Rocky Mountain Futures: An Ecological Perspective / Edition 1

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The Rocky Mountain West is largely arid and steep, with ecological scars from past human use visible for hundreds of years. Just how damaging were the past 150 years of activity? How do current rates of disturbance compare with past mining, grazing, and water diversion activities? In the face of constant change, what constitutes a "natural" ecosystem? And can a high quality of life be achieved for both human and natural communities in this region.

Rocky Mountain Futures presents a comprehensive and wide-ranging examination of the ecological consequences of past, current, and future human activities in the Rocky Mountain region of the United States and Canada. The book brings together 32 leading ecologists, geographers, and other scientists and researchers to present an objective assessment of the cumulative effects of human activity on the region's ecological health and to consider changes wrought by past human use. This combined view of past and present reveals where Rocky Mountain ecosystems are heading, and the authors project what the future holds based upon current economic and social trends and the patterns that emerge from them. The book:•examines the biogeographic and paleoenvironmental setting and historical climate that have shaped Rocky Mountain ecosystems•traces the direct human influences on landscapes and ecosystems over the past 150 years•explores the cumulative effects of past, present, and projected future human activities on tundra, subalpine and montane forests, valleys, grasslands, and waters•offers case studies that illustrate specific examples of human influence and current efforts to restore the environment Case studies focus on northern New Mexico; Summit County, Colorado; Flathead Valley, Montana; and Alberta, Canada. Among the contributors are Craig D. Allen, N. Thompson Hobbs, Linda L. Joyce, Robert E. Keane, David Schindler, Timothy R. Seastedt, David Theobald, Diana Tomback, William Travis, Cathy Whitlock, and Jack Stanford.

The United Nations has proclaimed 2002 as the International Year of Mountains to increase international awareness of the global importance of mountain ecosystems. The case-based multidisciplinary approach of this book constitutes an important new model for understanding the implications of land-use practices and economic activity on mountains, and will serve a vital role in improving decisionmaking both in the Rocky Mountains and in other parts of the world that face similar challenges.

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From The Critics
Ecologists, geographers, and other scientists and researchers assess the cumulative effects of human activity on the Rocky Mountain region's ecological health, consider changes wrought by past human use, and project what the future holds based on current economic and social trends. They describe the region's biogeography, paleoenvironmental setting, and historical climate, then trace the region's history of use from an ecological perspective. Case studies illustrate specific examples of human influence in the US and Canada. Baron is an ecosystem ecologist with the US Geological Survey. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781559639545
  • Publisher: Island Press
  • Publication date: 9/1/2002
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Jill S. Baron is ecosystem ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

Paul R. Ehrlich is Bing Professor of Population Studies and Professor of Biological Sciences at Stanford University. The author of Human Natures, The Population Bomb, and many other books, as well as hundreds of papers, he is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a recipient of numerous international honors, including the Crafoord Prize, an explicit substitute for the Nobel Prize in fields of science where the latter is not given.

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Read an Excerpt

Rocky Mountain Futures

An Ecological Perspective

By Jill S. Baron


Copyright © 2002 Island Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-55963-954-5


Transforming the Rockies: Human Forces, Settlement Patterns, and Ecosystem Effects

William R. Travis, David M. Theobald, and Daniel B. Fagre

* * *

The current ecological condition of the Rocky Mountains can be viewed from two somewhat opposing perspectives. The first is that human occupation has had relatively little effect on the Rockies: large natural, if not pristine, areas remain, and the region's open spaces provide wildlife habitat, majestic scenery, and a sense of wildness. Unlike the situation in, say, the Swiss Alps, where even high-elevation meadows have been mown and grazed intensively for as long as 500 years and many large mammals have been extirpated, most elements of Rocky Mountain landscapes and biota are reasonably unaltered. Even the presumption that Native Americans changed regional landscapes with deliberately set fires has been challenged by Baker and Ehle (2001) and others who think that most fires were lightning-caused or accidental ignitions.

The second view is that humans have dramatically transformed the Rockies, at least since Euro-American settlement in the mid- to late 1800s. The slaughter of vast buffalo herds, the clearing of timber for railroad ties, and even the removal of whole hillsides in hydraulic placer mining represented substantial transformation. Ranch, resort, and residential development marks the latest incarnation of this transformation. Numerous, complex layers of land use have left landscape legacies, some of which may be unrecognized or underappreciated in modern assessments (Wohl 2001).

