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.

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