Rocky Mountain National Park Study Reveals Management Strengths, Resource Threats

Date:   August 7, 2002
Contact:   Mark Peterson, NPCA, 970-493-2545
Roger DiSilvestro, NPCA, 202-454-3335

Rocky Mountain National Park Study Reveals Management Strengths, Resource Threats

Estes Park, CO - The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) today unveiled the results of a two-year study indicating that although Rocky Mountain National Park, located 70 miles northwest of Denver, scores respectably in most areas of management and protection, some resources are at risk from park conditions that may cause intense wildfires, from invasions by alien species that crowd out native plants, from a disease that jeopardizes elk and deer, and from a general lack of adequate funding.
"We usually think national parks are protected for all time," said Mark Peterson, director of the NPCA State of the Parks project that produced the report. "But this assessment shows that even this park, which is in generally good shape, faces potentially devastating threats that could harm park wildlife, landscapes, and archaeological artifacts forever."
The Rocky Mountain National Park State of the Parks Report—third in a series of assessments of national park cultural and biological resources—scored the park 75 on a scale of 100 for the condition of its natural resources and 67 for the condition of its cultural resources.
Despite the strong scores, some threats could damage the park seriously in the next ten years unless steps are taken to ensure park integrity, Peterson said. One of the most serious concerns is management of wildland fire, a natural component of park ecology. Decades of fire suppression have created unhealthy forest conditions with unnatural accumulations of downed trees and dense underbrush in some areas of the park. When combined with drought, these conditions could result in fires that burn more intensely than they normally would, as demonstrated by recent wildfires near the park. Development of lands adjacent to park boundaries and an increased risk of wildfires spreading into local communities has made fire management much more complex. Fire suppression also has altered natural vegetation, causing declines in aspens and other lower-elevation plants that are likely to affect species such as migratory birds.
A second cause for concern is the threat of chronic wasting disease, a relative of mad cow disease that causes brain damage in deer and elk and is always fatal. Eight cases of the disease have been reported in park deer and elk since it first turned up there 1981. Park staff are working with the Colorado Division of Wildlife to learn more about the disease. The National Park Service also needs funding to acquire additional veterinary and wildlife-management expertise to develop means for controlling the disease while protecting park wildlife.
Invasive, nonnative species such as yellow toadflax and Canadian thistle pose another major problem, threatening native plant communities such as aspens, ponderosa pine, and river meadows. Park staff are attempting to control 14 invasive species and are proposing control for 19 more. Eighty-one such species have been recorded in the park.
Lack of adequate funding is a persistent problem at this and other parks. NPCA studies indicate that the National Park Service operating budget is under funded about $600 million dollars yearly, undermining programs such as fire management and control of nonnative invasive species.
Other factors of concern for the park's natural resources include:

  • unnaturally high elk populations that have overgrazed willow communities in primary elk winter range;

  • lack of critical scientific data on wildlife such as bobcats, mountain lions, and 45 bird species; and

  • need for biological studies of restored and unimpaired watersheds within the park and for detailed examination of native wildlife populations in natural and altered freshwater systems that would establish a baseline for future management.

Issues of concern for cultural resources include findings that:

  • the park lacks resource studies that cover historic structures and major historical themes such as mining, ranching, and tourism, without which visitor enjoyment declines, and historical materials are jeopardized by poorly informed management decisions;

  • nearly 30 percent of the park's museum collections and archival materials have not been catalogued and are unavailable for research or use in park interpretation; and

  • most of the park has not been surveyed for archaeological resources, and of those sites that have, fewer than one-fourth have been evaluated, leaving untold information in danger.

The park's stewardship capacity—the ability to protect resources—rated a high 77 because:

  • the park has established partnerships with organizations to increase funding for improvement projects, including capital construction, trail work, and historic preservation; and

  • the park will receive significant supplemental funding through the Recreation Fee Demonstration Program and the Natural Resource Challenge, a nationwide initiative.

The park is taking action to enhance resource protection. For example, the park recently completed a five-year plan for treatment of historic buildings, is part of an active Systemwide Archaeological Inventory Program, and is working to restore native habitat.
"If implemented, the recommendations in the report will help to ensure that Rocky Mountain remains a vital piece of our natural, cultural, and historical legacy," Peterson said. "But without an increase in operating funds, Rocky Mountain cannot surmount the problems it faces. Everything from the deterioration of archival materials, which is assured without additional storage, to the loss of native species depends on having more funding to protect the park's varied resources."
Rocky Mountain is known both for its vast array of wildlife and for its wide variety of landscapes, from groves of Ponderosa pines to brilliantly colored alpine meadows. Many rare species thrive in the park, and some are found nowhere else. In addition, some of the oldest rocks in the nation, more than 750 million years old, make up the mountains that are the centerpiece of the park.
The NPCA State of the Parks program is designed to assess the condition of natural and cultural resources in the parks, to forecast the future condition of those resources, and to determine how well equipped the National Park Service is to protect the park. The first such assessment ever undertaken for the National Park System, the program provides information to help policymakers and the National Park Service improve park conditions and ensure a lasting legacy for future generations.

Copies of the report can be obtained from contacts listed above and read online.


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