Here we consider both perspectives because we are impressed with both the many effects of human use of the Rockies and the region's remaining wild landscapes. Ironically, much of the recent population growth and development in the Rockies is driven by the region's wild landscapes, which make the present widespread transformation seem all the more significant. It is, of course, the rapid clip of current human transformation—high population growth rates, pervasive rural residential development, and landscape fragmentation (Baron, Theobald, and Fagre 2000)—that worries ecologists and others concerned with Rocky Mountain ecosystems. So although we offer an overview of historical changes in the Rockies, especially since the 1800s, much of our attention here is on land uses, economies, and settlement patterns since the 1970s and on their future trends.

Making and Remaking the Rockies: Changing Human Geographies

The Rocky Mountain region is booming at the turn of the millennium, exhibiting some of highest population growth rates in the United States and Canada (figure 1.1). Two Rocky Mountain counties, Douglas in Colorado and Summit in Utah, grew faster than any others in the United States during the 1990s. The Rocky Mountain sections of even slower-growing states such as Montana and Wyoming grew at two to three times the national average in the 1990s. Population growth and land development go hand in hand, but the landscape effects of a given human population can vary tremendously, depending on how development is structured and which ecological settings are most affected.

The region has boomed before. Humans probably first found their way into the Rockies some 15,000 years ago; by 5,000 years ago essentially all the region's habitats were used at least seasonally by humans. Regional ecosystems were altered by early settlement, hunting, setting of fires, and even rudimentary irrigation, in at least subtle but poorly documented ways. Human populations within the Rockies themselves were low compared with populations supported by bison herds on the nearby Great Plains or in the extensive settlements of the American Southwest, where Anasazi and Chacoan cultures cultivated stable food supplies, irrigated land, and created urban-like settlements (Lekson 1999). Certainly the lower intermontane valleys, such as the Rocky Mountain Trench and major river corridors, were used extensively, many year-round, and teepee rings and discarded arrowheads are found at treeline and vision quest sites on the summits of many peaks, indicating frequent use of alpine areas (Reeves 2000).

The first Europeans, entering the southern Rockies during the 1500s, found some permanent native settlements and wide seasonal transhumance (populations that migrated seasonally). The settlers quickly filled the Rio Grande valley with farms, villages, and military posts (Hornbeck 1990). Waves of development began washing over the middle and northern Rockies in the 1800s during a series of natural resource booms. Trappers pioneered commercial resource extraction in the Rockies. Following Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, whose 1804–1806 expedition was undertaken partly to assert American control over the rich beaver regions of the northern Rockies (Beck and Haase 1989), they created a thriving trapping economy that, although thin on the ground, managed to deplete most Rocky Mountain beaver populations by the 1840s (chapter 6; White 1991, Wishart 1992). Still, trails established by the trappers opened the Rockies to further development. Those trails (and trapper guides) helped, for example, the Mormons to pass through the Rockies in 1847 and settle on the shore of the Great Salt Lake, at the western foot of the Wasatch Range. Salt Lake City would become one of the major cities edging against the Rockies.

Rocky Mountain development shifted into high gear during the gold and silver rushes of the mid-1800s (chapter 5). The West's first gold rush, at Sutter's Mill in the Sierra Nevada foothills, affected the Rockies by attracting prospectors who, unable to afford the ocean journey around South America, passed through the region on their way to California. In Canada, the first major Rocky Mountain rush occurred on the western slopes of the Cariboo Range and in the Fraser River valley in 1858, a region settled not from the east but from the Pacific Coast cities of Vancouver and Victoria. A year later, some of the prospectors who were headed across the Rockies for California found gold in what is now Colorado, and by the summer of 1860, more than 5,000 miners a week inundated the southern Rockies. Many mountain towns owe their start to gold and silver: Colorado Springs, Canon City, and Cripple Creek emerged from Colorado's rush; Montana's Virginia City and Helena started with the 1864 gold (and then copper) boom; and silver and gold got Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, off to a start in 1883. Successful mineral mining and milling required better wagon roads and railroads—much of the mineral belt of the southern Rockies was roaded by the 1870s and laced with rails by the 1880s (Wyckoff 1999). These roads and rails then began to serve ranching and logging—industries that also fed the mines and miners—which were operating pretty much along the entire length of the Rockies by 1900.

Military forts were planted throughout the Rockies to safeguard settlers and project authority, and they often formed the nucleus of a future town. Fort Missoula, established in 1877, became present-day Missoula, the largest city in western Montana. The need to supply and maintain better communication with such outposts provided impetus for better roads. A network began to form in Montana in the 1860s. Booming mining camps attracted settlers, who followed rough and dangerous roads, such as the Bozeman Trail to Montana Territory or the Cariboo Road from the coast to the interior of British Columbia. Although mainly associated with resource extraction, the transportation network also moved passengers, mail, consumer goods, and, quite soon, even tourists. The first tourists made their way into Yellowstone in 1871, a year before it was designated a national park (Bartlett 1985); by 1873 they enjoyed well-worn wagon roads.

