On a cold night in October 1966, about 300 mostly angry people packed into Frisco’s little red schoolhouse.
They came for a public hearing on a controversial piece of Interstate 70 planned to carve a tunnel through the Gore Range-Eagles Nest Primitive Area.
Critics of the so-called Red Buffalo pass outnumbered supporters four to one.
Highway planners were convinced a straighter, 11-mile shorter route would save drivers money compared to the existing road over Vail Pass. They got an earful about the sacredness of wilderness, the route’s cost and engineering, and the value of the area as a tourist magnet.
The battle became a national cause for environmental groups.
Though it would be another decade before the primitive area was protected as Eagles Nest Wilderness, Colorado’s environmentalists won their first big victory in 1968 when Agriculture Secretary Orville Freeman took their side. Not only did he veto the pass, putting the area off-limits to all road building, he justified the decision by saying wilderness should be protected wherever possible.
THE FIRST 50 YEARS
The Wilderness Act of 1964 isn’t like other laws. Just read this:
“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
“It’s very poetic,” said Currie Craven, board president of Friends of the Eagles Nest Wilderness.
No one person created the concept of wilderness. Conservationists promoted formal government land protection for decades, and the U.S. Forest Service often used the terms “primitive area,” “wilderness” and “wild land” before the act became law.
Influential advocates for the act include some of the environmental movement’s founding fathers, people like Aldo Leopold, Bob Marshall and Arthur Carhart, who in 1920 secured the preservation of Colorado’s Trappers Lake as roadless and undeveloped.
The bill itself was drafted by The Wilderness Society’s former executive director Howard Zahniser in 1956. He pushed the bill for eight years, through 18 hearings and 66 revisions.
Then four months after Zahniser’s death, on Sept. 3, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law.
The bill immediately protected 9.1 million acres and established the National Wilderness Preservation System, considered one of the nation’s greatest conservation achievements.
The wilderness designation limits human activities to non-motorized recreation, scientific research and other non-invasive activities where visitors follow Leave No Trace principles.
The law also prohibits logging, mining, oil and gas drilling, mechanized vehicles (including bicycles), road-building and other development, though pre-existing mining claims, grazing ranges and water rights are grandfathered in.
In Colorado, the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness was one of the original 54 designated areas.
Over the next five decades, government agencies, grassroots conservation organizations and outdoor sports associations proposed more areas, and Congress has approved and added 100 million acres to the preservation system.
About 5 percent of the U.S. — an area slightly larger than California — is formally protected as wilderness. More than half of that land is in Alaska, leaving about 2 percent in the lower 48 states managed as wilderness by the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Colorado now has about 3.6 million acres of protected wilderness.
SUMMIT’S WILD PLACES
Eagles Nest was first designated by the Forest Service as the Gore Range-Eagle Nest Primitive Area in 1933. About eight years later, it was reduced in size to accommodate the construction of U.S. Highway 6 over Vail Pass.
In the 1960s, when the Wilderness Act was close to being passed, a Congressman slipped a clause into the bill that allowed officials to remove up to 7,000 acres for the construction of Red Buffalo pass. No other primitive area in the country was subject to such a clause, and environmental groups banded together to defeat the interstate route.
At first threatened by logging and Denver Water diversions, Eagles Nest Wilderness was officially designated in 1976.
Eagles Nest is more vertical than horizontal, with steep ridges, deep valleys, jagged peaks and dense forests, and can be accessed by about 180 miles of trails that often dead-end at alpine lakes.
Of the area’s 133,471 acres, Summit County contains about 82,484 acres of the Eagles Nest Wilderness, with the rest lying in Eagle County.
Summit’s other wilderness area is much smaller. Ptarmigan Peak Wilderness forms a sliver of land along the ridge and west side of the Williams Fork Mountains and is named for the 12,498-foot tall Ptarmigan Peak.
Advocates originally proposed a 74,770-acre area as part of the Colorado Wilderness Act of 1980. After Denver Water and the Federal Timber Purchasers Association carved out chunks, the area was designated in the Colorado Wilderness Act of 1993 as 13,175 acres, and it now has 12,760 acres.
In 1994, Friends of the Eagles Nest Wilderness formed to help the Dillon Ranger District maintain the Summit County portions of Eagles Nest and Ptarmigan Peak. Board president Currie Craven said the nonprofit is “paying for something the feds should do, but can’t.”
THE NEXT 50 YEARS
For most of human history, people concerned themselves with man’s ability to survive wilderness. Now we wonder how wilderness will survive man.
Wilderness areas face threats from encroachment of development and oil exploration to invasive plants to damage from illegal mechanized activity to erosion from hikers wandering off trails.
“We often use the term these areas are being loved to death,” said Cindy Ebbert, the Dillon Ranger District’s recreation specialist.
Ebbert started working as a ranger 15 years ago, and she’s seen more and more people coming to enjoy Summit’s wilderness areas.
More people means more stress on natural resources, especially at the lakes, she said. Though they’re not allowed, people build fires near the lakes, cut down trees for wood and leave trash behind.
Craven said people even take down “no fires” signs and burn them.
Officials and volunteers face the constant challenge of promoting Leave No Trace ethics and educating people who don’t know the rules or don’t care to follow them.
“Wilderness areas are meant to allow an opportunity for solitude,” Ebbert said, which is part of the reason behind the group-size limit of 15 people. Larger groups tend to more quickly erode trails and damage campsites.
With about three million more people living in Colorado than 40 years ago, renowned Colorado nature photographer John Fielder said, he’s seen fewer and fewer people venturing into the wilderness’ more rugged and less accessible parts.
The more people use wilderness the more nature has the potential to be abused, he said. At the same time, “if people don’t go out and experience these places they won’t become advocates for protecting them.”
He worries about apathy in government as politicians have designated fewer and smaller wilderness areas.
“Nature gets saved by laws,” he said.
According to The Wilderness Society, members of the House of Representatives failed in 2013 to pass more than 25 wilderness protection bills, making the 112th first Congress the first in 40 years not to pass a wilderness bill.
“The history of wilderness is bipartisan,” Fielder said. “We need more wilderness for water, for clean air, for biodiversity.”
Craven said the biggest problems wilderness areas face comes from the federal government inadequately funding them.
“It’s ignoring a responsibility we have not just now but for the future,” he said. “Granted we are in a debt situation, but you know they don’t have to balance the budget on the back of the Forest Service.”
Though few wilderness bills have passed in recent years, it’s not for lack of trying.
The White River National Forest recommends a 2,900-acre expansion of Ptarmigan Peak, including areas around Ute Peak and Acorn Creek.
In 2013, Sen. Mark Udall, Sen. Michael Bennet and Rep. Scott Tipton introduced bills that would protect old-growth spruce and ponderosa pine forests and mountain meadows in the heart of the San Juan Mountains, Browns Canyon and the Hermosa Creek Watershed.
And more new wilderness areas have been proposed in the Central Mountains, including Summit County.
“As long as we can fight the apathy and get people involved,” Craven said, “that will help our future enormously.”