While it’s not unusual for Colorado State University students to enjoy the great outdoors during the summer, one group becomes actively involved in preserving the history — and future — of a local natural treasure.

Each year, CSU’s Public Lands History Center takes students to Rocky Mountain National Park for nearly a week. The program, primarily involving graduate students in the Department of History, is known as “Parks as Portals to Learning.”

RMNPNow in its fifth year, PPL began Aug. 6 with park staff spending a couple of days showing the CSU students areas of the park and describing management goals such as maintaining wilderness values, protecting natural and cultural resources and providing for positive visitor experiences. They also discuss challenges such as increasing visitor use and restoring natural ecosystems.

“As we hiked to the field site, up narrow trails, across streams, over logs, through thickets, we felt the history of the park, felt the changes in the land,” says history graduate student Dillon Maxwell. “It made me view that landscape differently, not that of a visitor but as someone working to help the park, which was awesome. I began to see how history, as a dynamic field, is applicable to other contents beyond the liberal arts. It proved to me that history isn’t constrained to the museum and the archive.”

Other activities

The night of Aug. 9, there was an oral history session featuring Rich Fedorchak, chief of interpretation and education at the park. Then the students spent the last half of the week working in a team setting to develop an environmental history project based on repeat photography in Horseshoe Park. The project helped provide a better understanding of changes that have taken place since the early 1900s and established a process for continuing to document future changes in Horseshoe Park. They presented their work to CSU faculty and park employees on Aug. 11.

“The idea is to understand and document the context of past decisions, and then to use those lessons learned to inform future decisions,” says Brenda Todd, the new program manager of the Public Lands History Center who spent the last 10 years working for the National Park Service. “The students are working with professionals and getting a sense of the issues and decisions they face in managing the park.”

Some of the students earning their master’s degrees in public history come to the PPL straight from their required internship, which is often done at a national park. So they might go from doing hands-on restoration work — like replanting native species where beetle-kill pine was burned — to learning about the bigger picture, the history and management of the park.

“Having the opportunity to work intimately with the land in Rocky Mountain National Park is a completely different experience than reading environmental histories,” says Katie Oldberg, another graduate student participant. “The project energized my spirit and passion for history in a way that the classroom and graduate school had not accomplished yet. PPL showed me a side of the National Park Service and academia I have never experienced before; it bridged a gap between the practical and philosophical pieces of me.”

Complementary goals

Adrian Howkins, an associate professor of history who’s been involved in the PPL since its inception, says the program was formed out of complementary desires from the center and the park: The center wanted students to understand how their classroom lessons actually apply in a national park, and the park wanted to provide its employees with more understanding of the cultural side of the natural resources they steward.

“Historic and environmental preservation laws require consideration of the impacts on natural and cultural resources before actions are taken on federal lands,” Howkins explains. “Recognizing cultural resources is important to making sound decisions about how to manage the park now and in the future.”

Howkins notes that the park is a dynamic landscape, and the uses of various areas of the park has changed over the years. Documenting and understanding this history is important to historians and helpful to land managers as they make decisions today.

Moraine Park story map

Last year’s PPL project involved creating a story map that allows people to view how the Moraine Park landscape has changed over time. For example, the area used to have more wetlands, but they were drained to make them more suitable for livestock. There was also a golf course in the Moraine Park area in the past. Over the years, the Park Service has taken action to restore the wetlands in Moraine Park.. This included work in the 1990s to remove a road, fill in ditches, remove greens and restore natural drainage and water flow in the area of the former golf course. More recently, the park constructed a network of temporary fences to exclude elk, thereby allowing willow and aspen to reproduce and grow after decades of decline due to a previously overabundant elk population. Once the plants have been restored, beavers are expected to return and build dams, which will contribute further to restoring the wetlands.

The story map that PPL students created is history that will be shared with the public to help them understand the cultural and natural connections.

“We want to support the park’s goals, by exploring and documenting the history of what came before,” Howkins adds. “It is our hope that the park staff benefit from spending time with us, and we know our students benefit from working with them.”

Support future Public Lands History Center projects by making a gift online. The Department of History is in CSU’s College of Liberal Arts.