Saturday, August 27, 2011

Despite Problems at Rocky Mountain National Park, Nature Rules

View from Ridge Trail Highway at Rocky Mountain National Park
It’s all true.  Everything you’ve heard about Rocky Mountain National Park’s beauty and vastness is accurate - 415 square miles filled with sixty mountain peeks over 12,000 feet, an accessible Alpine Tundra, waterfalls, trout fishing, 350 miles of hiking trails and the Continental Divide that weaves its way through the park.   While famous for glaciers, clear water and open valleys, there were stories behind the beautiful scene. 

Mills Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park
The first morning, we headed to Mills Lake for a family hike.  After entering a park gate and paying $20, we moved slowly over a winding road until directed to an overflow parking lot.   An overflow parking lot? A shuttle bus to our trail?  What happened to “getting away from it all”?  What happened was 3 million visitors a year to Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP).  It is the 5th most visited park in the country.   That’s a lot of cars on the road and the attendant air pollution.

The solution at this park and others is mass transportation.   A Hiker Shuttle is available  to whisk riders to various trail heads.  Bear Lake and Morraine Park Visitor Center also provide shuttle buses to the more popular trails.  Unlike the parks at Grand Canyon and Yosemite where bus rides are mandatory, RMNP allows free choice.  The reasons for mass transit are obvious.  Maintenance of roads, frustration with traffic, air quality in the pristine setting and protection of animals are all concerns  One hundred elk a year are killed by cars in RMNP.  According to the National Park Conservatory Association, replacing 5,000 private vehicles per day with 30 propane-powered buses, can eliminate more than 13,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions in a year.  

The shuttle bus filled quickly and dropped us off at our trail head.  Upon return,  many had finished their hikes and were watching for the bus.  A volunteer ranger radioed back about the awaiting crowd and the next bus was lightly loaded and able to hold most us.  Despite my grumbling and frustration with the delay, I had to admit the shuttle bus system worked well and was better than the huge parking lot that would be required near the fragile trail heads.  

Dead trees from bark beetle
Cut Lodge Pole Pine Trees to be burned
Although most of the park was incredibly green from record rainfalls, we noticed whole mountainsides were brown from dead or dying trees - the work of bark beetles, a native insect that has flourished thanks to warmer than average temperatures.  To suppress the beetle’s activities, temperatures must stay below freezing for 30 straight days in the winter.  Absent this, the beetles reproduce mightily and devour lodgepole pine trees.    High value trees can be treated but thousands are being removed each year.    Campgrounds lay in the open without shade trees -  made bare from fear of dead trees toppling on sleeping campers. The silver lining is the appearance of more wild flowers and aspen trees who are not affected by the beetles.  As one ranger said “It’s like pressing the reset button on nature”.    We can only hope.

RMNP is far enough north to have deer, elk, and bears and all want the experience of sighting these fine animals.  We got messages along a trail that a mother elk and two babies were ahead on the lake and in nearby  Estes Park,  cars had pulled over to see an elk in the stream.  But what we didn’t realize is the park has twice as many elk as can be sustained on the property without damage to the number of aspen trees and other elk favorites.  Rangers estimate only 30 bears live in the park but as many as 3100 elk do.  An ideal number would be 1500.  The solution has been to allow hunting of 30 female elk each year by park employees.  Since implementing the policy, there has been a gradual decrease in the elk number and increase in their food supply.

I’m not sure we met any “real” park rangers.  Those taking our money, riding the bus with us, and giving information were volunteers, as noted by their name tag and uniforms.  Because of dwindling federal money, most national parks operate on two-thirds of their needed budget.  So began the “Volunteers in the Parks” program.  RMNP has one of the largest with over 1700 volunteers at a savings of $2 million a year.  They are used to clean trails, remove and modify fences, handle the crowds, educate on wildlife, answer questions, collect seeds, and be ambassadors for the park.  The good news is many want to volunteer the selection process competitive.  The National Parks Service website even suggests you have a better chance of being chosen if you can provide your own housing.   The need for volunteers will just grow greater and may be the perfect place for baby boomers to give back.

Above tree line on Ridge Trail Highway

Glaciers at Rocky Mountain National Park

With one last drive along the famous Ridge Trail Highway, the highest in the country, we looked again at the park’s vast beauty.  Yes, there are too many cars and elks.  Thousands of trees are being leveled because of the pesky bark beetle.  And volunteers are filling the funding gap for the park.  But what we saw from on high was a landscape that’s had years of practice at rejuvenating itself.  We’re confident it will again.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Kibbutz Maagan - Changing with the Times

View of Sea of Galilee from Kibbut Maagan Holiday Village Hotel

As a teenager, I was drawn to the idea of the Israeli kibbutz - a community of like-minded residents who worked hard, celebrated often, and contributed to the greater good of the country.  It was romantic in a foreign sense of the word and I envied those who got to join one. But how has the communal setting aged in the modern world of individual rights?  On a recent trip, I was impressed the kibbutz still played an important part in Israel’s culture and economy but with a different model.

