If there's merit to the idea that human communities are at least in part like natural ones, in the end weakened by homogeneity, then the towns and rural valleys of the Rockies can be said to be losing vigor with every passing year. Gentrification is tragic here for the same reasons it is everywhere. But somehow the losses can seem especially disappointing-not merely on account of the obvious and rapid destruction of nature (the loss of elk winter range to trophy homes alone is staggering) but because the primary quality of the Rockies was for 175 years as an alternative to conventional wealth and culture-as artist Frederic Remington put it, a reminder of the life that exists "beyond tasseled loafers, derby hats and mortgages bearing eight percent." Due in part to a fortunate twist of rugged topography and disturbing weather, there have been well into recent times at least a few folds, a nook here and a cranny there, where the mainstream world hasn't necessarily gotten the upper hand. But they're disappearing fast. Unlike the remittance men of old, many of whom spent their funds acquiring the trappings of locals, today's wealthy newcomers are more likely to distinguish themselves with the trappings of luxury.
Every bit as troubling as gentri-fication, some might argue, is the fact that living in an increasingly virtual world has changed utterly our expectations of what the wild Rockies can provide. Rangers in the large wilderness parks of the range are ever more frustrated by visitors who have what some describe as "too much Disney in the blood." Indeed, policy advisers are especially concerned about the degree to which entertainment-based recreation is beginning to impact the management of wilderness preserves. "Take away the fear of consequences," says Dr. William Borrie of the University of Montana, commenting on Disney's constructed, utterly benign version of nature, "and people let their guards down. The more the visitor perceives the land manager to be controlling things, the more they expect nature to be under the manager's responsibility." Biologists like Yellowstone National Park's Kerry Gunther are astonished by how disconnected visitors are from any sense of danger in the wild, citing how more and more people seem willing to approach within 20 yards of a grizzly bear for the chance at a good photo. Recently, when I suggested to a park visitor that placing her 6-year-old son next to an enormous bull elk wasn't a good idea, especially during the rutting season, the woman grew incensed. "The Park Service wouldn't let these animals run around if they were dangerous!" she snapped. Meanwhile trailhead comment sheets at Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain, and Grand Teton National Parks contain ever more bizarre requests: Build pens around the animals so we can see them better. Blast the rocks off the trail to make it easier to walk.