Colorado can boast it was the cradle of wilderness

 

Only God can make a tree, but only Congress can designate a wilderness, and the Wilderness Act, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, became the law it is today largely because a powerful Colorado congressman, Wayne Aspinall, blocked the legislation in his committee over and over again.

His stubborn opposition, however, gave birth to many environmental groups across the West, because locals were called upon to champion their special places. And whether Aspinall liked it or not, the idea of setting land aside to be undisturbed originated in his home state in 1919, the year a Forest Service employee named Arthur Carhart spent a summer camped at Trappers Lake, near the ranching town of Meeker on Colorado’s Western Slope.

A landscape architect, Carhart was dispatched to Trappers Lake to survey its shoreline for summer cabins that would be built on agency-leased land. Luckily, Carhart did more fishing than surveying, and one afternoon as he walked back to his campsite, he experienced something profound.

“Suddenly,” he wrote later, “a strange sibilance filled the basin. I halted. I listened. The soft eerie whispers came clearly through the sun drenched air. I glanced in all directions, hoping to discover their source. I failed. Silence returned quickly. Abruptly the strange sound returned, increased, dimmed, and in a moment was gone.”

I’ve studied Carhart’s papers at the Denver Public Library over the years, and I’ve come to believe that in those moments, he was visited by a Ute spirit. It convinced him that tourist cabins did not belong at Trappers Lake; the beautiful place needed to remain the way it was. This was the first time that a government official had conceived of leaving land in its natural state. The concept of protecting wilderness areas in national forests was thus born on ancient Ute lands.

Ute elders know this story of Carhart’s revelation, and they believe Indian guardian spirits spoke directly to Carhart. Because of the spirits’ soft voices, Trappers Lake is now known as the cradle of American wilderness, the original place where man must be only a visitor “who does not remain.”

When Carhart shared his thoughts with the regional forester in Denver, another young forester sat in on that meeting. His name was Aldo Leopold, and he would take Carhart’s idea and implement it in southwest New Mexico, creating the Gila Wilderness in 1924, the nation’s first.

As a 19th century conservation movement evolved into a 20th century environmental movement, groups campaigned for federal wilderness, and leaders of The Wilderness Society wrote a bill to create a national wilderness preservation system. That got Congressman Aspinall’s back up, because he feared that a wilderness bill would “lock up” natural resources.

Aspinall’s clout was great enough that he was able to force 66 rewrites of the bill. Each time its wording got sharper, as the legislation came to focus on two major stumbling blocks: Grazing, which was grandfathered into wilderness, and Congress — which became the only body that could legally designate a wilderness.

Environmentalists may bristle over the presence of cows in wilderness, but they really should admire Aspinall. By blocking federal agencies from designating wilderness, Aspinall inadvertently gave birth to the modern environmental movement. Now, local groups must rally their members to influence elected officials to protect public lands. So without intending to, the congressman deepened and broadened the environmental movement.

Years ago, my wife and I hiked up what’s called the Chinese Wall at Trappers Lake. We left our VW camper bus in the parking lot and trekked with backpacks into the Flat Tops Wilderness, only to experience a terrifying night of rain and lightning. I forgot utensils, so we ate macaroni and cheese with sticks and then with our fingers. We got wet. We made mistakes. We had only ourselves to rely on. We were out there alone, and we loved it.

I treasure those memories, and that’s why I’m never as happy as when I step across a wilderness boundary. But congressionally created wilderness areas are becoming fewer and fewer.  If the Wilderness Act is to be more than just a relic of 1960s environmentalism, proponents must work even harder to get political ideology out of decision-making in subcommittees.

How do we do that? Drag your congressmen into the woods or out into the desert. Make them walk. Better yet, make them crawl. And when you finally get them away from their political puppeteers and industry-supported lobbyists, maybe they, too, will be able to hear a voice in the wilderness, a voice that will make them listen.

Andy Gulliford is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He is a professor of history and Environmental Studies at Fort Lewis College ([email protected]).

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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