Vail Daily column: Another chapter for historic Camp Hale | VailDaily.com

Vail Daily column: Another chapter for historic Camp Hale

Most residents and many visitors to Vail and the Eagle River Valley know of Camp Hale as a former World War II mountain warfare training camp and current recreation mecca. Thousands of visitors flock to the area each year to enjoy camping, hiking, climbing, fishing, ATV riding, snowmobiling and skiing.

Fewer visitors, however, know that this area — Eagle Park — was once a pristine, high-elevation wetland complex that contained over 450 acres of wetlands and seven to eight miles of the Eagle River headwater's meandering stream channels. When the U.S. government constructed Camp Hale to train mountain soldiers in the early 1940s, over 340 acres of wetlands were filled and over five miles of stream channel were lost as the Eagle River was channelized into a linear ditch.

Throughout the last several decades, the White River National Forest has attempted to restore some of the area's original ecological values, proposing various stream and wetland restoration projects. Unfortunately, numerous issues, including the presence of unexploded ordnance, water rights issues, stakeholder disagreements and insufficient federal funding have stymied progress.

Recently, however, the National Forest Foundation, in coordination with the White River National Forest, spearheaded an effort to attempt large-scale ecological restoration at the site. This effort has garnered significant community and stakeholder support, and appears to have a realistic shot at success.

Restoring Camp Hale

For more than two years, the National Forest Foundation led a collaborative planning effort with nearly 40 stakeholders that resulted in the development of a shared vision for the restoration and future management of Camp Hale. This plan calls for the restoration of nearly 300 acres of wetlands, the development of four to five miles of meandering Eagle River stream channel, improvements to recreation infrastructure and the development of an historic interpretation plan for the site. The scope and scale of this wetland restoration effort is unprecedented in Colorado. The White River National Forest is currently analyzing the collaboratively developed plan, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act, and hopes to have a decision on the proposed project by late summer 2016.

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In the meantime, the National Forest Foundation is working to develop a mechanism to help fund this multi-million dollar restoration effort. The National Forest Foundation is planning to create Colorado's first in-lieu-fee program for compensatory wetlands mitigation. This program, which would be regulated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, would allow third-party developers to make payments to the National Forest Foundation to mitigate development-related impacts to wetlands.

The foundation would then invest those funds in wetland and stream restoration projects on National Forest lands located in the same general vicinity as the impacted wetlands. The Camp Hale project would be the primary recipient of in-lieu-fee program funds for the first several years of the program.

In-Lieu-Fee Program

Beyond funding the Camp Hale project, this proposed in-lieu-fee program could create the opportunity to mitigate high-elevation wetland and stream impacts with the creation of similar, local, high-elevation wetland and stream projects — an opportunity that does not currently exist in the Eagle River Valley.

Pending the decision on the project by the White River National Forest and approval of the in-lieu-fee program by the Army Corps of Engineers, the National Forest Foundation and Forest Service hope to break ground on the project in spring 2017.

Marcus Selig is the director of the Southern Rockies Region for the National Forest Foundation. Selig is a friend of the Eagle River Watershed Council, which has a mission to advocate for the health and conservation of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education and projects. Contact the Watershed Council at 970-827-5406 or visit http://www.erwc.org.