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Loved To Death: The Unintended Consequences Of Colorado Tourism

Luke Runyon
A crowded parking lot near Conundrum Hot Springs

Nearly 78 million visitors hit popular spots in Colorado in 2015. They pumped more than $19 billion into the economy, according to the state’s tourism office, but that money comes with a dark side for wild places.

Once-hidden hot springs now overflow with people. Formerly pristine ecosystems are being damaged by people who don’t understand how fragile they are. And parking lots nearby are often packed before the sun comes up.

So how did we get to this point?

To understand how Colorado’s natural areas lure millions of people each year, we turned to Patty Limerick. She’s the state historian and with the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center of the American West. Limerick traces the love for Colorado’s outdoors to the early 1800s, when wealthy visitors from Europe came. Some wrote books or painted Rocky Mountain panoramas to illustrate their travels. That whetted interest for another wave of tourism in Colorado, just as railroads began to make travel more feasible and more affordable.

Add to that equation the first director of the National Park Service, Stephen Mather. He made it his mission to entice more visitors from across the socioeconomic spectrum to the parks.

"[Mather] very accurately sized up the situation that… they simply had to have a significant use by American citizens, or the parks would not have political support. Mather knew right from the beginning that he had to make the parks visible, attractive… accessible and open to public visitation," Limerick said.

Credit National Park Service
National Park Service
Stephen Mather, the National Park Service's first director

In other words, to get Congress to support setting aside public lands for protection and conservation, there needed to be sufficient public interest in those lands. The key was making it easy and affordable for people to get there. For Mather, that included embracing the automobile.

On the other side were people like renowned naturalist John Muir. He was an advocate of the national park concept, but felt nature should be left in its wild state.

"Some of the more John Muir-sorts had a [mentality that] 'we should keep it very undeveloped, we shouldn’t have roads, we should just let people hike and find their own way here,'" Limerick said. "Well, Mather just thought 'We can’t really afford that. We really do need to be making it accessible and possible for regular citizens to visit here.'"

In land management circles this ideological conflict has come to be known as the Mather Paradox. It’s why it’s so difficult to solve the problem of places being loved to death. For people to care about Colorado’s wild (and sometimes fragile) places, they need to connect with them. But too many people connecting can change these places, sometimes irreversibly.

Is one of your favorite places being loved to death? Share your photos with us on Facebook or tweet them: @kunc using the hashtag #LovedToDeath

As host of KUNC's Colorado Edition, I work closely with our producers and reporters to bring context and diverse perspectives to the important issues of the day. And because life is best when it's a balance of work and play, I love finding stories that highlight culture, music, the outdoors, and anything that makes Colorado such a great place to live.
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