Looking for a respite from jobs, laptops and cellphones, my friend Gabe and I backpacked into the Weminuche Wilderness in southwest Colorado this June. I’d like to say we were consciously celebrating the Wilderness Act’s 50th birthday, but our decision to go into the area was mostly random.
If you’re looking for solitude, wilderness can be a rotten choice, as the designation tends to be a people-magnet. Besides, the Wilderness Act is a bit worse for half-a-century’s wear. Its philosophical underpinnings have been questioned. And our do-nothing Congress is especially useless when it comes to designating new wilderness areas, even if the proposals come from locals and have bipartisan support.
As we trudged up the trail past the wilderness boundary into a sloping field of tundra and rock, I got to thinking about what it must have been like to be environmentally minded in this region in the 1960s. By then, huge swaths of the San Juan Mountains had been forever altered by a century of hardrock mining. A spiderweb of roads covered the landscape.
Then, in 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act, which was created to hold such industrialization at bay. A few years afterwards, the Forest Service put forward a proposal to designate the Weminuche Wilderness. Most importantly, though, a diverse group of citizens from the region, from academics to hunters, helped shape the process. The effort, noted Ian Thompson in a special Durango Herald insert on the issue, was an attempt “to save the battered remnants of the original work of a Creator. To engage in this effort is the last hope of religious men.”
Perhaps most remarkable is that the Forest Service proposal was not compromised into an unrecognizable pulp by the citizens’ group, as one might expect today. Instead, the citizens expanded the Forest Service proposal to include previously excluded gems like Chicago Basin, a modern peak-bagging destination.
Gabe and I ended up next to an alpine lake that wasn’t exactly untrammeled. Half-burned cans and tinfoil and a broken fishing pole sat in the ring of an old campfire. Tailings piles from an abandoned mine climbed a slope next to the lake, and the rusty remnants of a wood-burning cook stove were scattered about an old cabin site. What really jarred us, though, was the sign telling us that the ground we were on was adjacent to private land, and that the owners sometimes helicoptered in to it and that we should respect their right to do so.
We had stumbled upon one of the most notorious mining claims in the state, a private parcel surrounded by wilderness that developer Tom Chapman has long tried to peddle or trade. In the meantime, guests from a nearby resort occasionally drop in via helicopter.
As we ate dinner and drank whiskey, we speculated on what we might do if the helicopter showed up. I’ll spare you the details of our plan, particularly the part about two naked middle-aged guys performing an interpretive dance with a broken fishing pole. But I can assure you: It would have kept the helicopter away for a long, long time. Alas, the chopper never arrived to test our theory.
Even as Congress was preserving the Weminuche — it was officially designated in 1975 and expanded to its current size a few years later — the forces that threatened it were fading away. Chances are, miners and loggers would have stayed away regardless of the land’s status. But there would have been other pressures on the land: Snowmobilers, motorcyclists and ATVers — now with advanced machines that can get them places that they wouldn’t have dreamed of going in the 1960s — would have pushed into the area. The same goes for mountain bikers. And while the Forest Service could have denied those requests, they would have surely sparked massive battles in the process. Wilderness designation pre-empted those fights, saving us from their polarizing effects.
The wilderness system is not perfect; like the little lake we’d chosen to camp by, it looks more beautiful from a distance. But I, for one, am grateful that back in the 1960s, the nation’s leaders had the wisdom to create the Wilderness Act, and that my parents and their fellow San Juan Basin citizens had the gumption and foresight to use it to protect a landscape that had nurtured them and their ancestors. That this probably couldn’t happen today only makes their accomplishment more valuable.
Later that night, I awoke to what sounded like an animal breaking into our packs and stealing the summer sausage. I fretted about that for a while before turning to larger neuroses about work, life, love, children, mortality. Then I rolled over onto my back and looked up. There was no moon that night. And my God, the stars. The stars.
Jonathan Thompson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a senior editor of the magazine in Durango, Colorado.
And our do-nothing Congress is especially useless when it comes to designating new wilderness areas, even if the proposals come from locals and have bipartisan support.