SUMMIT COUNTY " Something very special happened to the Gore Range and its flanks in Summit and Eagle counties on July 12, 1976. Congress designated 82,324 acres in the Arapaho National Forest and 50,987 acres in the White River National Forest as the Eagles Nest Wilderness.
The area, originally designated the Gore Range-Eagles Nest Primitive Area on June 19, 1932, contained 32,400 acres in the Arapaho National Forest with another 47,250 acres in the Holy Cross National Forest added in 1933. In December 1941, the primitive area lost 18,425 acres for the construction of U.S. Highway 6 over Vail Pass.
If the Colorado Department of Transportation's (CDOT) wish had been granted back in the mid-1960s, Interstate 70 would travel along South Willow Creek and Gore Creek instead of Tenmile Canyon. At an elevation of about 10,700 feet, a two-lane tunnel would burrow under Red-Buffalo Pass.
CDOT chose the route because it was 11 miles shorter than U.S. Highway 6 through Tenmile Canyon and over Vail Pass. Calculations estimated that this route would save travelers $80 million over 20 years. Cost projections including two tunnels came in at $63 million. The Vail Pass route estimate was $22 million.
When the Wilderness Act of 1964 was signed into law, it contained provisions to allow I-70 to use the Willow Creek/Gore Creek route. If deemed in the public interest, the Secretary of Agriculture could delete up to seven thousand acres from the southern tip.
Not everyone agreed with CDOT about the appropriateness and cost savings of the Red-Buffalo route. Local concerns included known avalanche paths along the corridor with poor sun exposure during winter, bypassing of towns, and expense maintaining both I-70 and U.S. 6.
The primitive area was scheduled for Congressional Wilderness designation hearings in 1968. In May that year, Secretary of Agriculture, Orville Freeman denied CDOT's request, noting that "the public benefits of preserving this priceless Wilderness area far outweigh any other considerations."
In 1971, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) proposed a 87,755-acre Eagles Nest Wilderness to supercede the primitive area. The Gore Range Trail was not included.
Citizens favored the creation of a 125,000-acre wilderness. The U.S. Forest Service's version excluded an area in East Meadow Creek near Vail where timber had been sold to Kaibab Industries. Citizens sued stating that the Forest Service must first evaluate the area for wilderness potential before completing the timber sale. The citizens won in court.
The Denver Water Board planned to build the 40-mile East Gore Collection System, which would bring about 70,000 acre-feet of water from branches of the Blue River to Dillon Reservoir. The Eagles Nest Wilderness boundary excluded the area where the canal would be built. The Water Board's claims in the area were denied in a ruling in 1976. The Board also planned the Eagle-Piney project near Vail which would have diverted 100,000 acre-feet of water through canals and tunnels under Vail Pass.
After several years of negotiations, Colorado Congressional Representative Jim Johnson penned an Eagles Nest Wilderness bill that added acreage near Frisco and Maryland Creek including the Gore Range Trail. Johnson added 3,440 acres at the mouth of Gore Creek effectively ending the proposed Eagle-Piney project.
In November 1997, another 160 acres along Slate Creek were added to the Eagles Nest Wilderness, now all contained in the White River National Forest.
In the last 30 years, the Eagles Nest Wilderness has attracted visitors and locals to hike trails to beautiful lakes, waterfalls and peaks. We citizens have a responsibility to help the Forest Service preserve and maintain this special area so we and future generations can enjoy its natural and primeval character preserved by our forefathers.
Maryann Gaug is the owner of About Wilderness LLC, a member of Friends of the Eagles Nest Wilderness, and a freelance writer.