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Rocky Mountain National Park is making a comeback after COVID, fire

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado's crown jewel in the federal land system, is having a comeback after threats from COVID and wildfire. On left, park fire Chief Mike Lewelling walks amid fire damage on Green Mountain in June 2021. On right, the same area has trails open and new growth in July 2022. (The Colorado Sun)
Trailheads are opening after the East Troublesome fire, a popular campground gets a makeover, and new employee housing on the way

The same few months of 2020 that Colorado crown jewel Rocky Mountain National Park was suffering its worst losses from COVID closures, the whole place also nearly burned down.

Now, things are looking up in the original Switzerland of the West.

The park’s in-house firefighting crew, which said they’d been prepping for a sparkfest like East Troublesome for 20 years, used a landscaping “catcher’s mitt” to stop the record fire from blazing on into Estes Park in October 2020. Those crews will be following up on that success with new federal grants to bolster firewall efforts on Deer Mountain, which stands sentinel between prime wildfire paths and Estes Park, evacuated as a precaution before East Troublesome smoldered out.

And with COVID’s grip loosened from much of the American psyche, the park returned to 4.4 million visitors last year – not a record, but enough to reinforce a timed-entry system that by some evaluations is going well.

Now park folks are ready to brag about some wins, not just some avoided losses.

  • The Green Mountain Trailhead area on the west side, just north of fire central at Grand Lake, is back open. The before-and-after photos above show some intriguing recovery, though the deeply blackened trunks and trees bent over by firestorm winds will linger for decades.
  • Over the next year, the park will use $19 million in federal economic recovery money to close, rebuild and reopen Moraine Park Campground, the largest in the park and for many Americans, their childhood memory of family camping.
  • Nearly $40,000 in federal infrastructure law funds will go to more fire mitigation on Deer Mountain, for brush clearing, tree limbing of the same kind that helped slow East Troublesome. If fire coming from the west gets over Deer Mountain, it would roar down Fall River, the Stanley Hotel, and into town.
  • Planners are making progress on replacing the housing for 22 employees that was lost when East Troublesome swept through Kawuneeche entrance station on the west side on its way up and over the high country toward Moraine Park. Affordable west-side housing is vital to attract park employees, RMNP spokeswoman Kyle Patterson notes, and to keep commutes shorter after long days on the trails.

The housing should break ground next spring, and “that’s a pretty quick turnaround in the federal government,” Patterson noted.

Closing Moraine Park’s 244 camp sites, hosting 30,000 people a year, will put a crimp in tourism, but the park and town are working together to highlight other spots. A rehab is “way, way past due,” Patterson said. One great feature of the rebuilt site will be 17 accessibility compliant campsites, including easier paths to bathrooms and other facilities.

Many of the homes in the Green Mountain area of Rocky Mountain National Park used to house seasonal staff. Some were destroyed in the East Troublesome fire in 2020. Chief of resource stewardship Koren Nydick, examines the remnants of the beloved Onahu Lodge. (Kathryn Scott/Special to The Colorado Sun)

The park is still seeing some of the same stresses hitting the surrounding territory. Park fire chief Mike Lewelling has been unable to completely round out his resident Hotshot crew, as other jobs compete for their attention. Some of his crew is away now to protect Zion National Park in southwestern Utah.

“Our main message is we feel very, very fortunate that we have been able to receive the funds to be able to tackle these really important projects, with a park that’s as old as we are,” Patterson said, referring to the 1915 opening year. “We just have to continue to chip away at some of our deferred maintenance.”

Some of the boosts for the park were announced at the same time the National Park Service was reminding taxpayers of the economic impact of the lauded protected lands system in the U.S. In its annual impact report, the federal government said Rocky Mountain National Park had 4.43 million visitors in 2021, nearing pre-pandemic record levels. Those visitors spent $323.3 million for lodging, food and other services in the Estes Park area, supporting 4,421 jobs, the Park Service said.

A vivid rainbow arches over the horizon above the alcove that contains Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde National Park. Tours at Cliff Palace will resume on July 1. Cliff Palace was built in the 1200s, is the largest alcove site in the nation, and one of the most beautiful. Courtesy of Mesa Verde National Park Facebook. (Stephen M. Daniels/Courtesy photo)

Though not quite so high, impacts are significant from other national parks in Colorado.

Mesa Verde National Park in the Four Corners area attracted 548,000 visitors, spending $62.6 million and supporting 825 jobs, the report said. Great Sand Dunes reported about 603,000 visitors spending $41.3 million in the area, supporting 536 jobs. By contrast, Rocky Mountain National Park’s northern competitor, Yellowstone, attracted 4.9 million people spending $630.3 million, and supported 8,736 jobs.

RMNP staff continue to tweak the timed-entry and hiker shuttle systems now embedded in park management. They may never go back to the previous jammed chaos, though the park has fielded equity complaints and held talks with a group demanding the entry system go through a more rigorous National Environmental Policy Act evaluation process.

Dan Denning is part of a group that has circulated petitions they say have collected thousands of signatures questioning timed-entry reservations. They argue park officials have not presented statistics or studies documenting park overuse or crowding to justify such a big change for the public.

Meanwhile, they say a reservation system discriminates against locals, who use the park as a backyard for spontaneous picnics or family visits. Such a system also favors those with enough money to plan well ahead for air travel or RV vacations, or sign up for guided trips or other park uses arranged by others, they have told park officials.

Park officials have responded that annual visitation rose 42% from 2012, and that they have made presentations to the community about the impacts they see. They also have increased available reservation slots in subsequent years of testing the entry program, and keep the reservation windows to the busiest times of day and months of the year.

They say a formal NEPA process will take place in 2023, and there will be continued opportunities for public comment.

Read more at The Colorado Sun

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.