As the federal Wilderness Act celebrates its golden anniversary, we honor its local legacy.
Every hiker knows the feeling of anticipation as you approach a high mountain ridge or summit and await that moment when the cool wind hits your face and you suddenly glimpse the other side. At West Maroon Pass in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, the final scramble from the Aspen side up to the 12,500-foot divide reveals an impossibly beautiful view below: vast meadows of alpine wildflowers ringed by rugged cliffs of red stone.
Likewise, at the high pass on the Lost Man Trail, which loops through part of the Hunter-Fryingpan Wilderness near the Continental Divide, you’ll spot a shimmering mountain lake cradled within gray, granite crags. There’s not a road, building or power line to be seen.
These exhilarating moments are the essence of wilderness, when we’re dazzled and surprised by nature’s raw beauty. We linger, eat a snack, shoot photos, savor the fresh air and thank our lucky stars. This year in particular, as the Wilderness Act turns 50, an extra shoutout is warranted for this visionary piece of legislation, which has enabled nature-lovers across the country to preserve some of their favorite places.
In September 1964, the U.S. Congress took the notion of wild, untamed country and gave it legal form by passing the Wilderness Act. Using now-famous language, the act defines wilderness 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.” From that point forward, it was possible to designate as wilderness “undeveloped federal land retaining its primeval character and influence” and legally protect it from mechanized activity, including most varieties of human commercialization, transportation and exploitation.
With the passage of the act, our elected officials gave citizens a powerful tool to preserve scenic, undisturbed lands so that we might always be able to find solitude and peace in wild places. It was a victory for conservationists, and a watershed in the history of America’s public lands.
The act designated 9.1 million acres as wilderness— places that were already being managed that way, including what was then called the Maroon Bells- Snowmass Primitive Area—but, more importantly, it opened the door for future designations of suitable places. And that’s how Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley were profoundly affected by the Wilderness Act.
“The act was the enabler,” says Joy Caudill, one of three visionary local women who managed to protect hundreds of thousands of acres of national forest surrounding Aspen. “It enabled us to keep a lot of land out of development.”
As the founders of the Aspen Wilderness Workshop in 1967, Caudill and her fellow “Maroon Belles,” Connie Harvey and the late Dottie Fox, led a handful of local outdoor enthusiasts in a long-term effort to earn wilderness designation for vast tracts of wooded mountains, alpine tundra and glaciated valleys in the region. Today, six federal wilderness areas dominate the upper reaches of the Roaring Fork watershed, straddling the Continental Divide and enveloping Aspen on three sides. This means that not only are we blessed with pristine landscapes in which to hike, fish, hunt, climb and camp, but it also provides the Roaring Fork Valley with some of the finest air and water in the lower 48 states.
It’s no accident that the Roaring Fork and Fryingpan rivers are gold-medal trout streams, revered by anglers across the nation. Protected wilderness makes for clean mountain water, which makes for better wildlife habitat, says Karin Teague, board president of the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, the successor to the original Aspen Wilderness Workshop.
“All of these different wilderness areas have their own character and reason for being, even if they bump into each other,” says Teague, an avid hiker and wildflower enthusiast. “I don’t know of any other place like that. It’s kind of endless.”
Out on the western edge of the Roaring Fork drainage, the Raggeds Wilderness includes many of the snowy crags that surround the town of Marble and feed the Crystal River, which enters the Roaring Fork near Carbondale. Moving north and east, the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness encompasses the heart of the Elk Range, including seven 14,000-foot peaks and some of Colorado’s most iconic landscapes. Farther east, the tilted red strata of the Elks give way to the granite and metamorphic rock of the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness. In this area, which includes Independence Pass and the Continental Divide, lie several of the state’s highest summits.
Just north of Independence Pass, the Continental Divide bisects the Hunter-Fryingpan and Mount Massive wilderness areas, which lie to the west and east of the divide, respectively. Finally, north of the Fryingpan River sits the lake-speckled Holy Cross Wilderness, which stretches nearly to Beaver Creek ski area and Interstate 70.
Taken together, these wilderness areas represent more than 1,000 square miles of mountain grandeur. All of it existed before the Wilderness Act, but there was no certainty that it would remain relatively untouched. And that’s why Caudill, Harvey and Fox decided— with advice and encouragement from friends in the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society—to pursue Congressional action.
“The main enemy at the time, we felt, was [the] Louisiana-Pacific [railroad], which liked to cut down trees; that was their business,” recalls Harvey, who still lives in Aspen. “We were pretty uncompromising, and we assumed they would be too.”
Caudill still remembers the aggravating buzz of Tote Gotes, the off-road motorbikes of the 1960s that were common on local trails at the time. Given the huge technological advances in off-road travel, it’s likely that modern-day ATVs and snowmobiles would be equally common in the backcountry today were it not for wilderness protection.
