“A History of Land Use and Vegetation Change in California Park, a High-Elevation Rangeland in Northwestern Colorado”

By Dillon M. Maxwell, Charles C. Rhoades, Lincoln Bramwell, Mark W. Paschke

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station (2021)

Abstract: For centuries, humans occupied and altered California Park, a unique high-elevation rangeland in northwestern Colorado. The area’s rich biodiversity attracted Native American hunters and successive European-American cattlemen, sheepherders, homesteaders, and recreationists. All of these groups influenced the area’s plant and animal composition and diversity, but heavy cattle and sheep grazing from the 1870s into the 1940s had a drastic and lasting impact on California Park. The area became part of the National Forest System in 1905 and since then the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service has managed livestock, hunting, and forest resources. Early accounts of California Park create a complex picture of the historical vegetation; some describe the landscape as a meadow supporting a variety of wildlife and surrounded by forest, and others refer to shrubland habitats. This report documents land-use change, management decisions, and subsequent ecosystem change in California Park since the late 1800s. Much of the report is based on a recent interview with a lifelong resident of the area, a retired Forest Service range manager. Other local primary and secondary historical sources supplement material from this interview. This chronology of land use helps to explain how present-day conditions developed and can inform management decisions. In recent years, the Forest Service has focused its management on sustaining native vegetation and wildlife and reversing upland and riparian degradation caused by humans. Despite land managers’ efforts, however, widespread invasive plants and soil limitations remain significant obstacles to maintaining desired vegetation composition within California Park. Knowledge about land-use change in California Park can assist restoration efforts in upland landscapes to favor ground-nesting birds and ungulates, and along stream corridors to enhance native trout and boreal toad populations.

Link to publication: “A History of Land Use and Vegetation Change in California Park, a High-Elevation Rangeland in Northwestern Colorado”

Dillon M. Maxwell is a Historian with Colorado State University’s Public Lands History Center, and Center for Environmental Management of Military Land, in Fort Collins, Colorado. He has B.A. and M.A. degrees in history from Colorado State University. His research focuses on the history of public lands in the American West.