Biden designates Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument to preserve history and conserve local landscapes

Ali Longwell
Vail Daily
President Joe Biden signs a declaration creating the Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument Wednesday at Camp Hale above Red Cliff. The monument is to honor the 10th Mountain Division soldiers who trained there to fight in Italy in World War II.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily

CAMP HALE, Eagle County — “Mr. President, welcome to Camp Hale, welcome to Colorado,” proclaimed Sen. Michael Bennet on Wednesday to a large round of applause from U.S. Forest Service employees, Eagle County locals and statewide dignitaries as they gathered for the designation of The Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument.

“If I do say so myself — and perhaps speaking for myself — you have excellent taste, Mr. President, for your administration’s first national monument designation,” Bennet said.

Alongside many Colorado leaders and stakeholders — from county commissioners, tribal leaders, conservationists, ranchers, hunters, anglers, recreational users, and more — Bennet has been working for more than a decade to bring protections to the former 10th Mountain Division training site and the surrounding Tenmile Mountain range.

Through the Biden administration’s first use of the Antiquities Act, Camp Hale is now the ninth national monument in Colorado.

Addressing the crowd Wednesday at Camp Hale, after arriving at Eagle County Regional Airport on Air Force One and traveling by motorcade, Biden said he was designating 53,804 acres of the rugged landscape for preservation in perpetuity. 

From the original tribal nations that were the “stewards of the land,” to the 10th Mountain Division camp and to its current use for outdoor recreational activities, Biden praised the site as “treasured lands” that “tell the story of America.”

President Joe Biden speaks Wednesday at the Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument signing ceremony at Camp Hale. The monument is to honor the legacy of 10th Mountain Division soldiers who trained there to fight in Italy in World War II.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily

“It’s the first new national monument of my presidency under this authority,” Biden said. “When you think about the natural beauty of Colorado and the history of our nation, you find it here.”

In his remarks, Biden also announced steps to conserve 225,000 acres of the Thompson Divide, an announcement that was met with loud applause and cheering from the gathered crowd.

“We’re standing with Colorado’s farmers, ranchers, hunters, anglers who have forged generations to protect beautiful streams, aspen groves, and the Thompson Divide area,” Biden said. “Let me be clear, there’s no current or planned oil exploration production in the area. We’re just keeping things as they’ve been for a long time.”

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said the Department of Agriculture was working with the Department of the Interior to “initiate a conversation and consideration of a 20-year withdrawal of the Thompson Divide area for mining.”

Vilsack added that this would “temporarily prohibit the issuance of new prospecting permits and leases from federal minerals and the staking of new mineral claims and mining claims, during which we will do a careful environmental analysis with much public input.”

Air Force One lands in Eagle County

The festivities kicked off at 11:37 a.m. Wednesday, when Biden landed on the Eagle County Regional Airport tarmac on Air Force One.

Helicopters circled the landing area throughout the morning before the president’s arrival and were accompanied by security detail on the ground, including two snipers in the center of the tarmac scanning for potential threats.

Biden departed from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland Wednesday morning to begin a three-state trip in the West starting in Eagle County. The signature white-and-sky-blue design of the Air Force One glinted in the sun as it descended westward below the surrounding peaks, with the large “United States of America” and American flag decals clearly announcing the arrival of the president.

Upon landing, Biden was met by a group of Colorado’s leading democratic legislators. Gov. Jared Polis, Sens. Bennet and John Hickenlooper, and Rep. Joe Neguse were all at the stairs to meet the president as he disembarked the plane. Vilsack, who visited Eagle County earlier this summer and has been an advocate for the Camp Hale designation, was also in the greeting group.

Following a brief conversation with local legislators, Biden entered a suburban waiting on the tarmac and set off for Camp Hale in a presidential motorcade. The motorcade was made up of dozens of vehicles — including a bomb squad, paramedics, military personnel and local police, among others — all of whom were to accompany Biden to the Camp Hale site about an hour’s drive to the east and south along Interstate 70 and then up U.S. Highway 24.

White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams talks with President Joe Biden during Wednesday’s signing ceremony for the new Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily

A number of local residents stood along Cooley Mesa Road to wave on the motorcade, and many continued to drive up to the jet center to take pictures of the famed airplane after the president had departed. The Air Force One remained parked on the tarmac, giving residents the unique opportunity to view the famed aircraft up close.

