Vail Daily letter: Rarest of commodities
Gypsum, CO Colorado
I would like to comment on the Hidden Gems wilderness proposal from a historical perspective.
First, and most obviously, a finite resource cannot be all things to all people. Our unspoiled federal lands may seem vast but a careful look at their historical use suggests otherwise.
Even the Indians occasionally set fires on what are now federal lands to flush out game and open up brushy areas. In the long run, these actions were beneficial, allowing for healthy new plant growth.
For the last 150 years, the land has been used intensely off and on by miners, loggers, cattlemen. They went everywhere their technology would allow. If you look carefully, you will find the remnants of old mining roads and mines all the way up to and above timberline in what are now designated wilderness areas. Fortunately, the mines played out and the miners left.
The loggers worked in most of our forested areas and will probably have to again to deal with the potentially catastrophic fires that are bound to occur as a result of the beetle-killed trees. Even if the loggers use horses to drag out the timber, temporary roads will have to be built. Helicopter logging is prohibitively expensive over such vast areas.
The cattlemen have been running their cows on the forest lands for over 100 years using horses to move their herds to where the best grass is. Take away those federal lands grazing rights and the ranchers will go out of business and the open fields on our valley floors will go with them. The loss of the cowboy culture, much of which has aleady occurred, far outweighs any benefits to an end to public land grazing. I strongly suggest we don’t cut off their access, roads or otherwise, but they don’t need new roads.
When I came to Eagle County almost 50 years ago, there were no ATVs, dirt bikes, or RV campers, and only a few snowmobiles, but all of these uses have grown exponentially since then. We did have four-wheel drive vehicles, mainly jeeps, and they did tear up the backcountry. Ask Dave Gorsuch about his dad, who, with a man named Deitrick, jeeped to the summit of Mount Elbert. They were heroes as a result, but that was a long time ago when the population of mountain areas was a tenth of what it is now. The jeep scars are still evident from those early adventures. So what was admirable in small doses many years ago is alarming at the heavy levels reached today. I live at the foot of Red Hill near Gypsum, and I can tell you from personal observation that the fragile BLM lands have been ripped apart by dirt bikes along with many ancient Indian camp sites that are lost to tire tracks as well. With the excessive use has come tons of garbage – refrigerators, wrecked cars, bottles, and all kinds of other junk. And the noise is incredible. I can hear the engines roaring from three miles away, where my home is.
Back when Vail was just a toddler, many of us put our careers on the line to fight for wilderness. Bob Parker is the best example. First, to the chagrin of the Vail Associates board of directors, Bob convinced the Colorado Highway Department not to take I-70 through the Eagle’s Nest Wilderness study area, cutting it in half in the process. Vail would be 15 minutes closer to Denver if he had not prevailed, but the highway people didn’t like the 27-odd avalanche paths that Bob pointed out were along the shorter route. Then Bob and I became a part of the first successful lawsuit against the Forest Service to stop a logging operation in the Eagle’s Nest study area. Vail Associates was not happy about that, either, since they needed Forest Service approval for any expansion of the resort they wanted.
A few years later, I took on the Denver Water Board. They wanted to run ditches along the north side of the Gore Creek Valley to pick up water from Booth, Pitkin, Gore, Spraddle and other creeks and run the water through a tunnel into Dillon Reservoir. We slowed the DWB down, and, finally, President Ford sealed the deal when he approved the largest wilderness boundaries for the Eagle’s Nest. At that point, the DWB was essentially locked out.
Chuck Ogilby was a major force in keeping the Colorado Springs and Aurora water boards from tapping more streams, and the Eagle River, in and around the Holy Cross Wilderness. Many Vail and Eagle County people were involved in all these battles, bless their hearts.
Many of us “wilderness warriors” are in our 70s and 80s now, too old to hike into the remote valleys and peaks that have wilderness protection, but you won’t find any of us saying, “build a road.” These protected areas are for our children and our children’s children.
Most importantly, as I mentioned earlier, finite wild lands cannot be all things to all people. Some uses deny others. I have traveled to much of the world’s remote and wild areas, and I can tell you for certain that the rarest commodity (if you like that word) on earth is unspoiled open space. The best way to protect open space is to limit access. If foot (and horse) traffic is the only way to access these wild lands they will have a chance of survival in their pristine condition. Otherwise, they will be lost to our seemingly infinite ability to invent ever more powerful machines that can go anywhere, and, unfortunately, not only scare away wildlife but also destroy much of the beautiful, enchanting and silent mystery of these wild areas in the process. And this magic will be taken from our souls as well. Please don’t let this happen.