On the Wilderness Act's 50th, a backpack into the Weminuche

Author ponders Wilderness Act on its 50th birthday.


I’d like to say that my friend Gabe and I took a short backpacking trip in late June to celebrate the Wilderness Act’s 50th birthday, which is coming up in September, but that would be a lie. We just wanted to go somewhere kind of wild, where we could escape the round-the-clock pressure of our jobs and laptops and cell phones for a couple days, maybe scare the hell out of ourselves on some high ridge line and then drink some whiskey around the camp stove. Our last-minute choice of Colorado’s largest wilderness area as a destination was mostly random.

A view into the Needle Mountains in the Weminuche Wilderness in Southwestern Colorado. Photo by Jonathan Thompson.

Indeed, if you want to get away from it all, designated wilderness is not always the best choice. Drawing a line around a piece of mostly unnoticed land and make its wildness official is one of the best ways to draw more people to it. Besides, the Wilderness Act is a bit worse for half-a-century’s wear. Our do-nothing Congress is especially useless when it comes to designating new wilderness areas, even if the proposals come from locals, are whittled down by one compromise after another and have deep bipartisan support. The act has become impotent in its haggard middle age, and surely will never again accomplish the great land-preserving feats of its youth.

Meanwhile, the very philosophical underpinnings of the act have been questioned and beaten down: This notion of freezing a landscape, “untrammeled by man,” in its so-called natural state is imperialistic and anthropocentric, not to mention unrealistic, and ignores the fact that humans had been trammeling and working this landscape for centuries before white men arrived and declared it “virgin.” Given the global threats that we and our fellow Earthlings face, it can seem silly or quaint to engage in the long battles to bring new wilderness bills to fruition merely to protect relatively tiny portions of land from a new road or something.

So our last minute decision on a short jaunt into the edge of the Weminuche Wilderness, was in spite of wilderness, not because of it. We were, however, prepared for it, as Gabe had found a copy of the Backpacking Guide to the Weminuche Wilderness, first published almost 40 years ago. Though it did not include our particular trail, it did have some useful gems, e.g. adding non-dairy creamer to powdered milk makes the concoction creamier. Who would have guessed?

During my teens and twenties I went backpacking as often as possible, with Gabe and other friends, into remote canyons or to the base of crumbly, obscure peaks. But kids and jobs and age had put the kibosh on all of that, and so when we shouldered our packs at the trailhead, it broke a long backpacking moratorium. We trudged up the trail, past the little sign marking the wilderness boundary and into a vast, sloping field of tundra and rock, punctuated by cascading, wildflower-adorned streams. And I got to thinking about what it must have been like to be environmentally-minded in this region in the 1960s. By then, huge swaths of the San Juan Mountains, not to mention their waterways, had been forever altered by a century of hardrock mining, and the industry was still going strong, its methods becoming more invasive. Early settlers had clearcut one mountainside after another to build the towns and timber the mines. A spiderweb of roads covered the landscape, going where no road should go. The industrialization of the entire region must have seemed imminent.

And then, in 1964 President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act, creating a powerful tool with which they could set aside land, purely for its intrinsic value, forever. Not long afterwards, the feds proposed using the tool in Southwestern Colorado, a complicated endeavor, even in the Wilderness Act’s youth. The Forest Service put forward one proposal, and other agencies did the same. Most importantly, though, was a group of citizens from the region that helped shape the process. The group was remarkably diverse, and included Democrats and Republicans, sportsmen, ranchers, businessmen and academics, with little signs of the polarization that would roil such efforts today.

The cover of a 1969 Durango Herald special insert discussing the proposed designation of the Weminuche Wilderness Area.

In 1969 the Durango Herald published a special insert titled “The Wilderness Question,” which gave a rundown of the various proposals as well as commentary from various stakeholders, for and against designation. Ian Thompson edited the insert, and had a hard time hiding his pro-wilderness fervor, but he also seemed to anticipate some of the impending critiques of the Wilderness Act.  

“The Wilderness Question. Why did it arise?” he wrote, and went on:

… There is no true Wilderness left on Earth. … The ‘Wilderness’ effort we are engaged in at the time is, in one respect, a pitifully futile struggle. Earth’s total atmosphere is man-changed beyond redemption, Earth’s waters would not be recognizable to the Pilgrims. Earth’s creatures will never again know what it is to be truly ‘wild.’ … No, there is no wilderness, and throughout the future of man, there will be no wilderness. We are attempting to save the battered remnants of the original work of a Creator. To engage in this effort is the last hope of religious men.

It took another six years — and a lot of wrangling over water rights and the like — for Congress to designate some 400,000 acres of those battered remnants as wilderness (the Weminuche was expanded in 1983 and 1990). Perhaps most remarkable is that the Forest Service proposal was not sliced and diced and compromised into an unrecognizable pulp by the citizens group, as one might expect today. Instead, the citizens actually expanded the original proposal. In a gross oversight, the Forest Service had excluded Chicago Basin, deep in the Needles range, from its proposal, apparently because of future mining potential. The citizens, however, saw that the alpine basin, ringed by huge peaks, deserved protection. Congress abided, and Chicago Basin has become the region’s most popular destination for backpackers and a base camp for peak-baggers.

Gabe and I ended up not far as the crow flies — though a long ways as the man walks — from Chicago Basin, next to a nearly perfect alpine lake. It wasn’t exactly untrammeled. In an old campfire ring we found a bunch of half-burned cans and tinfoil, not to mention a broken fishing pole. One one side of the lake, a series of long abandoned mine waste piles climbed a steep slope, and near one of them we found the old miners’ residence: A flattish area carved from the hillside, scattered with rocks and rusty remnants of a wood-burning cook stove. Most jarring, though, was the sign telling us that we were adjacent to private land, and that the owners sometimes helicoptered in, and that we should respect their right to do so.

