The National Park Service’s mission to protect parks for future generations is taken very seriously. Park managers worry about the subtle changes that over time become very significant. Changes in lake organisms and soil chemistry as a result of air pollution are examples of how things can go slowly awry. At first, changes can be so subtle that only an expert looking closely would notice. However, over time, alterations in lake organisms can result in the loss of fish species, and alterations in soil chemistry can lead to the loss of tundra plant species.
Nitrogen deposition appears to be triggering these types of subtle, but ecologically important changes, at Rocky Mountain National Park. Nitrogen is a pollutant that is carried to the park on the wind, primarily from the Front Range area. Nitrogen sources are many and include automobiles, feedlots, petroleum wells, and industry. Upslope storms, the same weather events that bring the east side of the park much of its moisture, deposit significant amounts of nitrogen. Researchers have been studying this pollutant and its movement through park soils and streams for more than twenty years. They have published their work in more than a 100 publications in peer-reviewed journals, providing a “reality check” on their methods and findings.
None of us will wake up tomorrow, or come for a vacation next year, and notice that the Rocky Mountain National Park is dramatically different due to this pollutant. However, evidence is convincing that subtle but important changes are already occurring. If unchecked, these changes will become increasingly dramatic in the future, altering the resources we are responsible for handing to the next generation undiminished.