials did not complete their work until a decade later. The Wilderness Act required that each roadless section of the Park be evaluated to determine whether it was suitable for inclusion within the National Wilderness Preservation System. A decade of study and debate resulted in the evolution of two documents intended to direct Rocky Mountain's future: a "Master Plan" and a "Wilderness Recommendation." Through those years of discussion and debate, many of the Park's problems came into sharper focus, from crowded conditions in the corridors of development to the need to create the proper balance of preservation and use. Not since the years prior to the Park's establishment had people taken so much time and trouble to concern themselves with the future of these mountains.

When Park Service planners finally completed their "Wilderness Recommendation" as a proposal, they had identified 91.5 percent of the Park's 265,679 acres as worthy of wilderness status. Roadways would remain, but no more would be built; roadless areas would be protected and restored to primitive conditions if possible. Historic pressures upon the Park as a pleasuring ground faced compromise with preservation. Once all the details of the wilderness proposal were made public, those concerned about the Park's future were invited to comment. Throughout late 1973 and early 1974 nearly a thousand individuals and organizations presented their opinions about the Park's preservation. Testimony came at several public hearings and letters poured in at National Park Service offices. The strong emotional attachment toward Rocky Mountain National Park that people displayed gave evidence of the significant role the Park played in their lives. Developing directions for the Park's future was not a matter people considered trivial.

The majority of those who expressed their views strongly favored the Park Service's "Wilderness Recommendation." Many wanted more wilderness than the Park Service plan provided. Development, in the preservationist view, had already usurped too much Park land. Expressing a typical viewpoint, one advocate of more wilderness wrote: "I am for eliminating all snack bars, curio shops, and facilities from the parks. These are incompatible with the beauty of the wilderness." Reminding officials of the Park's basic purpose, he added: "The reason for establishing a park is because there is something worth preserving. While compromises have to be made so that some can view the beauty of such an area, the compromise should never be such that the beauty is destroyed." [23]

Restoring elements of wilderness in the Park warranted a careful classification of appropriate facilities and activities. Businesses like the popular Deer Ridge Chalet were considered less desirable than in previous decades. (RMNPHC)

Throughout those months of emotionally charged debate, very few spokesmen were willing to compromise their ideals or their vision of how the Park should be managed. Officials were urged by many to "decommercialize" and "de-urbanize" the Park and do everything to restore its natural condition. [24] "Car-oriented flat-landers," wrote one Boulder citizen, "require much education as to how to go about entertaining themselves in a wilderness." [25] Not only would a future containing "correct use" demand education for visitors, but officials were also asked to be more aggressive in eliminating private property ownership within the Park, removing Hidden Valley Ski Area, reducing traffic congestion on Park roadways, and insisting that diapers be used on horses.

The desire for a pristine environment within the Park came from many people who had recently encountered crowded or city-like conditions during one of their visits. Those voices of concern for wilder land carried a tone of urgency. "While looking for mushrooms in the park this last summer," one noteworthy letter read, "I witnessed 'hippies' cutting trees and sneaking them out to their campers, dogs and cats on the trails, and nearly had my motorcycle stolen. The park is so full of thieves that I really prefer to go into the Nat. Forest where I can carry a gun to protect myself if necessary." [26] Whether overly emotional or totally rational, those advocating wilderness presented an overwhelming mandate for protecting the Park in its wildest, most primitive condition.

Quite a number of other people, however, did not view roadways and other modern conveniences within the Park as harmful or detracting from the natural setting. "Placing these lands in wilderness status," according to one critic of the proposal, "has the effect of locking out a greater and greater segment of the public as people live longer and are less able to make arduous trips." [27] Another writer, similarly concerned that "those people who drive into and through the park would be discriminated against," stated: "I am objecting to the proposal that enjoyment of our National Park should be restricted to the rugged outdoorsman, a minority group!" [28] And another added: "Less than 5% of the park visitors are backpackers and trail-riders. It is ridiculous to assume that 95% of the visitors like to be jostled and bumped by other people so that the back country can be enjoyed by a few." He concluded "that we are getting an environmental fixation" and that history proved that Rocky Mountain National Park "cannot qualify as a wilderness by any stretch of the imagination." [29] Urging the Park Service to continue with greater "flexibility" in running the Park, some feared that wilderness classification would make the whole region "suffocate into stagnation." [30] Others worried that wilderness would threaten their nearby businesses: "If this act goes into effect the outcome to this community would be horrendous. We survive only by our summer tourist trade, and I am sure the government would not want an entire death of a community on their hands." [31] The very thought of eliminating a gift shop within the Park made one writer wax euphoric about "how much the tourists enjoy browsing in this unique shop in such a magnificent setting." [32] Like wilderness, curio shops and civilization also had many advocates among Park users.