Carrie McIlvaine, a resident of Boulder and part-time resident of Eagle, expressed why she and others came out to the airport that day.

“We don’t get things like this in our little community,” McIlvaine said. “It’s once in a lifetime.”

‘A deeply Colorado story’

Upon arrival at Camp Hale, Polis was the first to welcome the president to Eagle County, celebrating the designation as one that “provides and establishes that link between our lands, our history, and our future.”

“Protecting Camp Hale, the hallowed training ground, the birthplace of the 10th Mountain Division, celebrates Colorado’s contribution to the World War II effort and, of course, the service of our proud ski troopers,” Polis said. “Veterans of the 10th Mountain Division helped shape the modern ski industry, leading to Colorado’s rise as a world-class outdoor recreation community, preserving our beautiful natural treasure.”

Each of the day’s speakers spoke to the history of Camp Hale and the Tenmile range, beginning with the Ute tribe — Biden referring to this “magnificent land” as their “progeny.”

Colorado Gov. Jared kicks off the festivities Wednesday at Camp Hale ahead of President Biden putting pen to paper to designate the new Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily

“According to the Ute people, their ancestors lived here since the beginning of time. Ute came to this place each year after the winter snow melted to hunt and gather plants for food and medicine,” Bennet said. “This designation honors their enduring connection to the land and their rightful role to help manage it.”

Of course, the site’s most well-known history lies with the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division, which brought 15,000 recruits to the area by train in 1942.

“Facing high altitudes and harsh terrain, deep snow, bitter cold, soldiers in Camp Hale learned to scale rock, ski and survive, preparing for the war they were about to fight,” Biden said.

Bennet said that he was just recently told by the son of one of the 10th Mountain veterans that “this mountain was the coldest son of a bitch he ever climbed.”

These troops were called into World War II in 1945 to Northern Italy where, ultimately, they “helped clear the way for victory in Europe,” Bennet said. “Over 114 days of combat, more than 4,000 soldiers were wounded. Nearly 1,000 lost their lives.”

“Just imagine — I mean it sincerely, I say, this as the father of a man who won the Bronze Star Service Medal and lost his life in Iraq — imagine the courage, the daring, and the genuine sacrifice they all made,” Biden said.

However, after the war “they weren’t done,” as Bennet put it.

“After the war, a number of 10th mountain veterans returned to Colorado to build our ski and outdoor industries theirs is an extraordinary story, a deeply Colorado story, I think, Mr. President, of service, of vision, entrepreneurship, and of abiding connection to the outdoors and our public land,” Bennet said.

Two of the 10th Mountain Division veterans joined Biden on stage — alongside Bennet and Hickenlooper, Neguse, representatives of the Southern Ute Tribe as well as the U.S. Forest Service officials — for the signing of the proclamation. These were veterans Francis “Bud” Lovett and Robert Scheuer.

While the pair represent two of the few remaining veterans of the division, the day’s events paid tribute to all the veterans, including local veteran Sandy Treat Jr., who “campaigned and spent his final years working to preserve this land,” Neguse said. Treat passed away in 2019.

However, celebrating his legacy, Treat’s grandson, Sandy Treat IV was able to see the designation on Wednesday.

“I know my grandpa was working toward it and it’s taken some time to see this in person here today, but to be here for him, it was really special,” he said. “It’s incredible. The draw to being in Colorado is places like this, being in the mountains with the landscape, all the wildlife, to preserve something like this, and the history, because it has a lot to do with our country’s history.”

And for the state electeds that helped push this designation to happen, part of this was about keeping their promises to Treat and all the other veterans of the division.

“Sandy (Treat) challenged us when he was with us to ‘Get ‘er done.’ And today, Mr. President, you’re going to get her done,” Polis said.

President Joe Biden talks and hugs with Eagle County Veterans Service Officer Pat Hammon on Wednesday at Camp Hale.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily

Preserving Legacies

While this was Biden’s first visit to the Camp Hale site, its legacy is well known and carried by many Eagle County and Colorado elected officials and residents like the Treats who carry special stories about the site.