Sign indicating the presence of a private inholding, and of the occasional helicopter landings.

Here I had been feeling guilty. Our wilderness guidebook told us, “Noisy people destroy wilderness serenity,” and Gabe talks kind of loud and I’m prone to breaking out into operatic versions of Steely Dan songs in order to distract from the pain in my shoulders, hips, back, neck, feet, ankles and knees. A helicopter would surely be worse, or at least noisier, so I no longer felt so bad.

Quite by happenstance, we had stumbled upon one of the most notorious mining claims in the state, a private parcel surrounded by wilderness that Tom Chapman has long tried to peddle. He figures he can either get a bazillionaire to fork out for it in order to build a remote alpine mansion, with supplies and builders ferried in by helicopter or, more likely, he'd scare the feds into paying top dollar for the parcel in order to avoid the mansion-in-the-wilderness scenario. Despite years on the market, neither has transpired. In the meantime, guests from a nearby resort apparently drop in from the sky via helicopter to access the surrounding wilderness.

As we fried up some curry Kielbasa (Gabe planned the meals, not me, and ignored our guidebook’s suggestion to always bring cheese in a squeeze tube) on our little camp stoves, and drank pre-mixed Manhattans, we speculated on what we might do if the helicopter did happen to show up, filled with rich folks looking for a shake-n-bake wilderness experience. I’ll spare you the details of our plan, particularly the part about hairy, naked middle-aged guys, interpretive dancing and a broken fishing pole. But I can assure you this: Had the helicopter descended from that blue sky and seen us executing our performance, it would have quickly hightailed out of there, never to return, and the property owner (not Chapman, who is merely the broker) would hand the property over to the feds as if it were a toxic waste dump.

Alas, the chopper never arrived.

One of the funny things about Wilderness is that as much opposition as there is to designating new areas, you rarely hear people express regret about already-established areas. I've never heard of a campaign to reverse wilderness, in other words, and I've never heard some miner look wistfully out at the Weminuche and wax about what riches might have come from that land had it not been "locked up." That could be because, once it's preserved, former opponents of designation come around to realizing the value of preservation. But as I lay in my sleeping bag that night, shivering a bit from that high-country cold, something else occurred to me: What if making this area wilderness really didn't matter? There's little chance, for example, that anyone would have been able to feasibly mine or log the area, even had it not been banned. And without such industry, there would have been no reason to build any roads into the rugged terrain.

Needle Mountains reflected in a lake in the Weminuche Wilderness. A private inholding sits adjacent to this lake. Photo by Jonathan Thompson.

Certainly, however, there would have been other pressures: Snowmobilers, motorcyclists and ATVers -- with more advanced machines that can get places that they wouldn't have dreamed of going in the 1960s -- would beg for access into the area if it wasn't out of the question. Same goes for mountain bikers. And while the Forest Service certainly could have denied those requests, they would have surely sparked massive battles. The 1976 wilderness designation preempted those fights, saving us from their polarizing effects.

Like this little lake we had chosen, the concept of wilderness is not as perfect as it might initially seem. But I, for one, am grateful that back in the '60s the nation’s leaders had the wisdom to create the Wilderness Act, and that my parents and their fellow San Juan Basin citizens had the gumption and foresight to use it to protect this landscape that had nurtured them and their ancestors. That it probably couldn’t happen today only makes the accomplishment more valuable.

Later that night, I awoke to what sounded like a bear breaking into our packs and stealing the summer sausage. I fretted about that for a while before turning to larger neuroses about work, life, love, children, mortality. Then I rolled over onto my back and looked up. There was no moon that night. And my God, the stars. The stars.

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News. He is based in Durango, Colorado, and tweets @jonnypeace.

High Country News Classifieds
    Central Colorado Conservancy, located in Salida, Colorado, is seeking a Conservation Program Manager dedicated to managing the Conservancy's land protection program which includes developing and...
    Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a candidate with excellent communication skills and a commitment to environmental conservation for the position of Public Lands Program Manager....
    The Western Slope Conservation Center in Paonia, CO, seeks a dynamic leader who is mission-driven, hardworking, and a creative problem-solver. WSCC is committed to creating...
    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...
    Seeking qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating, implementing and managing land conservation activities,...
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with trail maintenance and volunteer engagement...
    Position Title: Trail Crew Member Position Type: 6 month seasonal position, April 17-October 15, 2023 Location: Field-based; The RFOV office is in Carbondale, CO, and...
    Chief Executive Officer, Remote Exempt position for Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance is responsible for the planning and organization of BNGA's day-to-day operations
    Western Watersheds Project seeks an Idaho Director to continue and expand upon WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Idaho, with...
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Development Director to join our team in supporting and furthering our mission. This position will create...
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Operations Director to join our team. This position will provide critical organizational and systems support to...
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is seeking a leader to join our dynamic team in the long-term protection of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM). We...
    The Grassland Research Coordinator is a cooperative position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that performs and participates in and coordinates data collection for...
    1.3 MW FERC licensed hydroelectric station near Taylorsville CA. Property is 184 deeded acres surrounded by National Forrest.
    13 stories of extraordinary courage including HCN founder Tom Bell, PRBRC director Lynn Dickey, Liz Cheney, People of Heart Mountain, the Wind River Indian Reservation...
    JOB DESCRIPTION: This Work involves the responsibility of conducting research in the procurement of Federal, State, County, and private grant funding. Additional responsibilities include identifying...
    Go Bulk! Go Natural! Our products are better for you and better for the environment. Say no to single-use plastic. Made in U.S.A., by a...
    Field seminars for adults in the natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.