With opinions so strongly expressed and expectations so vastly different, Park planners faced a perplexing task. Eventually their "Master Plan" and "Wilderness Recommendation" offered compromises, putting the Park's future somewhere between the desires of the factions. Preservationists had to accept some existing roads, campgrounds, and other elements of civilization. Those arguing for unrestricted use of the Park would have to accept a future that limited the use of automobiles, curbed development, and curtailed the construction of more roads and campgrounds.

Aside from creating some emotionally charged discussions, the effort to define the proper uses of the Park was an enlightening experience. More than ever, officials understood the necessity of striking a balance between preservation and use. In 1976, the "final" recommendation designated approximately 240,000 of the Park's 265,679 acres as wilderness. For administrative purposes that meant that the Park had to be divided into various categories: natural zones in which the outstanding natural features of the Park were located; historical zones, which included such sites as Lulu City and the William Allen White cabins; and development zones, which contained campgrounds, roadways, Hidden Valley Ski Area, entrance stations, and other sites where "intensive use" predominated. Thus Park officials began managing Rocky Mountain National Park along the Wilderness and Master Plan guidelines.

But discussions and debates over wilderness also helped spotlight many older uses of the Park that continued to affect its aesthetic quality. Continuing demands for water, for example, meant that the reclamation projects developed earlier were to remain undisturbed regardless of any plans for wilderness. Projects such as the Colorado-Big Thompson Alva B. Adams tunnel symbolized the critical need for water in Colorado's arid climate, a need more urgent than either recreation or preservation. In 1981 Park officials identified five reservoirs and lakes with dams within Rocky Mountain National Park as well as seven pipeline facilities and seven ditches, all of which remained controlled by private interests. The hazards of some of those older projects became tragically apparent on July 15, 1982 when the seventy-nine-year-old dam at Lawn Lake failed. A deluge of escaping water swept down the Roaring and Fall rivers, swiftly flooding the streets of Estes Park. Sadly, the disaster resulted in the deaths of three people as the water rushed along its way.

As with privately owned lakes, reservoirs, and dams, the rights of private property owners within the Park remained protected by law. If people chose not to sell their land to the government, little could be done to alter that decision. Only if obtrusive structures were built or subdivisions planned would the National Park Service contemplate condemnation. Numerous boundary adjustments, especially along the Park's eastern side, made the private land issue more of a visible and aesthetic concern. By 1981 some 2,141 acres of private land involving 80 parcels with 67 owners remained within the Park. Most sections of Rocky Mountain National Park, from Wild Basin to Moraine Park and from the Fall River to the Kawuneeche Valley, had inholdings of some kind. Allied with this problem was the adjacent 1,240-acre MacGregor Ranch along the Park boundary at the northern edge of Estes Park. During the 1970s and early 1980s the National Park Service attempted to obtain a "scenic or conservation" easement to maintain the undeveloped attributes of the property. The possibility that the ranch might sprout subdivisions or condominiums meant that another corridor for elk migration might be threatened. The aesthetic qualities of the site also mandated action toward preservation. With the Park increasingly surrounded by civilization, efforts to keep it "unimpaired for future generations" became ever more complex.

