Pristine, unadulterated wilderness surrounds Aspen practically on all sides. This is not the metaphorical wild, but is land designated as wilderness with a capital “W” by the federal government. As such, a local nonprofit set out this week to educate a small group of college students on the challenges and importance of land conservation, with the goal that they will act as ambassadors to their peers and the next generation of public land users.
For three days, the students had the opportunity to travel by small plane throughout the Southwest during the annual EcoFlight Flight Across America program. As the local nonprofit celebrated its 10th year of educating students, the focus of this year’s trip was on a much more significant date — the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act of 1964.
Designated wilderness provides the highest level of protection for public lands and prohibits non-mechanized activities, including mountain biking.
“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain,” reads the Wilderness Act.
“It is the most beautiful piece of legislation that has ever been written,” said Neal Clark, a field attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), during a recent meeting with the EcoFlight group.
Aspen’s most well-known wilderness area, the Maroon Bells, was one of the original pieces of land designated by the 1964 act. It wasn’t until the 1980 Colorado Wilderness Act that the acreage was doubled to more than 180,000 acres, largely due to the efforts of a group of local women referred to as the “Maroon Belles,” which included Connie Harvey, Joy Caudill and Dottie Fox.
Harvey hadn’t set out to be an activist. In 1962 she was working as a ski instructor at Highlands when the president of the Sierra Club at the time, Dr. Edgar Wayburn, searched her out since she was a card-carrying member of the environmental organization. At the time, the U.S. congressman for the local district, Wayne Aspinall, was blocking proposed legislation to create the Redwood National Park in California.
Harvey embarked on a local campaign to educate fellow Aspenites, showed a film at the Isis Theatre about the proposed park and ultimately garnered 300 letters to the congressman.
“I don’t think he’d ever got that much mail in his life,” she said.
Aspinall eventually agreed to stop blocking the legislation, which was passed in committee and was ultimately approved by Congress.
“We got Redwood National Park,” Harvey said. “It’s there because of that little incident.”
That “little incident” went on to shape the rest of Harvey’s life as she worked with a small group of dedicated locals to double the size of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. She and the figurative Maroon Belles went on to create the nonprofit, Wilderness Workshop, in 1967, which continues to advocate for public lands in and around the White River National Forest.
Well before the days of computer mapping and GPS devices, Harvey and her cohorts marked up maps by hand and used cameras and notebooks to record field observations from the backcountry. They met at what is today the Mountain Rescue Aspen cabin on Main Street, and ultimately developed a narrative and boundary map that they submitted to the U.S. Forest Service.
“We had the political will to make it happen,” Harvey said. “The other thing we had was persistence, we never gave up. Eventually we got all of those areas [designated as] the wilderness.”
The process was not easy, and Harvey emphasized the importance of collaborating with the local government as well as U.S. congressmen.
“You need broad support or you don’t get it done,” she said.
It takes an act of Congress with a presidential signature to designate land as wilderness, and only land already within the federal inventory can be included. In addition to broad support, an active Congress also is a necessity.
Apparently that was not the case during the last legislative session on Capitol Hill. The last sitting Congress — the 112th — was the first since World War II to not pass any legislation protecting public land, according to The Wilderness Society’s website. The society is a national conservation organization working to protect the nation’s shared wildlands.
One of the many groups that the EcoFlight students met this past week included people in Durango who are working towards passage of the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act, which would designate 30 percent of the land as wilderness. Ranchers, conservationists, mountain bikers, snowmobilers and sportsmen have all come together to develop a mutually agreeable plan to protect roughly 108,000 acres of land in the San Juan National Forest.
This coalition of strange bedfellows includes the “hook and bullet” organizations such as Trout Unlimited, with some conservationists pointing to the proposed bill as the first one ever promulgated by sportsmen.
“This is a much better way to do things,” said Jeff Widen, an associate director at The Wilderness Society.
Beyond the nuts and bolts of creating wilderness, a fundamental question emerges: “Why is there the need for wilderness?”
As EcoFlight students traversed Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, Bruce Gordon, the founder, president and chief pilot of EcoFlight, pointed out that he can no longer fly more than 30 miles in the region without seeing some sort of development — largely natural gas operations — on the landscape.
Clark, the SUWA attorney, explained that there is both a practical and intrinsic value to wilderness. The practical piece includes habitat and species protection, as well as an economic value to the surrounding communities. The intrinsic value is a much more subjective answer and varies from person to person.
With the onslaught of technology and proliferation of communication devices, Clark said he believes that “silence is going to be our most valuable resource,” and that the wilderness will be the last place left to find true peace and quiet.
On Friday morning, the EcoFlight students made a presentation at Aspen High School titled, “The Value of Wilderness” to more than 150 students from eight different schools. One of the presenters was co-founder of Purple Star Veterans and Families, Adam McCabe, a Marine who served in Iraq. McCabe works closely with returning veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and is involved in a program that takes vets into the backcountry called Huts for Vets. McCabe talked about proven benefits of eco-psychology and the opportunity for healing using wilderness as a tool.
“I feel connected to something larger than myself,” he said after the presentation.
Because wilderness designation is a highly controversial and political process, there are numerous other mechanisms that can be invoked to protect public lands that do not require Congressional approval. One such designation falls within the executive branch as a result of the 1906 Antiquities Act, and empowers the president to declare federal lands as a national monument. Another administrative tool is the option to designate areas as “roadless.” President Bill Clinton exercised that option in 2001 to preserve 58 million acres of land, including portions of the Thompson Divide.
The Bush administration attempted to overturn Clinton’s act, but was ultimately defeated by the courts. At the same time, using a federal administrative procedure, the state of Colorado implemented its own roadless rules that went into effect in July of 2012. The roadless designation provides a very narrow interpretation that precludes no road building or tree cutting, according to Peter Hart, an attorney at Wilderness Workshop.
Relative to the Thompson Divide, an important distinction is that the coalition working to protect the area from natural gas drilling is not seeking a wilderness designation.
“We want to recognize all of the existing uses on the land that are currently compatible with each other,” said Zane Kessler, executive director of the Thompson Divide Coalition. “We are not looking to exclude any existing uses, but we want to exclude industrial development.”
Regardless of the level of protection given to public lands, conservationists and recreational users all agree on one point, summed up by Clark: “Once it’s gone, you can never get it back.”