The Colorado Rockies have an image as an unspoiled place – high mountains, dark forests, beautiful meadows. Such wild places are on the decline – as Sanderson et al. pointed out in 2002, the global human footprint continues to increase, leaving us only small fragments of ‘the last of the wild’. Ellis et al. (2010) have calculated that humans now use approximately 60% of all available land to support themselves, with the trend continuing to increase. So where does that leave places like the high peaks of the Rockies?
The answer is that they are not very wild, but parts are surprisingly becoming wilder. The peak above is Gothic Mountain, and at its base is the town of Gothic, home to the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. The town now houses a seasonal population of approximately 100 people. But in the late 1800s, its population was more than 1000, perhaps several thousand. Mining claims dotted the landscape, with extensive deforestation and road-building supporting these operations. The Sylvanite Mine, for example, was five miles distant from Gothic and included “2,200 ft of tunnels; 1,200 ft of vertical workings and extensively stoped areas along the Sylvanite and Sylvanite No. 2 veins” according to a USGS report. Digging these tunnels, transporting ore, building structures for miners – the Colorado landscape of 1880 was a far more impacted place than 2013.
Remains of these mines still litter the landscape. Here is one abandoned adit on the south slope of Mt. Baldy, just an eight mile walk from Gothic.
Today, the ore is gone, the mines have long been unprofitable to operate, and the land has been converted to national forest. Wilder landscapes are returning. What we don’t yet understand is how long it will take, and how large the impacts have been. A recent study by Svenning and Sandel (2013) has shown that landscape change is often lagged, reflecting processes occurring hundreds to thousands of years ago. To put in a mine, to cut down a forest – these things are fast. But waiting for the land to forget these changes may be much slower.
The scene above is the Copper Creek drainage, near White Rock Mountain. Today it is in the Maroon Bells / Snowmass Wilderness – but the rock walls are dotted with tailings, collapsed shafts, wood pilings, and scattered metal fragments, reflecting a much different past. The last of the wild is not so easy to define after all.