Whether dealing with elk or adjacent private land or dozens of other issues, restoring natural conditions to Rocky Mountain National Park proved to be a challenging task. (RMNPHC)

Even more than water rights and private land, the booming popularity of the Park challenged the pristine condition of its wilderness. Because so many wanted to enter and enjoy the Park, sophisticated methods for managing visits had to be developed. For an increasing number of people, enjoying the Park meant more than just driving across Trail Ridge Road. A recreational revolution in outdoor sports, especially in hiking and backpacking, had developed by the late 1960s, and the combination of this and the "environmental movement" propelled nature-lovers into the back country of the national parks. The increasing popularity of Longs Peak serves as a typical example of that era. Partially in response to the growing crowds climbing Longs Peak, Superintendent Roger Contor announced in 1973 that the cables at the 13,700-foot level, which had assisted climbers up a fifty-five degree slope since 1925, were being removed. Contor claimed that the "increase in the number of climbers" had created "traffic jams where large numbers of people are trying to ascend and descend at the same time." He added that if Longs Peak was to be considered wilderness it should be free of manmade facilities. In the early 1970s, climbers commonly waited up to an hour to use the busy cables. "As an example of the heavy use the mountain receives," Contor noted, "2,388 persons made it to the summit in a sixteen day period, August 11 to 26, 1971. That's 150 people per day!" [33]

Mountain climber and writer Bill Bueler found conditions just as busy in 1975. During his climb that August, Bueler spotted "at least two hundred climbers" attempting the summit just as he was, although "many of them were on the only mountaineering adventure of their lives." Bueler explained that he decided to climb this busy mountain because he saw it "whenever I look west from Loveland." He also admitted that "the challenge, the experience, the exercise, the scenery—were at least as important." Finally, he described his desire to enter wild country: "Another reason for climbing mountains, the love of wilderness, was put aside for this trip, for whatever else Longs Peak may offer, a wilderness experience it is not, at least by the regular-Keyhole-route." [34]

The activity Bueler found on Longs Peak would not abate during that decade. In 1980, backcountry ranger Bob Siebert claimed that hikers who expected to find solitude on the Longs Peak Trail "express disappointment at the heavy use they encounter." He concluded: "They're sort of astonished there are so many people. Some are disgusted. Others are just surprised." Gale Kehmeier of the Colorado Mountain Club offered a similar observation: "I walked it a couple of weeks ago and must have seen 300 people. You almost had to take a number and get in line." Ranger Larry Van Slyke attempted to put the problem in perspective as he commented: "Twenty years ago, rangers were doing more toward managing the environment. Today, we are people managers, managing people making an impact on the environment." [35]

What rangers and reporters observed was part of a national trend, a virtual stampede heading into the out-of-doors and toward the wilderness areas. Not only did Longs Peak receive more attention, nearly every niche in the Park saw increased use. The era when backpackers were reasonably rare, when they could camp anywhere, build campfires, and stay as long as they liked rapidly faded once greater numbers of people tried escaping to the wilderness. Soon, too many people were trying to use the same backcountry spots at the same time. "Many people need this wilderness," sympathized one local observer, "yet many people can love a wilderness to death." [36]

Increasing numbers in the Park made more restrictions and regulations inevitable. Former Chief Ranger James Randall recalled that during the summer of 1967 the Park Service studied every back country camping spot to determine its proper "use capacity." Soon after, all backpackers had to obtain permits that allowed them to camp at designated sites for limited amounts of time. Later, "cross-country" camping zones were also established that permitted more adventurous hikers to locate their own sites as long as they were away from roads or trails and a hundred feet from any water supply. Once this "Backcountry Management" idea went into effect, its regulations and restrictions reflected environmental concerns. Self-contained stoves, for example, became mandatory at many camping spots since forests were being ripped apart. The old, symbolic campfire cherished by Enos Mills had to be sacrificed as a new style of backcountry manners was introduced. Greater regulation appeared to be the only solution as the period from 1965 to 1975 displayed close to a 900 percent increase in Rocky Mountain's backcountry use. In 1965 only 7,000 "camper days" were reported in the backcountry and by 1977 that number had increased to 62,000 before finally tapering off.

Envisioning that visitation boom in 1965, one official noted: "A growing challenge for us is to entice the millions of users of the parks to join us in grasping the limitations and special pleasures which stewardship imposes on the use of the land." [37] Such words as "limitations" and "stewardship" were milestones on the path of managing use within the Park. Alternatives were few if maintaining an aesthetically pleasing experience for each visitor was considered a worthy goal. Crowded conditions, trampled campsites, denuded forests, and "wilderness experience deterioration" all made "people management" necessary. By 1972, a quota plan was instituted for Rocky Mountain's backcountry that put the carrying capacity concept into effect. Entering the wilderness to camp required a permit. If wilderness experiences fostered feelings of freedom, self-reliance, independence, and other allied traits, then some might argue that the chance to seek such values ended once the permit system began. But if traces of rugged individualism remained, most people admitted that entering wild country had be come a somewhat civilized process.

