Nature lovers created mountain wilderness
The Wilderness Act of 1964, 40 years old this year, was only the beginning of a grassroots movement that spread across the West. In Aspen, the bill inspired three determined, visionary women – Connie Harvey, Joy Caudill and Dottie Fox – to spend the better part of two decades widening wilderness boundaries and more than doubling the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area.
Today, three federally designated wilderness areas surround Aspen: Maroon Bells-Snowmass, Hunter-Fryingpan, and Collegiate Peaks. Together these lands comprise several hundred square miles and form a repository of rugged mountains, glacially carved valleys and diverse wildlife.
Aspen’s wilderness warriors are largely responsible for expanding the Maroon Bells wilderness and spearheading the creation of the Hunter-Fryingpan. They were also instrumental in the creation of the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness, a 167,000-acre area that includes a healthy chunk of Pitkin County, and the Raggeds Wilderness in neighboring Gunnison County.
“Wilderness is a tremendous asset,” said Dottie Fox, an artist and avid hiker. “It protects our air and water, and it gives us one of the most pristine environments in the whole country.”
“It was a really important bill and it has really worked,” added Joy Caudill. “With the effort of this bill, we have set aside some really important land. It was a landmark bill in the first place and we need to remind people of what a wonderful thing it’s been.”
“In order to preserve the land in its natural state,” said Connie Harvey, “it is absolutely necessary to have the kind of protection afforded by official wilderness areas. It is wonderful to feel that it is safe, that this is one battle we won’t have to go on fighting. It’s something I’m very proud of because it was very important.”
Law and philosophy
Before Congress officially designated wilderness in 1964, the Maroon Bells-Snowmass region had been protected administratively by the Forest Service since the 1950s . Despite major industrial activity in the Aspen area during the mining boom of the 1880s, the highest, most rugged mountain terrain was left mostly untouched.
The Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area was established by Congress in 1964 with about 80,000 acres focused around the 14,000-foot Maroon Bells themselves. By 1980, this wedge of pristine mountain topography covered 180,000 acres and included six of Colorado’s 54 “Fourteeners,” thanks to local conservation efforts.
“It started very low-key,” Caudill said, “just as neighbors agreeing that we should write letters about this.
“We started writing letters at the dining room table. It grew gradually, and we didn’t have an organization,” she continued. “Then Connie said, ‘You know, it would look more important, it would carry more clout, if we sounded like an organization.'”
The efforts became the Wilderness Workshop, an organization that still exists today In the 1970s, while protecting the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, the woman and the Wilderness Workshop also advocated for the nearby Hunter-Frying Pan Wilderness. This mostly pristine area had not been included in prior wilderness studies because of previous water-diversion projects. However, the Wilderness Workshop found that under the Wilderness Act it could qualify.
The Workshop collected signatures from 3,000 local residents who supported preservation and decided to display them in dramatic fashion.
“We bought a big roll of butcher paper and we pasted it end to end with the petitions,” Fox said. “We asked the county commissioners to hang it from the third floor of the courthouse, and when we unrolled it, the roll went all the way down the building, over a roof, out across the sidewalk and out into Main Street.
“The best thing was that our representative was there. We had a meeting with him that night and we wrapped the roll in red ribbon and gave it to him and said, ‘Take this back to Congress and show them how the people feel about this,'” she said. “Well, he voted for it and it went into wilderness.”
Congress created the Hunter-Frying Pan Wilderness in 1978, giving Roaring Fork Valley residents and other wilderness-lovers another 82,000 acres, or 128 square miles, of wild mountain landscape, including much of the upper Fryingpan Valley, the rugged Williams Mountains and the popular Lost Man Loop trail near Independence Pass. I
n 1993, the Wilderness Workshop succeeded in adding 8,300 acres around Spruce Creek to the Hunter-Frying Pan.
Caudill, Fox and Harvey still live close to nature, and they all care for wilderness just like they did 40 years ago. They say they find strength in nature, as they have all their lives.
“I remember being a child and growing up in a city and how important nature was for me,” Harvey said.
As a native of Colorado, Fox said, she discovered a strong resonance with nature in Estes Park, where her parents had a cabin. “I loved being outside, feeling the openness and the mountains. I’ve always loved the mountains.”
“Wilderness refuels my soul,” Caudill added. “I can go up in the mountains as tight as a bowstring, uptight and worried, and gradually it all falls off. It puts me back together.”
With only 2 percent of the lower 48 states designated as wilderness, about equal to the amount of land that has been paved, wilderness is rare. That is why appreciating wilderness and vowing to protect it became a theology and a deep, personal mission for these three women.
“The whole idea is that there are places that deserve to remain in their natural condition,” Harvey said. “I wish we had been able to save more. There’s very little land remaining that hasn’t been affected by humans. The wilderness law is good, but there are people bending it all the time, so it requires constant vigilance.”
The Wilderness Workshop is now headed by Sloan Shoemaker.
“I admire their spirit, their grit and their uncompromising ideals that gave us some of the premier wilderness lands in the state, if not the nation,” Shoemaker said of the three women. “They recognized how profound the Wilderness Act was and what an unprecedented opportunity it afforded to protect wild places. They seized that opportunity, and it’s an honor to carry on their legacy.
“There are still wilderness-quality lands out there that we’re striving to recognize as wilderness,” he said.