The Camp Hale site that Pres. Joe Biden is set to designate as a national monument on Wednesday encompasses much more than the former campgrounds in the Pando Valley. The training site was chosen specifically for its surrounding mountain terrain and wilderness, which is where the 10th Mountain Division spent the majority of its time training in similar, and often harsher, conditions that soldiers would face on the frontlines in Northern Italy.
There is only one angle that can give viewers a full picture of the breadth of terrain that will be included in the monument designation, and that is the view from above. With this truth in mind, the nonprofit environmental advocacy organization, EcoFlight, gathered a group of local Camp Hale advocates and news organizations to take a free flyover of the site on Tuesday morning.
The EcoFlight traveled the same route that Biden will likely be taking from Eagle County Regional Airport to Camp Hale via an undetermined aircraft. It could not be a better time of year for the president to be getting a birds-eye view of Eagle County, with the snow-capped peaks of the rockies glowing right alongside groves of golden-leaved aspens all along the way.
Flying over Camp Hale provided an up-close look at the mountains and hills where nearly 17,000 10th Mountain Division troops gained the skills and resilience necessary to defeat German forces in the Alps. The steep climbs, thick woods, snowcapped peaks and high-altitude conditions enabled troops to prepare for battle in the Alpine terrain that they would face during their mission to break the “Gothic Line,” a nickname for the final, main German defensive line in Northern Italy.
Bradley Noone is a modern 10th Mountain Division veteran who was deployed to Afghanistan with the division from 2006-2007, and he joined the EcoFlight flyover on Tuesday. He said that, similar to his own training at the current 10th Mountain Division base at Fort Drum in New York, the true training field for soldiers was up in the hills, and the surrounding wilderness is at the center of the story.
“Camp Hale proper is really just where soldiers would go down to eat, maybe get a shower once a week, re-outfit for whatever their training mission was and then they’re back up in the huts, back up in the hills, back up in the mountains,” Noone said. “Modern infantry training isn’t much different. I spent very, very little time on base in garrison … almost everything, when we were actively training, was out in the mountains, out in the field.”
He has become a prominent advocate for Camp Hale’s designation as a national monument and said that the site is a powerful place of restoration for him to work through his own war experiences. With its designation as a national monument, he hopes it will remain a sanctuary for other veterans and the public at large to visit forever.
“I go out there and use it as my therapist, my gym, my playground, my church,” Noone said. “I have definitely healed from the horrors of war in our public lands, mostly around Camp Hale. Just being able to go out there and camp and hike and drive my truck around and also have that military training site connection bringing it full circle all the way back to where I came from, where the unit came from. It just feels like a spiritual experience.”
For many on the flight, the national monument designation is the emotional climax of a decades-long push for recognition of the site. State Sen. Kerry Donovan is the granddaughter of a 10th Mountain Division officer who helped train troops at Camp Hale and said that her grandfather’s story paralleled Noone’s experience.
“When he came back, he had some pretty significant what we used to call ‘shell shock’, and he found solace back in these same woods,” she said. “He fell in love with these mountains here while he was at Camp Hale and then came back and testified in front of Congress (in support of the Wilderness Act of 1964).”
The impact that the landscape had on the 10th Mountain Division troops did more than make them great soldiers, capable of achieving a stunning victory on Riva’s Ridge. It also created many of the region’s most fervent public-land advocates who have played important roles in the creation of the national parks that define our local environment today.
Support for protecting public lands has only grown in recent years, and, while there is the potential future threat of rollback as has happened with other national monuments in the past, Donovan said she expects that the overwhelming public support will prevent such an action from being taken in regard to the newly-created Camp Hale monument.
Susie Kincade, a local wilderness advocate who has been working to pass the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy (CORE) Act for 14 years, said the successful recognition of Camp Hale will also help set a precedent for future land protections in the state.
“This has been such a long journey and, I think, such an important one for a new way to do public-lands protection — we have to get all of the stakeholders at the table from the get-go,” Kincade said. “We’re getting surveys now where 86% of people in Colorado say ‘Yes, protect our public land,’ so that’s great to have the backing and that support, but it wasn’t easy to get here. I think next time it will be easier — and the next time perhaps even easier — because we know what has to be done.”
Bruce Gordon is the founder of EcoFlight and piloted the flyover on Tuesday morning. He created EcoFlight over two decades ago to advocate for the protection of remaining wild lands and wildlife habitat, using small aircraft to provide aerial perspectives and education on various sites in the US. The idea is that seeing these sites live, from above, helps to clearly communicate their value — a point that was well demonstrated in the Camp Hale flyover.
“What struck me in the airplane is that it’s not just about this place for a monument; it’s about the area, which is so pristine, has wilderness qualities, is one of the healthier segments of the forest that I’ve seen in a long ways here in Colorado,” Gordon said. “From that aerial perspective, they’ve created a monument right in the heart of some really valuable and beautiful terrain, and I hope that’s all recognized within the boundaries.”
Biden will make the flight to Camp Hale sometime on Wednesday and will get a full dose of the area’s natural beauty before making a significant stride to protect its historical and environmental value.