Camp Hale preservation part of effort to protect more public lands
August 3, 2016
As the posse of hikers gathered by the sunny trailhead, the early morning stillness was shattered by a harsh, thrumming whine, and a young boy on a dirt bike sped by in a puff of dust, leaving the group coughing in a cloud of foul-smelling diesel smoke.
"That," said Susie Kincade, "is why [there] needs to be wilderness!"
She is an environmental advocate with Wilderness Workshop, a nonprofit activist group that campaigns for the protection of wilderness areas in western Colorado. On July 30, Kincade — along with conservation advocate and Iraq veteran Garret Reppenhagen of the Vets Voice organization — led a group of veterans and conservation-minded hikers up Kokomo Pass, overlooking Camp Hale, the historic World War II training site.
The camp, where 10,000 soldiers trained for battle in fierce winter conditions, has been suggested as the nation's first National Historic Landscape. This designation, proposed by Sen. Michael Bennet, would protect both the area's historic legacy and its rich ecosystem, allowing for the preservation of the memory of the soldiers who lived and worked there in the 1940s and the habitat of the animals that still populate the hillsides today.
The designation differs slightly from that of wilderness, as one of the goals of the proposal is to educate the public on the history of Camp Hale and the 10th Mountain Division.
"The designation would protect the resource, promote education and interpretation, encourage ongoing restoration efforts and sustain all the existing recreational uses," said Scott Braden of Conservation Colorado. "This would differ significantly from wilderness, which is a designation designed to provide for protecting more natural landscapes and preserving solitude."
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Kincade explained how the historic landscape designation fit into the larger plan for Colorado's wilderness as the hikers gathered outside their cars to prepare for the hike. U.S. Rep. Jared Polis has proposed a bill that would protect 58,000 acres of wilderness land in Summit and eastern Eagle counties. The Continental Divide Wilderness and Recreation Bill, proposed in May 2015, has been heard in the House of Representatives and referred to the subcommittee on Federal Lands.
Some of this area, including the Tenmile Recreation Management Area, will be accessible to mountain bikers, and to motorized vehicles on designated routes— the Spruce Creek Road and the McCulloch Gulch roads. However, there are still conservation measures in place in the recreation management area.
"We're the most visited national forest in the U.S." said county commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier, who supports the bill. "It's a really good balance to have high levels of protection on some of our lands and high levels of recreation on others."
As she spoke of the work being done to protect Colorado's wild lands, Kincade gestured at a map of western Colorado swathed in different shades of green, representing different areas of proposed and existing wilderness. Initially, she explained, conservation efforts were directed toward the scenic, postcard-ready vistas that are scattered across the nation; but it soon became clear, with further scientific investigation, that there are other, less picturesque areas that animals use for mating and migration that are equally worth saving.
Combined with Bennet's proposal to make Camp Hale a National Historic Landscape, the Continental Divide Wilderness and Recreation Bill gives western Colorado's wild lands a good chance at federal protection.
"The exciting part about Senator Bennet being on board," Kincade explained, "is that a bill stands a much greater chance of passing when there's a companion bill in the Senate and in the House. It will have a chance to have hearings, and that's what these wilderness bills need. And they also need a lot of grassroots, of citizen support. We need people to write letters and say "Hey, I was up there, it's gorgeous, we need to protect these lands."
These lands need protection from a whole host of threats — from wildfire to resource extraction — but one of the greatest challenges they face is development, often in the form of privatization. Advocates of privatizing public lands argue that private investors could better protect the value of the wild lands as well as support greater economic efficiency. However, as Braden explained, this is not necessarily the case.
"Public lands are critical for wildlife, recreation and Colorado's outstanding quality of life. Privatizing or turning them over to state control would be a disaster for access, our economy and fiscally. State and private lands are not generally open to the public, so access for recreation, hunting and fishing would be threatened," he explained. "Colorado's multi-billion dollar outdoor recreation economy depends on the critical infrastructure of public lands access. Finally, state control of public lands would unfairly put Colorado taxpayers on the hook for huge new management costs that could bankrupt our state. Just one severe fire season can cost nearly a billion dollars — an expense now shared nationally but that would cripple Colorado's state budget."
Conservation Colorado has been working closely with Polis and Bennet to increase grassroots support for their respective conservation initiatives.
As the hikers wandered through a wildflower-spotted meadow, Kincade underscored the sanctity of our public lands.
"The rest of the world looks at the United States and says this is one really beautiful, great, intelligent thing that Americans have done," she said. "And the whole issue of privatizing would erase that."
This story has been corrected for clarity.
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