A military legacy loosens its grip on a landscape

Plans for Colorado’s Camp Hale balance restoration and commemoration.

 

In 1942, the U.S. Army transformed a valley near Leadville, Colorado, into training grounds for its 10th Mountain Division. The high altitude, climate and steep terrain prepared World War II troops for critical battles in the Italian Alps. At Camp Hale, as the area at the headwaters of the Eagle River became known, thousands of soldiers learned to ski, mountaineer and survive in harsh winter conditions.

To build the camp, the Army Corps of Engineers brought in millions of cubic yards of fill by rail car to flatten the valley bottom. The Corps straightened the river’s natural sinuosity into a ditch system and drained the surrounding wetlands. Today, the valley bears only a few remnants of the old garrison, including the pillars of a field house that proved difficult to dismantle when the rest of the buildings were leveled. But the river remains straitjacketed, the valley flat. “It’s a testament to the engineering that it’s still that way today,” says Eagle-Holy Cross District Ranger Aaron Mayville, “but it’s not the most healthy ecosystem.”

Members of the 10th Mountain Division's 86th Regiment, F Company, drill in Camp Hale near Leadville, Colorado, in the 1940s. Behind them, white barrack buildings sit in a valley surrounded by pine covered hills.
Ralph W. Hulbert, 10th Mountain Division Resource Center Collection, Denver Public Library

Now, two parallel initiatives seek to restore the ecosystem while still honoring the site’s history. One is a conservation effort that seeks to improve the valley’s ecology and to better educate visitors. The other is the Continental Divide Wilderness and Recreation Act, which, in addition to creating new wilderness and other protections in Eagle and Summit Counties, would designate Camp Hale as the nation’s first National Historic Landscape. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., plans to introduce the bill in the House; Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., will introduce companion legislation. Polis says the proposal for Camp Hale is a “way of elevating the importance of the area and increasing awareness of its history.” The designation “would celebrate its role in both World War II and the development of the skiing and outdoor recreation industries,” says Laurie Cipriano, Bennet’s press secretary. After the war, 10th Mountain Division veterans played a key role in establishing the modern ski industry in the U.S., building ski areas such as Aspen and Vail.

Camp Hale was deactivated and handed over to White River National Forest in 1965. According to Mayville, the Forest Service recognized right away that the site needed restoration. But over the years, half a dozen attempts have been thwarted by concerns that changes to the river would infringe on water rights as well as by the discovery of both asbestos and unexploded ordnance on the valley bottom. “It makes digging in the ground a challenge,” says Mayville. “You could dig up a mortar round or a land mine or something.”

The current restoration plan has been more successful. Spearheaded by the National Forest Foundation, the nonprofit partner of the Forest Service, the project brought together more than 40 stakeholders, including veterans, recreation groups and water rights holders. Together, they decided to restore hundreds of acres of wetlands, create several miles of new stream channels, improve recreation options and design a new historic interpretive plan. The overall aim is to return the valley to a more natural state while leaving the remaining relics, like the field house pillars and the rifle range, as they are. Marcus Selig, vice president of field programs for the National Forest Foundation, believes this could be the largest wetland restoration project in the state.

Feedback from veterans clearly influenced the design, says Mayville, who served in the Navy himself. Improving the site’s interpretive signage is key. The sun-faded, cracked fiberglass signs that were installed in the early 1990s are “kind of embarrassing,” admits Selig. Planners also took care to avoid any damage to important landmarks. The river will flow back into its natural bends so that it can flood and create wetlands, but its path will avoid the field house columns. And sections of the original channel may be left in place — either with or without water in them. “We know it was kind of an orienting feature for vets out there,” explains Mayville.

But caring for the landscape matters more to veterans than preserving the remnants of the camp, says Garett Reppenhagen, Rocky Mountain director of the nonprofit Vet Voice Foundation. Troops who trained at Camp Hale spent more time outdoors hiking and skiing and rock climbing than at the camp itself, he notes. So restoring the wetlands “probably honors the veterans more than just leaving a ditch in the middle of the valley,” Reppenhagen says.

The desire to balance ecological and historical preservation also underpins the push for National Historic Landscape designation. Mark Udall, then a Colorado senator, first floated the idea of permanent protection and commemoration for Camp Hale nearly a decade ago. But the idea for a National Historic Landscape — which would allow more flexibility than a National Historic Landmark — grew out of conversations Sen. Bennet’s team had with veterans and other stakeholders in 2015. This designation, Rep. Polis says, would “help elevate (Camp Hale’s) importance and hopefully enhance fundraising and volunteerism around those efforts.” And as Reppenhagen points out, Camp Hale’s inclusion in this bill might broaden its support on Capitol Hill. “If there’s going to be a wilderness bill that passes in this Congress,” he notes, “this has a great opportunity.”

For Mayville, the restoration is exciting because it’s a continuation of the long and complex narrative of this piece of ground. Ute Indians inhabited the area until white settlers seeking silver and gold pushed them out in the 1870s. Several years after World War II, the CIA secretly trained Tibetan freedom fighters there. “The Camp Hale chapter is quite large and important,” Mayville says, “but it’s not the only chapter.”

The restoration will begin once environmental analysis is completed; Selig estimates they’ll break ground in spring 2019 or 2020. And neither Bennet nor Polis has yet introduced their respective wilderness bills. But if these initiatives are successful, Camp Hale could thread together past chapters into a visible story: a valley dotted with well marked bits of history, cut through by a river restored to its old meandering ways.

Rebecca Worby is an editorial fellow at High Country News.

High Country News Classifieds
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE: NEAR CHRICAHUA NATIONAL PARK
    2 (20 acre sites): 110 miles from Tucson:AZ Native trees: Birder's heaven: dark skies: Creek: borders State lease & National forest: /13-16 inches of rain...
  • DIRECTOR - SONORAN DESERT INN & CONFERENCE CENTER
    The Sonoran Desert Inn & Conference Center is a non-profit lodging and event venue in Ajo, Arizona, located on the historic Curley School Campus. We...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field Seminars for adults: cultural and natural history of the Colorado Plateau. With guest experts, local insights, small groups, and lodge or base camp formats....
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
  • ACTING INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS DESK EDITOR
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
  • GRANTS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
  • ALASKA SEA KAYAK BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND EVENTS PROGRAM COORDINATOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
  • PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT FACILITATOR
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
  • LAND STEWARD, ARAVAIPA
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
  • DEVELOPMENT WRITER
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • SPRING MOUNTAINS SOLAR OFF GRID MOUNTAIN HOME
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
  • MAJOR GIFTS MANAGER - MOUNTAIN WEST, THE CONSERVATION FUND
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
  • NATURE'S BEST IN ARAVAIPA CANYON
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....
  • HEALTH FOOD STORE IN NW MONTANA
    Turn-key business includes 2500 sq ft commercial building in main business district of Libby, Montana. 406.293.6771 /or [email protected]
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.