To preserve and protect . . . and to provide for the enjoyment of park visitors.
-- National Park Service Organic Act, 1916
As in most national parks, the primary threats to Rocky Mountain are being loved to death by park visitors and air pollution from outside the park. A unique factor at Rocky that has both good and bad aspects is that large areas of the park are almost completely inaccessible for more than half the year. The challenge, of course, is for park officials to find ways to preserve the park's delicate ecosystems while still producing a rewarding experience for park visitors.
Practically all of America's national parks are suffering from overcrowding, although as former Department of the Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt put it, "The problem isn't too many people, it's too many cars." Park-service officials have taken the position that they do not want to limit the number of people who visit the parks, but rather they wish to manage park visitation to minimize the impact of tourism, not only on the park terrain and wildlife, but also on park visitors.
Mandatory shuttle-bus systems have been implemented during peak periods at especially crowded parks such as Grand Canyon and Zion, and although this is not yet planned for Rocky Mountain, officials say that they feel it is time to consider some type of alternative transportation system. The park service already operates a free, voluntary shuttle bus that runs up and down Bear Lake Road in summer, but no public transportation is yet available for busy Trail Ridge Road. Instead, park officials encourage people to avoid park roads at their most crowded times, driving them either early or late in the day, and to visit the park in late spring and early fall rather than at the park's peak season -- the middle of summer.
The park's night sky -- crystal clear with stars that appear so close you think you can touch them -- has long been one of its attractions. But even though the park itself produces practically no air pollution, it cannot escape the pollution from vehicles driving into the park, development in its gateway towns -- especially Estes Park -- and the pollution from Denver, Boulder, Fort Collins, and other nearby cities. Air-quality monitoring, which began in the park in 1979, also indicates that the park's air is being affected by distant pollution sources, such as Los Angeles, Texas, and even Mexico. Park officials work with state and federal agencies to minimize pollution, but it is difficult to combat problems that sometimes originate thousands of miles away.
Although officials do what they can to spread out Rocky Mountain National Park's more than three million annual visitors, because Trail Ridge Road is fully open for only about 5 months each year, and sometimes less, the vast majority of park visitors show up then. It's hard to blame them -- why go to a beautiful national park at a time you won't be able to see one of its most fascinating aspects, the alpine tundra? So no matter what park officials do to spread out visitation, and as much as visitors would like to go to the park when it isn't crowded, most tourists are going to be there at the same time. There is a plus side to this, though. The long, snowy winters protect the park's higher elevations, in essence giving at least the inaccessible alpine tundra back to its animals and plants.
Another issue facing park managers is ecological balance, and problems that at least in some cases have their roots in actions taken 100 years ago. This may sound like heresy, but Rocky Mountain National Park and the surrounding mountains may have too many elk. Stands of aspen trees that have existed since the last ice age are slowly disappearing, as browsing elk devour the young trees. This is an oversimplification, and a study is underway to determine all the causes. However, it appears that the area's elk are at least partly to blame. The elk population inside the park seems to have stabilized in recent years, but the number of elk outside the park has been increasing, in part because there are no wolves in the area to prey on the elk. Human hunters killed all the wolves in the area in the early 1900s.
Humans are also blamed for introducing the aggressive non-native plants that have made their way into the park and have choked out native species. Mostly from Europe and Asia, many of these blooms were brought to the United States and planted in the 1800s because people thought they were pretty. Plants such as leafy spurge can take over an entire meadow, not only by monopolizing water but by actually poisoning native plants. This plant is also toxic to wildlife. Park officials say that there are more than 100 non-native plant species growing in the park, and about a dozen of these are serious threats.
While efforts are being made to correct these mistakes from the past and to deal with outside problems such as pollution, one of the most effective ways to maintain ecological balance in the park, and to protect its wilderness, is by educating visitors.
Even at the height of the summer tourist season, you can get away from humanity fairly easily by heading out onto park trails or into the backcountry, where you will find relatively unspoiled areas. To preserve these ecosystems, there is an increasing effort to make visitors understand the need for zero impact, or as close as people can get to that, short of staying home. In most cases, people are getting the message and are doing their best to stay on trails, to not pollute water or drop trash, and certainly to refrain from disturbing the park's plants and animals.
The issue of Rocky Mountain National Park's ability to handle an increasing number of visitors brings attention to the philosophy of the National Park Service, which essentially is to accomplish two goals simultaneously: preserving resources and promoting visitor enjoyment. Which is more important: protecting the plants, animals, and geologic formations that make America's national parks the special places they are, or helping people enjoy these very same plants, animals, and geologic formations? There are no easy answers.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.