National Forest Foundation

The White River National Forest: A Celebration of Past and Present

Your National Forests Magazine

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Published in Winter/Spring 2015 Issue
By Emily Olsen
A brilliant lawyer, President Benjamin Harrison tackled his most difficult cases in the same way he often addressed supporters from his front porch, by discussing the facts and allowing sound logic to illuminate his conclusions.

In 1891, Harrison’s dark, critical eyes focused on Colorado’s forested landscapes. Armed with clear evidence—rampant deforestation and silt-clogged rivers contaminated with mining waste caused by the twin railroad and mining booms—Harrison’s keen mind saw few options. To ensure the preservation of these vast forests for coming generations, he had to act. So on October 16, as the aspens were flaming gold and yellow, Harrison declared what is now the White River National Forest as a “forest reserve,” the second such designation in our country’s history.

Reserving lands for public forests was a novel, unfamiliar idea in a place where endless opportunity and Manifest Destiny gripped the public’s attention. In the year’s prior to Harrison’s bold declaration, gold discoveries spurred Denver’s fledging economy, new rail lines paralleled canyon contours to connect the Front Range to the Western Slope, and prospectors arrived with bright eyes to Independence and other towns, eager to strike it rich.

The New West

Today, the White River National Forest defines Colorado and the “new west.” During the first half of the 20th century, Denver transitioned from a scrappy gold mining town to the financial and commercial hub of the Rockies. The second half saw the emergence of a powerful outdoor-based economy as former mining towns like Breckenridge and Aspen transformed into glamorous all-season destinations. Visitors flock to Highway 82 along the Continental Divide, cresting 12,095-foot Independence Pass, where dilapidated remnants of the once-booming Independence are now a tourist attraction. The White River National Forest still provides opportunities for mineral exploration, grazing, logging, and oil and gas development, but recreation reigns. Ten million people visit each year, distinguishing the Forest as one of the most visited in the county.

Photo courtesy of Jack Affleck

Altitude and Solitude

The rugged Elk and Sawatch Ranges tantalize the eyes, attracting skiers from around the world to carve arching lines along the Forest’s twelve ski areas, trek to backcountry huts, or simply enjoy one of the frequent bluebird days. The Maroon Bells oblige to their ever-growing duty as luminaries to the surrounding landscape. These incredible peaks, hailed as the most photographed mountains in

America, call the most hardy of visitors to “ring the bells” by traversing their four 12,000+ foot mountain passes. The Bells along with six other massive peaks over fourteen thousand feet offer plenty of altitude to satisfy even the most ambitious peak baggers.

The White River boasts eight designated Wilderness areas including the renowned Collegiate Peaks, Flat Tops, and Eagles News Wilderness Areas. Over 2,500 miles of trails that open up 1.5 million acres accessible to backcountry travel offer a lifetime of hiking, biking, and off-highway-vehicle opportunities in a wildflower paradise.

As recreation use skyrockets, the clash between past and present has pushed the White River to be a model of balance between tremendous outdoor experiences and the protection of fragile ecosystems.

Wheels, paddles, rods, and rifles are common forest accessories. Mountain bikers hammer up the Government Trail’s 1,000 vertical feet, paddlers maneuver through rapids along the Roaring Fork and Eagle Rivers, and anglers eye native cutthroat trout lingering under the surface of Trappers Lake, a blue-ribbon trout fishery. Big-game hunters stalk the open rangelands and alpine meadows in the autumn months, hoping to bag an elk from the nation’s largest herd.

The White River’s multiple, world-class uses continue to draw new patrons. However, contrary to the early Manifest Destiny believers, the landscape’s resources are not endless, and even a 2.3-million-acre-backyard is not big enough for everyone. As recreation use skyrockets, the clash between past and present has pushed the White River to be a model of balance between tremendous outdoor experiences and the protection of fragile ecosystems.

In recent decades, eco-terrorists have torched expensive vacation homes and protested ski resort expansion plans. In 2013, the threat of a lawsuit forced Vail Resorts to mitigate potential damage to lynx habitat so that it could expand its Breckenridge Ski Resort. The Forest’s eight Wilderness areas see so many visitors it is often challenging to find solitude. The agency has gone so far as to designate some of the most popular Wilderness areas as “high-use,” meaning the agency can improve the area’s recreational infrastructure to better accommodate the influx of visitors. However, the Wilderness Act’s protections prohibit many of the improvements needed to accommodate the growing number of visitors, such as pit toilets and established campsites.

Creating a Shared Vision

Along the Continental Divide, north of Independence Pass and near Leadville, Colorado, the Eagle River tumbles from craggy peaks to support elk, bear, lynx, and other wildlife. Camp Hale lies at the headwaters of this storied river. Established as a winter and mountain warfare training camp, Camp Hale housed almost 15,000 soldiers who learned to ski, mountain climb, and survive in winter conditions.

Beginning in the 1940s, thousands of Army-hired construction workers streamed into the 9,300-foot-high valley. They straightened and channelized the Eagle River, effectively turning this critical headwater stream into a ditch. They flattened three miles of the valley floor with giant graders and constructed acres of concrete barracks and mess halls.

Yet, like so many places on the Forest, Camp Hale’s legacy is complicated. Many of the soldiers who trained at Camp Hale went on to establish or manage ski resorts in Colorado, Montana, California, and New Hampshire, laying the foundations of America’s ski industry. The dilapidated concrete barracks that stand as silent sentries along the grid of roads scarring the valley floor are an important reminder of the sacrifices war demands of a nation.

Seeking to restore the ecology of this area, while preserving and celebrating its role in American history, the NFF has selected Camp Hale and the Eagle River headwaters as one of 14 Treasured Landscapes conservation campaign sites where we are concentrating our work. Our collaborative work with citizens, organizations, and local leaders created a shared vision for this historically and ecologically significant place, ensuring that Camp Hale continues its transition from a military training camp to a vibrant celebration of all that visitors love about the White River National Forest.

The days of gold mines, narrow-gauge rails, and military camps may have passed, but President Harrison’s legacy persists. The future of the White River National Forest as a model for sustainable recreation, forward thinking management, and almost endless opportunity shines a golden light on the 21st century—and beyond.


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