Commodities and "seeing the sights" weren't the only attraction: land itself lured settlers to the Rockies. Survey parties mapped the interior of the Rockies in detail during the 1860s and 1870s as a prelude to homesteading. In policies to foster western settlement, both the United States and Canada encouraged homesteading in the Rockies. The first transcontinental railroad was pushed across the Laramie Mountains in 1868 and dropped down through the Wasatch Range to the Great Salt Lake in 1869, thus bisecting the Rockies. By 1883, the Burlington Northern Railroad had crisscrossed the northern Rockies with rails. The Great Northern Railway actively enticed settlers to establish farming communities along its route from Minneapolis to Seattle to create a market for its services. From their start, the transcontinental railroads also encouraged tourism in the Rockies as a way to increase ridership. Banff, Yellowstone, and Glacier National Parks were heavily advertised as tourist destinations by the railroads.

The homesteaders brought new land uses and technologies, transforming the region's ecology and economy in more profound and enduring ways than did their predecessors. Homesteading permanently carved the land into parcels to be developed for the highest value the market would bear. Rocky Mountain terrain imparted a pattern of homesteading different from that on the plains: most homesteads were in valley bottoms along the streams and rivers, whereas most of the higher slopes remained in public ownership.

The land not homesteaded continued to be used for logging, grazing, and mining, often with significant degradation (Coggins, Wilkinson, and Leshy 1993; Wilkinson 1992). By the 1890s, this degradation of public lands was so obvious that the United States Congress began to restrict homesteading and reserve public lands in a series of acts (e.g., the Forest Reserve Act in 1891) that would eventually retain more than half the land area of the Rockies in federal administration. In Canada, control of most public lands and resources was transferred to the provinces in 1930. The federal government, however, had created several national parks in the Canadian Rockies, starting in 1885 with a large area around Banff. Federal reservation of land in the U.S. Rockies began with creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 and selected forest reserves in 1891. But large additional public land designations were made in the first three decades of the 1900s—some 65,000 square kilometers (km2), or 16 million acres, of forest reserves and huge tracts of public land were retained under the 1936 Taylor Grazing Act. Thus, by 1940 the public lands of the Rockies were almost fully in place, establishing a key pattern of land tenure that profoundly affected regional development (plate 1). Public lands would continue to shape regional development, especially as they came to be seen, after World War II, as a valuable fount of habitat and recreational lands.

A more recent regional development boom began in the 1970s, when global oil prices quadrupled and American and Canadian energy policy makers favored domestic sources. The Rockies, especially the overthrust belt in Wyoming and the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana and Alberta, filled with oil rigs, coal mines, and natural gas wells. Eventually, though, oil prices fell in the face of mounting supplies, and the energy boom busted in the early 1980s.

As detailed elsewhere in this book, Rocky Mountain ecosystems were modified by each of these human invasions. Mining in particular resulted in deforestation, water diversions and altered streamflows, and pollution. Placer mining reshaped entire valleys, obliterating wetlands and creating large expanses of gravel tailings (Wohl 2001). Wagons and railroads themselves transformed linear swaths of landscapes and provided access for other development (Kindquist 1995). Grazing intensified to supply the burgeoning mining towns. As a result, the composition of the region's vegetation, from tundra down through montane forests to lower-valley grasslands, was visibly transformed, as documented in several rephotographic surveys (e.g., Amundson 1991, Fielder 1999, Gruell 2001, Veblen and Lorenz 1991).

Each regional boom also set the geographic stage for subsequent development. In particular, roads meant to export resources further opened the Rockies to recreation and settlement, fueled in recent decades by the services and high-technology economy. Improved transportation and communication allow people to live and work farther from cities and still function in the global economy; people and businesses disperse across the landscape, city dwellers move to the mountains, and small-town residents look farther afield for properties to develop and market. Settlement spreads, and valley bottoms are laced with more roads and driveways as land is carved up into subdivisions, mini-estates, and ranchettes (Theobald, Gosnell, and Riebsame 1996).

As natural landscapes, and even isolation, have become desired commodities, road improvement has become controversial in many parts of the Rockies, in part because people know that better highways bring more people and development while reducing habitat and fragmenting the landscape. The small community of Polebridge, in the North Fork area of the Flathead River valley, Montana, has debated whether to pave its washboard gravel main access road, forcing residents to trade off convenience, comfort, and their automobile suspensions against the likely influx of development. At the other extreme, the main highway through Colorado's Roaring Fork Valley (serving Aspen) was recently widened to four lanes, complete with a high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane.

