Summit County Feature

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Colorado's Fragile Wilderness

More than 1,500 peaks pierce the Colorado skyline, creating one of the most extensive and pristine alpine landscapes in the United States. It is a treeless landscape that has changed little in thousands of years; summer storms bury prehistoric glaciers, colorful wildflowers push up through snowy meadows, and ice-covered mountains fill 100-mile views.

Growing Threats

Time is catching up with this ice-age wilderness. The very characteristics that once preserved the panoramic heights from human impact—rugged peaks, polar weather, barren vistas—are the same ones that today threaten it. Growing environmental pressures from recreational use, industrial pollution, and changing land-use patterns are taking a toll on this surprisingly fragile ecosystem.

Colorado's burgeoning population is increasing at an annual rate of 2% to 3%, a rate not seen since the gold-rush days of 1859. Many who move to the Mile High State enjoy an outdoor lifestyle that includes hiking. A popular pastime for many has been tackling the Fourteeners, the state's 54 peaks that top 14,000 feet. As more and more hikers trample up these mountains, they gouge new trails, compact thin soil, and crush root systems. This damage can take a surprisingly long time to heal. Trails across the tundra near Rocky Mountain National Park that were carved out by Ute and Arapaho scouts hundreds of years ago are still visible today.

Less subtle than erosion, and equally devastating, is the harm caused by industrial pollution. Western Slope power plants in Craig and Hayden burn low-sulfur coal. Scientists believe the resulting sulfur and nitrogen emissions may be creating acid snow in the alpine watersheds, the same watersheds that pour forth several of the great American rivers, including the Colorado, Rio Grande, and Arkansas.

Ironically, one of the greatest threats to the alpine tundra came from attempts at preserving native wildlife. With wolves and grizzlies extinct in Colorado and hunting banned in Rocky Mountain National Park, the elk population exploded from a handful of over-hunted animals to more than 2,200. Their sharp hooves trampled summer pastures above the timberline and destroyed many of the arctic willow stands that provide food and shelter for other wildlife, including the white-tailed ptarmigan. In recent years, the Rocky Mountain National Park took action and hired volunteer sharp shooters to cull the herd and keep it in its natural population range of 600 to 800 on the winter range.

Pine Beetles

Had you emerged from the west portal of Eisenhower Tunnel a dozen years ago, you would have been greeted by a sweeping view of green lodgepole pine forests dressing the flanks of Summit County's peaks. But today that view is tinted an ugly rust-red. That's because a pine beetle infestation is killing Colorado's lodgepole population. The infestation, which began in 1996, is the result of a perfect storm. Fire suppression and a regional drought created dense forests susceptible to attack, while global climate change and mellow winters allowed the beetles to expand their range south from Canada. Experts believe that almost 95% of the pines in Intermountain West are dead. Spraying, selective cutting, and natural remedies have all been tried, so far in vain, and the fire danger is increasing. But the epidemic is also tapering off due to exhausted resources for the beetles and researchers are beginning to see regrowth in the forests.

Updated: 2014-01-16

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