Rocky Times in Rocky Mountain National Park: An Unnatural History
By Karl Hess, Jr.
Summary written by T.A. O'Lonergan, Conflict Research Consortium
Citation: Rocky Times in Rocky Mountain National Park: An Unnatural History, Karl Hess, Jr. (Colorado: University Press of Colorado, 1993), 156 pp.
Rocky Times in Rocky Mountain National Park: An Unnatural History is an examination of the effects of managing this National Park for the promotion of the elk herd which attracts visitors to the Park. The author asserts that an unnatural state, for both the park and the elk herd, exists under the present management direction.
Rocky Times in Rocky Mountain National Park: An Unnatural History will be of interest to those who desire an understanding of the health of the ecosystem of Rocky Mountain National Park. Chapter one serves as an introduction which examines the history of the Park from the earliest traces of human activity to its utilization as location for: camping, trapping, fishing, and mountain retreats. Hess notes that Rocky Mountain National Park was designated a biosphere reserve, in 1976, by the United Nations' UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Program.
Chapter two begins Hess's examination of the role of elk in the Park. The Park was established in 1915 which, not coincidentally, saw elk ranging the valleys and meadows for the first time in many years. The elk had been hunted almost to extinction. Hess asserts that management of the Park has amounted to an experiment in natural regulation. Hess examines the problematic nature of the elk herd since the mid-twenties, at which time the elk herd became so large that it posed a threat to the ecosystem. From 1944 until the late sixties, the Park Service attempted to keep the numbers to what was believed to be the carrying capacity by shooting elk. In 1968, this practice was stopped and, it was asserted, "... the elk herd is ... being allowed to fluctuate naturally with an eventual equilibrium with the forage supply expected". Hess shows how this expectation has been disappointed; evidenced by the damage to aspen, willows and other vegetation in the winter range of the elk. Hess asserts that the Park has been biologically impoverished, not by the elk but, by the heavy-handedness of human management which caused the explosion in the elk population, and the demise of the solution to that population explosion.
Chapter three examines the policy of fire suppression in the Park. Hess asserts that just as the elk had upset the balance between water, willow and beaver; humans have upset the balance between fire and the rejuvenation of vegetation. Hess states that: "Fire suppression in Rocky Mountain National Park is completing what elk began - the destruction of plant community and landscape diversity - and it is doing so on a much grander scale than congregations of elk on the park's winter range". Chapter three examines the relationship between the scientific staff in the Park and the Park's management personnel. In the beginning of the 1990s, the scientific staff, certain of an imminent large scale burn undertook a Park inventory which would act as a starting point after the inevitable. Warning the management staff resulted in the scientific staff being fired and not replaced.
Chapter five begins with an examination of the National Parks Conservation Association's (NPCA's) report on threatened National Parks. They assert that winter elk range is "being chewed up" by urban development. Hess asserts that it is the burdensome elk population that is doing the mastication. The author calls for reform and restoration of Rocky Mountain National Park, which he sees as best accomplished by a decentralization of the management of National Parks. Following the text is an epilogue in which the author hopes that his deep and public criticisms of the management of the Park has been, in part, responsible for the moves toward better management which have arisen since those criticisms. Rocky Times in Rocky Mountain National Park: An Unnatural History is a straightforward examination of the difficulties facing one National Park. The text is nicely supplemented with photographs and drawings which will aid the reader's understanding.