For Vail Mayor Kim Langmaid, she said her first memories at Camp Hale were likely in middle school, taking advantage of the terrain for cross-country skiing, adding that the biggest impression from the site is visual.

“When you look at the barracks and imagine the troops training out of there, it does leave quite an impression that that much activity can take place in such an area,” she said.

However, the full impact of Camp Hale and the 10th Mountain veterans is much more, Langmaid said, adding that if it hadn’t been for Camp Hale and the veterans’ vision to create the ski area, she wouldn’t have ever ended up here.

Avon’s Mayor Sarah Smith Hymes said that her first visit to Camp Hale was in 1970 with her uncle, Phil Wootton, who she said was one of the original 17 investors in Vail.

“He had been recruited to invest by founders with close ties to Camp Hale; as a writer and editor at Life Magazine, he was able to evoke the history of the place for us more poignantly than a casual drive-by. I still get the chills when I visit and think about what went on there. I realize in advocating for its designation as a national monument that I have failed in passing this history on to my own sons, now in their 20s, who only know Camp Hale as a great place to recreate,” Smith Hymes said. “What is happening in national politics and in Ukraine right now drives home the message that we can’t take anything for granted. Camp Hale is a reminder of what it takes to protect our democracy and the lengths we will go to come to the aid of our allies. Plus, the area is a great place to play in the great outdoors — the backbone of the Colorado economy  — and is home to the headwaters of our water supply, the Eagle River.”

Eagle County Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry said not only does the national monument signify “everything that public lands should be,” but that she lives in a piece of Camp Hale history herself.

“Our house that we live in came from Pando. It was a 40-by-40 log cabin boarding house in Pando that was moved to Eagle after Camp Hale was dismantled,” she said. “I’m going to go home and give our house a hug.”

On Wednesday, Biden referred to public lands, including the National Parks system and national monuments, “treasures and wonders that define the identity of us as a nation,” and as something that help us preserve as well as build legacies.

“They’re a birthright that we pass down from generation to generation, and they unite us, and that’s what today is all about,” he said. “We’re doing it not just for today, but for all ages. And it’s for the people of Colorado, but it also goes well beyond the people of Colorado. It’s for all the people across America and the world. It’s a permanent decision, an action that no future president can overturn.”

Across the finish line

While Wednesday was a celebration for Bennet, Hickenlooper and Neguse, there is still some fight ahead with the CORE Act.

In an interview with the Vail Daily, Bennet said that this designation was “a very important first step” toward the passage of the massive public lands bill that has passed the House of Representatives five times but has stalled time and time again in the U.S. Senate.

“I hope this builds momentum for the CORE Act,” Bennet said. “I’m going to keep fighting for the CORE Act with every last breath, and there is not a public lands bill, I think, in the history of Colorado that’s had as much a public process as the CORE Act. And that’s the reason it’s got very broad bipartisan support all over the Western Slope of Colorado. We’ll get it over the finish line.”

Wednesday’s trip and designation were touted by many as a show of support for Bennet during his current bid for re-election. On Wednesday, the president credited Bennet with his diligence in pushing the designation and the act forward.

“This guy, he made this finally happen, at least me signing it, certainly,” Biden said. “He came to the White House and he said, ‘I told you what I need.’ And I said, ‘I’ll do it.’ You know why? I was worried he’d never leave the damn White House.”

Hickenlooper in his remarks said that while the CORE Act was “not going anywhere” — stating “we’re going to get it done in this coming year” — he credited Bennet for pushing the designation.

“I give Michael the great credit to say, well, if we’re not going to get it done in the near term — when time is of the essence, where people and their families have been working so long to make this happen, to make this Continental Divide National Monument a reality — then why wait?” he said.

Neguse similarly said that this was a “giant step forward in terms of preserving and protecting some of the areas that we have been fighting to secure within the CORE Act,” in an interview with the Vail Daily.

“Hope springs eternal,” he said. “We are going to celebrate this decision and then roll up our sleeves and get back to work to ensure that the rest of the CORE Act and the protections that we have been fighting to secure ultimately are enacted at the federal level.”

Carolyn Paletta and Nate Peterson also contributed reporting to this story.

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