New Demographics and Economics

The latest development boom in the Rockies is tied less to extractive commodities and more to environmental amenities. The region's recreational resources have long attracted people, but it was in the 1990s that trends in the economy, the nature of work, communications, and lifestyle preferences converged and the Rockies became the destination of choice for footloose people and businesses. Demographers, economists, and geographers cite a litany of driving forces behind this growth, including the dispersion of businesses and jobs away from the coasts and core cities in a world of mobile capital and information; a natural fit between the services and high-technology economy and the region's newness as an economic development pole; and a quality of life that increasingly attracts businesses and individuals (Power 1996; Cromartie and Wardwell 1999; Riebsame, Gosnell, and Theobald 1997).

And though the boom slowed in the early 2000s, it is too early to pronounce it over or to diagnose its structure in detail. But a few dimensions stand out. First, regional population growth in the 1990s was widespread, from the cities on the periphery of the Rockies to some of the most rural areas; most Rocky Mountain areas grew in the 1990s at double or triple the national rates. Lack of growth in a few places (with some even losing population; see figure 1.1) can be explained as further decline of the traditional economy: a closed lumber mill in Jackson County, Colorado; shut-down mines in northern Idaho; and declining energy income along with a thinning ranch economy in central Wyoming.

Rocky Mountain population and economic growth is now tethered to two major geographic features. First, counties adjacent to metropolitan areas or within an hour's drive of them are the fastest-growing in the West. We discuss the landscape effects of this exurban development later in the chapter. Second, high-amenity areas removed from cities have become new Rocky Mountain growth poles. This includes well-known resorts such as in Banff and Aspen but also less-developed areas now supporting a recreation-based economy and sporting second homes and ranchettes. Resort development is a long-standing, well-known geographic phenomenon in the Rockies (Gill and Hartmann 1992), though the rate of resort growth in the 1990s surprised many regional observers and raised concerns about the resorts' ecological and social effects (Ringholz 1996; Howe, McMahon, and Propst 1997).

This development was spurred by a dramatic change in the regional economy: a significant decline in natural resource jobs and earnings and a rise in service and professional employment and earnings associated with investment, retirement, and other so-called nonlabor sources (Power and Barrett 2001). In the U.S. Rockies, natural resource jobs declined from 11% to 4% of all employment during 1970–1999 while service jobs grew from 20% to 31% of employment. The income effects of this change are shown in figure 1.2 for five Rocky Mountain states. Additionally, significant new income now comes to the region from nonlabor sources, such as retirement income and investments. Many regional analysts believe that this amenity boom, based on the region's natural qualities and enabled by the postindustrial economy, will endure and outlast previous booms (Power and Barrett 2001). But, like previous booms, it too has the potential to remake Rocky Mountain landscapes in profound ways.


Excerpted from Rocky Mountain Futures by Jill S. Baron. Copyright © 2002 Island Press. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


About Island Press,
Title Page,
Copyright Page,
Table of Figures,
List of Plates,
List of Tables,
FOREWORD - Rocky Mountain High,
CHAPTER 1 - Transforming the Rockies: Human Forces, Settlement Patterns, and Ecosystem Effects,
CHAPTER 2 - Geomorphic and Biogeographic Setting of the Rocky Mountains,
CHAPTER 3 - Paleoenvironmental History of the Rocky Mountain Region during the Past 20,000 Years,
CHAPTER 4 - Climates of the Rocky Mountains: Historical and Future Patterns,
CHAPTER 5 - Natural Resource Extraction: Past, Present, and Future,
CHAPTER 6 - Ecological Effects of Resource Development in Running Waters,
CHAPTER 7 - The Cascading Effects of Fire Exclusion in Rocky Mountain Ecosystems,
CHAPTER 8 - Rocky Road in the Rockies: Challenges to Biodiversity,
CHAPTER 9 - Islands in the Sky: Alpine and Treeline Ecosystems of the Rockies,
CHAPTER 10 - The Heart of the Rockies: Montane and Subalpine Ecosystems,
CHAPTER 11 - Base Camps of the Rockies: The Intermountain Grasslands,
CHAPTER 12 - Rumblings in Rio Arriba: Landscape Changes in the Southern Rocky Mountains of Northern New Mexico,
CHAPTER 13 - Collaborative Development of a Conservation Planning System: A Case Study of Summit County, Colorado,
CHAPTER 14 - Natural and Cultural Influences on Ecosystem Processes in the Flathead River Basin (Montana and British Columbia),
CHAPTER 15 - The Eastern Slopes of the Canadian Rockies: Must We Follow the American Blueprint?,
CONCLUSION - Rocky Mountain Futures: Forecasting a Future We Do Not Want,
About the Authors,
Island Press Board of Directors,

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