Nature bumps into history at Camp Hale |

Nature bumps into history at Camp Hale

Cliff Thompson
NWS Waterwise1 SM 3-10 Vail Daily/Shane Macomber

If you’ve ever wondered why it’s so difficult to change things on public land, you need only consider Camp Hale south of Red Cliff.

The former military base where the 10th Mountain Division trained for mountain warfare is now a popular four-season recreation area where some groups want to restore the fragile wetlands and river corridor. In 1942 the Army Corps of Engineers drained and filled the abundant wetlands and channelized the Eagle River to build military facilities.

The river is now a pool cue straight through the valley floor that once was a huge wetland. Camp Hale also lies atop a huge aquifer from which the cities of Colorado Springs and Aurora want to tap water to pump to the Front Range.

In addition, the U.S. Forest Service wants to restore portions of the wetlands as well maintain Camp Hale as an interpretive site that contains information signs explaining what visitors are seeing. Finally, 10th Mountain Division soldiers want to preserved Camp Hale as a historic site to memorialize their military efforts.

“We need to find a balance,” said Caroline Bradford of the Eagle River Watershed Council. “We do think there’s a balance somewhere up there.”

Bradford’s organization made Camp Hale the subject of the most recent of its “Waterwise Wednesday” public education sessions, which are held each month.

“The debate we’ve been having on Camp Hale is the historic values versus the natural values,” said Cal Wettstein, the Holy Cross District ranger who oversees the land.

Wettstein said politics and pragmatism demand a compromise.

Dirt and water

“When they built Camp Hale, they hauled in 270,000 cubic yards of fill, so it may not be possible to restore much of the wetlands,” Wettstein said. He suggested that portions of the river channel could be reworked to create wetlands and that part of the Camp Hale could become a renowned interpretive site.

“We can go a long way toward restoring habitat up there,” he said, adding that might conflict with the motorized recreation use. “It’s an incredibly popular recreation area.”

Restoration efforts may interfere with Front Range water-removal projects. The cities believe there is a huge aquifer there, and they want to drill a well field 600 feet deep and pump 6,500 acre-feet during spring runoff.

The plan includes taking up to 1,100 acre-feet from the Eagle River, which will be pumped it over Tennessee Pass and into the Arkansas River where it will flow to the Front Range.

An acre-foot is 326,000 gallons and is enough water to cover a football field approximately a foot deep.

That diversion is part of a water sharing arrangement signed in 1998 between Aurora, Colorado Springs and water users in Eagle County. The Front Range cities agreed to limit their diversion of water from Eagle County to 30,000 acre-feet with 10,000 of that earmarked for Eagle County’s use.

Water flowing uphill

Pumping the aquifer beneath Camp Hale back over the Continental Divide at Tennessee Pass may not affect the flow of the Eagle River, said Doug Kemper, Aurora’s manager of water resources.

“The aquifer is hydrologically separated from the stream,” he said. “The aquifer is divided in half by sediment. Pumping won’t affect streamflows.”

Jason Carey, an engineer with River, an organization that restores rivers, said when the Army Corps began building at Camp Hale -then known as Eagle Park – everything about the area was just about perfect for a military training facility except one thing.

“Eagle Park was a perfect place for a base except it was soaking wet,” he said. “They not only straightened the Eagle River they deepened it too. That lowered the water table.”

Carey said the wetlands in Camp Hale provided important wildlife habitat, a place where water quality was enhanced and also provided a buffer against floods.

“I’m here to make a case for natural resource values,” he said. He said he wants to see the area restored to what it was like before the military brought in bulldozers and dump trucks.

When the Eagle River was straightened, it lost half its length, Carey said. What was once a meandering stream became an alder-lined ditch in the name of military training. That meant a loss of wetlands and streambanks that were important habitat for a variety of plants and animals.

A meandering stream allows water more time to soak into the ground, allowing more plant growth that supports a greater diversity of species.

Natural irony

Camp Hale could support more nature-based tourism if it were returned to its original condition, Carey said.

“This area has a high potential for wetlands revitalization because it has proven ability to support it,” he said.

Mike Claffey, an environmental consultant who once worked for the Army Corps of Engineers, said he thinks the area would benefit most from a river restoration project.

Claffey said it was ironic that the Army Corps of Engineers filled in wetlands with 270,000 yards of dirt and rock, and now they are in charge of issuing permits to revitalize what was there. He said river projects aren’t cheap and range from $15 to $100 per foot of stream.

The meeting is one of what will likely be many such meetings, aimed at finding a middle ground, said Bradford.

“We all have to work together to do it,” she said.

Cliff Thompson can be reached via e-mail at: or by calling 949-0555 ext. 450.

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