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Transforming the Rockies: Human forces, settlement patterns, and ecosystem effects

January 1, 2002

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.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2002
Title Transforming the Rockies: Human forces, settlement patterns, and ecosystem effects
Authors William R. Travis, David M. Theobald, Daniel B. Fagre
Publication Type Book Chapter
Publication Subtype Book Chapter
Index ID 70159717
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center