“We managed to keep a lot of land in pristine, or almost pristine, condition,” says Caudill, who now lives just outside Carbondale in clear view of 12,953- foot Mount Sopris. “With all the pressures Colorado has had, and continues to have, nothing will be left completely unscathed.”
It took time to develop the various wilderness proposals. The first goal was to enlarge the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, which had been designated in 1964 at 78,702 acres, but still felt too small to Caudill, Harvey and Fox. They enlisted the help of like-minded people from Aspen, Crested Butte, Leadville and other nearby towns to explore both the proposed Maroon Bells additions and other neighboring areas. These activists took notes, shot photos, compiled data and eventually helped draw the proposed boundaries.
Among the foot soldiers were students from the University of Colorado, including Caudill’s daughter, Jody, who met fellow student Tom Cardamone on those expeditions; the couple went on to marry and run the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies for many years.
“It threw together a group of people who had the same ethic about land,” Joy Caudill says. “And there’s still a core of people in Aspen who are very dedicated to the wilderness ethic.”
In the end, the wilderness areas surrounding Aspen were formally designated in two separate acts of Congress: the 1978 Endangered American Wilderness Act and the 1980 Colorado National Forest Wilderness Act.
To this day, Aspen’s politics can be characterized as a basic philosophical conf lict between land development and preservation. Over the 50 years since the Wilderness Act passed, both sides have won their share of battles in Aspen and beyond, but the designated wilderness has changed the least.
Today’s Wilderness Workshop still works to establish new wilderness. U.S. Sen. Mark Udall and Rep. Jared Polis, both Democrats, are now studying the Workshop’s Hidden Gems proposal to create pockets of new wilderness in Eagle, Pitkin, Gunnison and Summit counties. But the Workshop also labors on numerous other fronts to influence policy and educate citizens about public lands. It has taken a high-profile stance against proposed oil and gas drilling in the nonwilderness Thompson Divide area just west of the Crystal River. Having started as a ragtag but dedicated group of volunteers, the organization is now staffed with full-time professionals.
“The work is much more complicated, primarily because there are more demands on the natural environment and more people living in close proximity to it,” says Sloan Shoemaker, the Wilderness Workshop’s executive director. “The issues were just getting too many and too complex for a volunteer organization.”
Alongside its legal and public advocacy work, the organization also works behind the scenes with the U.S. Forest Service to monitor air and water quality in the local mountains. These purely scientific efforts could provide some of the baseline data needed to understand the eventual impacts of global warming on mountain ecology.
Climate change isn’t the only threat to wilderness in the early 21st century. Some locales have become so iconic and popular that they are losing their wilderness qualities. Though it’s 9 miles from the nearest trailhead, Conundrum Hot Springs in the Maroon Bells- Snowmass Wilderness attracts so many people—the springs are known as the highest in the country, at 11,200 feet above sea level—that the Forest Service is considering a reservations system to keep the crowds, partying and human waste under control.
So, while most feel that the Wilderness Act itself is secure, many challenges face individual wilderness areas and the values that helped protect them in especially popular destinations. Still, the extraordinary value of time spent high in the mountains, far from the hum and chatter of mechanized, digitized life, is universally understood.
“Wilderness is now more relevant than ever, as the pace of technology development increases, as the population expands,” Shoemaker says. “More and more, we as a human community need places of quiet and respite, not just from an ecocentric perspective, but from a human-health perspective.”
A Summer to Celebrate
Roaring Fork environmental groups are joining hands with the U.S. Forest Service to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act on Aug. 2 with a big party at the base of Aspen Highlands.
But the August bash will be really just the capstone on an entire season of guided hikes, restoration projects, exhibits, talks and other wilderness related events. Some of the events are still in the planning stages, but outdoor enthusiasts can count on a series of wilderness hikes from June to September, a traveling exhibit of wilderness images from renowned photographer John Fielder (whose photos from the book To Walk in Wilderness grace these pages) at the Wheeler Opera House July 15 to Aug. 16, and a Wilderness 50 Symposium Sept. 10, at which speakers including Dave Foreman of the Rewilding Institute, former U.S. senator Tim Wirth and John Fielder will examine the legacy of the Wilderness Act and the challenges of the next 50 years.
The Aug. 2 Maroon Bells Birthday Bash is billed as a community-wide celebration with live music, Ute drumming, food and drink specials at the Highlands Alehouse and an address by author and environmental activist Rick Bass. The party is expected to draw up to 3,000 locals and visitors, according to organizers from Wilderness Workshop and the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies.
On Aug. 3, the Aspen Music Festival will honor the 50th anniversary with Leonard Slatkin conducting a performance of Strauss’ Alpine Symphony at the Benedict Music Tent.
For updated information on the full menu of wilderness related activities, look online at wildernessworkshop.org.