The Sea of Galilee is ringed with kibbutzim.  It is here they first began with Kibbutz Degania Alef, established in 1910.  Based on a socialist idea and manned by secular Zionists, the first kibbutzim were developed for protection as well as communal working of land.  The farmer-warrior image continued from the 1948 War of Independence to 1982 when many northern kibbutzim used their bunkers for protection from Syrian missiles just a few miles away.  During a tour of the Kibbutz Maagan on the south end of the Sea of Galilee, much of this history played out in the lives of the residents.

Our guide, Eli Kedem

Our guide Eli Kedem, a small, fit man in his early 60's, was born and raised on this property.  His parents were early residents who, like many pioneers, helped Israel stake out territory for the eventual drawing of the country’s boundaries.  After World War II,  citizens of Hungary and Romania came as a part of the Jewish Youth Movement.  Some were Holocaust survivors.  .

As was customary, Kibbutz Maagan began with agriculture, relying on all residents to help in the fields.  This program was instrumental in turning the desert lands of Israel into many productive fields and orchards.  Throughout the Jewish world in the 60's, 70's and 80's, speakers and rabbis encouraged young adults to volunteer and work at a kibbutz in the new country. We heard many such stories.  Eli met his wife who came from Holland to work at Maagan.    Our native Zimbabwean guide in Jerusalem started her life in Israel on a kibbutz.  A family friend from Ohio also met her Russian husband on a kibbutz and now lives in Israel with her family.  The kibbutz served as the Facebook of its time, connecting Jews from all parts of the globe.

Communal bicycles
It also tested the idea of a socialist economy on a small scale.  The first model had three principles - equal income, no private property, and direct democracy.  Eli and his wife raised their three children on the kibbutz.  Although Eli had lived apart from his parents at a children’s house, their children remained in their home.  School was held on the premises and children were expected to work.

The big changes at this kibbutz occurred six years ago. The commune was losing members.  Individuals wanted their own cars, homes and careers.   None of Eli’s children remained on the kibbutz.  After a passionate vote, rules changed.   Salaries are no longer equal although there is a minimum wage.   A member can earn more if they work longer or have a better job.  They can now work outside the kibbutz. And each family has its own budget. Major decisions for the kibbutz are still made by direct vote from each member but day to day ones are controlled by an economic manager and a social one.

Workshop Participant

Communal laundry

Elderly Workshop Gifts 

Vestiges of the socialist era remain - a common dining room, laundry room, daycare, and a workshop for elderly people.  Bicycles are scattered around for anyone’s use.  Sadly,  no more young volunteers work there. As Eli commented “paid employees stay longer”.  Some of the members continue to farm 400 acres for bananas, avocados, and grapefruit but most of their income is from the Kibbutz Maagan Holiday Village hotel where we stayed.  Eli now works with Christian and Jewish companies in the United States who sponsor tours of Israel and send their filled buses to the hotel. From Maagan, many holy and historical sites are available.  Since membership is no longer required to stay on the kibbutz, many students from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem attend a nearby university, work at the hotel, and rent an apartment on the kibbutz.

Buses in front of hotel
Maagan is not alone in making changes.  Today, only 15% of the country’s Kibbutz membership work in agriculture.  Laborers from Thailand now pick the crops. Some kibbutzim have branched into such businesses as diamond cutting, drip irrigation systems, plastic and medical tools, and even a Naot shoe store down the street from our kibbutz.  Many own hotels.  And despite their small number (only 1.5 % of the Israeli population), kibbutzim produce 9 % of the country’s industrial production as well as one half of its milk and 40% of its agriculture production.

Front yard of kibbutz home
Renovated kitchen
As Eli led us toward a line of duplexes that faced the Sea of Galilee, a woman waved us into her home.  Her front yard was filled with flowers and the door open to the cool morning air.  Inside, she proudly pointed out her newly renovated kitchen and introduced her husband who was just finishing breakfast.  They laughed easily, especially about us getting to meet real live kibbutz residents.  Both were artists and sold their sculptures and handbags in the marketplace.  They clearly enjoyed the beautiful, communal setting and were thriving in its new economy.

Eli smiled warily as we left.  He loved growing up on the kibbutz and raising his family there.  But he knew the changes were necessary.  Encouraged by the slight up-tick in members since the rules were revised,  the kibbutz expects more will be enticed to work there. Maybe even Eli's grandchildren will continue this century old tradition.  He can only hope so.

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