Wilderness is an American ideal, even if we disagree how to manage it
White River National Forest
Mountain bikes on wilderness trails? Wildfire management in wilderness areas? Loving an area to death? What will be the next challenges for our wilderness areas?
The term “wilderness” conjures different emotions for many. Some have strong opinions on its relevancy and management in today’s world. An American ideal at its heart, wilderness affects all of us directly and indirectly, from the economy, to the places we recreate, providing clean water to drink and into the spiritual realm for many.
Where it all began
To know where we’re headed with wilderness management, it’s important to understand how we arrived here. Over 100 years ago, it would have been hard to fathom the current conversations around wilderness and federal land management.
The 19th and 20th centuries were a wild and rapidly changing time on Western lands. In the 1800s, there were no roads, only trails created by the Utes, who inhabited much of the land. They would move about freely, hunting, fishing and even recreating on the land as they, and other tribes that may have preceded them, had done for thousands of years. It was not until 1848 that all of the land encompassing the White River National Forest was even a part of the United States.
In 1858, the Pikes Peak gold rush took off in full force. The following year gold was discovered near Breckenridge, and a steady stream of miners, and those who mined the miners, poured over the Continental Divide. Railroaders, homesteaders, ranchers and loggers followed, all looking to carve their place from the wilderness. The landscape began changing overnight. Though still vast and wild – it was to be tamed, not preserved.
Policies of the day encouraged settlement and development. Legislation such as the Homestead Act of 1862 and Mining Law of 1872 encouraged those who were bold and tough enough to settle and work the land. Despite a level of respect and care by some, the gaining exploitation of resources stimulated citizen-led movements to address what many saw as the abuse of the lands and resources.
One of the earliest actions by the government was the establishment of the Federal Timber Reserves. Designed not to lock up the resources, they were to be managed for the sustained good of all the people. In 1891, the White River Timber Reserve was created, the second of its kind in the nation.
In 1905, the Forest Service was established to oversee what then became the national forests. Rangers were put into the field to work with the ranchers, loggers and others to ensure that resources were used wisely so they would be around for future generations.
In 1919, Arthur Carhart was sent by the Forest Service to Trappers Lake near Meeker to lay out summer home sites around the lake. Convinced by two locals that some lands should not be developed, but instead left in their natural state, he went back and presented a new concept to his supervisors. To this day, Trappers Lake is referred to as the “Cradle of Wilderness.”
Over the next 30 years, improved transportation brought people in droves to areas adjacent to the forests. Between 1924 and the start of World War II, recreational use on the national forests increased from 5 million visits to more than 18 million visits.
World War II had a large influence on the use and development of the national forests, especially the White River. The 10th Mountain Division training at Camp Hale introduced a new group of adventurers to the mountains and the sports of skiing and rock climbing. Returning 10th Mountain veterans played major roles in the development and expansion of the ski industry. This development brought an economic boom to some areas, but also brought increased population and urbanization to many mountain communities.
Between 1946 and 1962, recreational use on the national forests rose from just over 18 million to 66 million. Timber and mineral production responded to supply the raw materials for a more affluent and growing post-war population. As more roads were built and improved, access to the national forests became even easier.
Man ‘himself a visitor’
The idea that Carhart brought back in 1919 was codified in 1964 with the passage of the Wilderness Act. The act ensures that not all places will be developed, but rather some will be left in their natural state “where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” The Flat Tops Wilderness became one of the first wilderness areas to be designated by congress. In just a little over 150 years, the country went from having vast expanses of undeveloped wildlands to protecting the last remaining wild areas.
The Wilderness Act encourages visitors to experience the solitude and test their skills on these lands. However, the allure of wilderness has a potential catch. Over-visitation in some areas is actually having a negative impact on the resource and the wilderness experience people come for. One-half million visitors came to visit a wilderness area on the White River in 2012. No doubt, this will continue to climb.
Even today, not everyone agrees there should be designated wilderness. A certainty for the future is that discussions will continue on how these lands should be managed. Population growth, new technologies, resource demands and changing public desires will continue to shape how the lands are used and protected.
Rich Doak is recreation and lands staff officer with the White River National Forest.