The public generally accepted restrictions. They knew that their option was crowded and less solitary conditions. A study conducted by Dr. Richard Trahan of the University of Northern Colorado in 1977 indicated that "day-use limitations" were quite acceptable to most people if "justified on environmental grounds." The "day-hikers" Trahan interviewed were found to be "a well educated group concerned with protecting the park environment." Those Park users were willing to accept restrictions if "the quality of experience" and the "environmental impact" were honestly at stake. Limits upon freedom to explore were accepted if such action assisted the Park Service in "cushioning the impact of heavy visitor use." Dr. Trahan also investigated the level of aesthetic quality that hikers expected and experienced while walking the trails. When hikers encountered horseriders, for example, the aesthetic quality of the walkers' experience was diminished. Meeting fifteen to thirty horses on a trail when none were expected produced a "generally unfavorable impression of horse use on park trails." Among other horse-related elements hikers found obnoxious were the presence of manure on the trail, flies and insects caused by the droppings, the odor of horses, the dust they caused, and the "inconvenience of having to move off the trail." [38]

Studies such as those conducted by Dr. Trahan offered some insights into the opinions of Park users, what those visitors expected, what they encountered, and what they were willing to endure to sample wilderness. That people of the 1960s and 1970s were seeking temporary escapes from the confines of civilization, no one could deny. Of his contemporaries, conservationist Siguard Olson observed: "He lives in a jet age, the industrial age, the space age, an age of automation, growing technology, urbanization." [39] The result, according to Olson, was "a hunger in people to escape for a little while and return to the natural, primitive scene" where they could "feast their souls on scenery and to catch this elusive something called 'primitive.'" [40]

Whether every Park visitor could discover Rocky Mountain's "natural, primitive scene" on a typically busy summer day in the 1970s sometimes seemed impossible, especially if solitude was one facet of a wilderness experience. In 1973, for example, one visitor complained that after spending three days in the Park, "I saw very little of the wilderness." She was unable to obtain a permit. Instead, she found the campgrounds "a gravel haven for the ranks of the mobile set," "telephones and newspaper dispensers," "pre-planned entertainment every night of the week," and "black-topped roads at every turn." As a result, she questioned "the park's sincerity of concern for the wilderness." [41] Thus, while some were arguing that 91.5 percent of the Park was managed too strictly as wilderness, others, like this critic, complained that the remaining 8.5 percent contained far too much civilization.

Defining appropriate uses for Rocky Mountain National Park meant asking some fundamental questions about long accepted, rather popular practices. (RMNPHC)

A crisis of congestion also confronted officials within the developed areas of the Park. While Park roadways offered magnificent scenery, they also became a bit too popular. The Bear Lake Road paid the highest price of visitors' pressure. The travelers' tendency to stop along the way, to picnic and explore, led to a shortage of parking space. Illegal parking and continuous congestion became such problems, according to ranger James Wilson, that "you literally could not drive to Bear Lake." [42] On a typical summer day in 1974, 4,280 vehicles carrying an average of 3.4 passengers each traveled along the nine-mile route. The results of overcrowding made driving conditions hazardous if not impossible. Safety demanded that something be done.

In 1978 a free bus shuttle system was initiated along the Bear Lake Road to entice visitors away from their automobiles. Encouraging Park visitors to "enjoy the area at a leisurely pace," this transportation technique was not unlike those instituted in Yosemite Valley and at the Grand Canyon in response to similar problems with automobile congestion. A few visitors, however, found the idea of buses in Rocky Mountain National Park far from their dreams of freedom of the open road. As one critic commented: "To be lined up, herded into buses, waiting in line, having to worry about missing the next bus could hardly be very satisfying." [43] But by inducing some people to leave their cars behind, the bus system quickly solved the Bear Lake congestion problem, almost ended the issue of illegal parking, and removed many hazards. In 1980, buses moved nearly 160,000 people along the Bear Lake Road. The main drawback of the system, however, was that it cost nearly $100,000 per season to operate.

