Opinion | Morgan Liddick: Camp Hale is worth preserving
On Your Right
While the swamp creatures continue to try to pin the tail on the Donald in Washington, out in the real world, where people grow stuff and make things, there are ideas afoot worth paying attention to. Take the Camp Hale National Historic Landscape, which was proposed by Sen. Michael Bennet in 2016 and is now gathering steam.
Those who have never been should go and see it. Nestled in a broad Alpine valley between Leadville and Red Cliff just off U.S. Highway 24, Camp Hale was built in 1942 as the base and training ground for the 10th Mountain Division. During the course of World War II, more than 33,000 soldiers called Camp Hale home. They learned to ski, to fight in Alpine conditions and to survive the rigors of winter in the Rocky Mountains — no mean feat in the years before Gore-Tex. They shipped out to Europe, beat the Nazis in the Italian mountains and came home. After the war, many continued to be active outdoorsmen, even creating companies based on their wartime training. The co-founder of Vail Resorts was a 10th Mountain Division soldier named Pete Seibert. Of these men, about 250 remain alive, and the number is shrinking daily.
Camp Hale faded rapidly after the war was over, as did much of the quickly constructed wartime infrastructure throughout the country. Today, there is not much evidence of the camp’s temporary buildings or temporary residents: a few hard-surface roads in a grid pattern across the valley floor, some concrete foundations, sumps built to combat the persistently high water table and a set of steps here and there. But the deeds of the men who trained there should be recalled and preserved because they tell an important — perhaps the central — part of the story of America’s participation in the 20th century’s Great Crusade.
Here’s why: The skiing and climbing, the winter camping and cold-weather fighting wasn’t only taught to guys with names like Sven and Olaf and Sonannen; Bill and Ted, Ricco and Manuel learned it, too. They learned and practiced as Americans all, and then they went to Europe and fought as Americans at places like Riva Ridge and Mount Belvedere in the supposedly unbreakable Gothic Line in Northern Italy. When it was all over, most put away the tools of war and lived out balanced and productive lives. More than just a place, the proposed National Historic Landscape is their monument — a reminder that, when Americans work together, there’s nothing they cannot accomplish.
Now it’s our turn. The CORE Act, which proposes an approximately 30,000-acre site at Camp Hale as the nation’s first National Historical Landscape has passed the U.S. House. Bennet is a co-sponsor of the counterpart bill, S. 2337, in the Senate. Sen. Cory Gardner is not against the bill and is working on language, probably having to do with the additional 70,000-odd acres the bill sets aside as wilderness in a variety of other areas in the state. Tellingly, section 8 (b)4 of the bill deals with something really useful: The removal of unexploded ordinance at the Camp Hale site by the Army Corps of Engineers because old, decaying explosives and tourism is not a healthy combination. Both senators should receive a call or an email — or even an old-timey U.S. Postal Service letter if one is a Luddite or formalist — advocating for the preservation of Camp Hale.
The landscape at Hale abides and is beautiful on its own account. But there is more than the landscape to memorialize there. Camp Hale began as a strategic idea at a very dark point in our history. It was developed as a plan and then as a wartime town, built in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. It turned thousands of Americans first into hardened warriors able to win on the roughest terrain and then into lifetime recreational skiers, changing the fortunes of dying towns across the mountain West. All of this was done at lightning speed by an America motivated with a single purpose: to smash the enemies of freedom in as decisive a way possible. Their victory, and the unity of purpose that brought it, is as important an element of the proposed National Historical Landscape as any road, well or stoop. In memorializing Camp Hale, we remind ourselves of those things.
Because these days, we could all use some reminding about that.
Morgan Liddick’s column “On Your Right” publishes Tuesdays in the Summit Daily News. Liddick spent 27 years working for the U.S. Foreign Service, primarily living abroad. He also spent 12 years teaching U.S. history and Western civilization at community colleges in Colorado and Texas. He lived in Summit County as recently as 2015. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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