Because the Bear Lake Road's transportation system ended congestion and made for a more pleasant visit to the Park, similar efforts were planned for the old Fall River Road and perhaps for Trail Ridge Road as well. Although some might grumble at the thought of leaving their cars or at the expense the Park Service—and taxpayers—incurred, the Bear Lake system proved that congested roadways could be managed without bringing inconvenience to visitors. Making travel through the Park "a pleasurable experience" was still possible in spite of the crowds.

Regulating a wilderness environment and running a transportation system merely serve as two examples of ways Park Service officials responded to the problems associated with too much popularity. But looking at the average Park visitor of this era only as a "problem" does not present an accurate picture of the average visitor. Just because millions of vacationers were entering the Park did not necessarily mean that all of them suffered a miserable, jostled experience. If discussions about wilderness in the early 1970s proved anything, it was that Rocky Mountain National Park was providing "a wide spectrum of opportunity in order to satisfy a great number of people." [44] Every person's expectations and experience in the Park were bound to be different. Not everyone would seek a trip into the remote wilderness; some would choose to stay in their automobiles. Still, about 20 percent of all visitors, meaning some six hundred thousand people, were taking the time to tramp the trails by the 1980s. While climbing Longs Peak in the busiest part of the summer could be considered a "mob experience," it was also a "park experience." The quality of an encounter with nature was tempered by Rocky Mountain National Park's small size, and proximity to urban areas when compared to other western parks. What people were discovering in Rocky Mountain was a "friendly wilderness," an area serving to educate and stimulate as well as provide recreation.

Whether fighting forest fires destroys the wilderness ideal could be debated, for Rocky Mountain National Park represents an ongoing compromise between the concepts of use and preservation. (RMNPHC)

Changing times and travel habits meant the Park had to satisfy more people with a greater variety of interests. Park planners understood that methods of meeting visitors' needs, which appeared appropriate in the 1920s, no longer fit the realities of the 1970s and 1980s. Those masses of visitors the Park expected each season made it necessary to "channelize" people in order to avoid "resource damage." And regardless of preservation plans, some parts of the Park still deteriorated under the pressure of people. The tundra region through which Trail Ridge Road winds its way offered one example of such damage. As summertime sightseers sought snapshots and snowballs near snowbanks, their feet tramped the alpine tundra into oblivion. If the natural landscape was to predominate, constructing walkways and restoring damaged scenery was necessary. When Park visitors understood the aesthetic objectives Park ecologists had in mind, most of them willingly accepted constraints upon such impulses as meandering across meadows.

"An environmental ethic is developing," Edgar Menning, the Park Resource Management Specialist, offered. "And efforts to protect the park have made a difference." [45] People have stopped throwing litter hither and yon as they once did, Menning observed. They have also accepted a cultivated scene at Bear Lake, with its buck and rail fencing, its paved trails, its transportation system, and its obvious efforts to guide travelers' footsteps away from areas being restored to natural conditions. Since Bear Lake had become "the biggest destination point in the whole park," the area had to be managed much like any urban park. The reality of greater numbers of people visiting Rocky Mountain National Park forced Park officials to contemplate more research, more emphasis upon resource protection, and perhaps more restrictions.

Through such experiences as the 1956 Hallett Peak Rescue, the 1964 Wilderness Act, the 1978 Ouzel Fire, or the 1982 Lawn Lake Dam failure, idealism came in conflict with reality. Those seeking pleasure sometimes failed to find it, whether they sought solitude in the wilderness or merely a parking space at Bear Lake. The Ouzel Fire in particular tested idealistic notions about returning the wilderness to a natural, ecological cycle once the full potential of forest fire was realized. Park planners had to reconsider the concept of restoring every facet of wild lands. "Do we have to burn down a town to prove the folly of a policy?" asked a local critic. [46] "We have to put fire back in the natural ecosystem," replied one idealist. [47] Disagreements sharpened as issues grew more complex. Debates centering on whether forest fire was beneficial or destructive, whether the Park should be used or preserved, or what an ideal park experience should be for every park visitor all reflected a quest, a search for the Park's purpose. In reviewing the actions of the Ouzel Fire, a Park Service official might well have summarized the entire experience of Rocky Mountain National Park in its modern era when he observed: "A national park is not an island unto itself." [48]


Rocky Mountain National Park: A History
©1997, University Press of Colorado All rights reserved.
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