Geography of Hope: Colorado Wilderness at 50

Nov 17, 2014 by     No Comments    Posted under: Features, Public Lands

Colorado’s fifth largest Wilderness Area, at over 175,000 acres, the West Elk Wilderness Area sits in a somewhat forgotten corner of the Western Slope, receiving a fraction of the visitors that flock to its famous near neighbor the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, a range, a valley, sometimes it seems a world away near Aspen, Colorado.24113851

“Not well known, the West Elk is a place of healthy aspen and spruce forests and rugged volcanic cliffs that tower above long valleys and flowing streams.“…Nevertheless, the visitor is offered scenic vistas of dark volcanic breccia worn into spires, towers, stone walls and castle-like formations of immense size. Long valleys and sun-dappled aspen forested slopes offer unique scenic beauty to the intrepid hiker. The West Elk wilderness is particularly well suited for alpine backpacking, as it offers unspoiled scenery, long ascending trails, and with no fourteeners, freedom from crowds.”  -from Colorado’s Wild Areas: West Elk Wilderness

On signing the original Wilderness Act into law, a half-century ago this year and thereby designating as Wilderness a large part of the West Elk Mountains, among more than 50 other areas on some 9 million acres of federal public lands, the President remarked:


President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Wilderness Act on September 4, 1964

“If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt we must leave them something more than the miracles of technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning.” -President Lyndon B. Johnson

The Wilderness Act itself is well known for its unusually concise and somewhat poetic language:

“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.” –The Wilderness Act

In general to be considered for Wilderness designation an area of public land has to be of a size sufficient to manage it for the purposes of the Act (usually 5,000 acres and larger), exist in a primarily natural condition where the work of people is “substantially unnoticeable,” and have “outstanding opportunities” for solitude or for “primitive and unconfined recreation.” It may also have unique features such as interesting geological, historical significance, or particular biological resources.

The original designations in the 1964 Act (with a total of 54 areas in 13 states) included a handful of Colorado areas including, in addition to the West Elk, Mount Zirkel, La Garita and the Maroon Bells-Snowmass areas.

Other areas followed with subsequent Acts of Congress that expanded the system, like Weminuche, Colorado’s largest, and the Flat Tops (both 1975), Eagles Nest (1976), Indian Peaks (1978), Holy Cross (1980).

Some National Park Service lands in Colorado were designated as Wilderness in 1976, including portions of Mesa Verde, Great Sand Dunes, and the Black Canyon National Parks.  And in 1976 Congress also expanded the National Wilderness Preservation System to include the fourth primary (non-military) federal land agency: the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (joining the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service).  There are now over 40 Wilderness Areas in Colorado on National Forest, National Park Service, and BLM administered public lands.  (2,500 acres of the Mt. Massive Wilderness is jointly managed by the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect water resources for its Leadville Hatchery).

black canyon.samantha burrow

Much of the canyon area below the rim is designated as Wilderness within the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Several trails accessing the canyon floor start from the North Rim, which is reached via Fruitland Mesa outside of Crawford. Photo by Samantha Burrow

Wilderness Areas protect the landscape as it was when many of our ancestors arrived, a reservoir of nature, a “glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning.”

An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; (3) has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.  –The Wilderness Act

The idea of Wilderness as a public resource worthy of protection is a notably American ideal, small ‘d’ democratic, the recognition that we need to maintain, as a nation, both a commons and a constant.  As famed western author Wallace Stegner put it, in The Wilderness Letter in advocacy of Wilderness protection:


In 1960 author Wallace Stegner wrote a letter to the U.S. Forest Service advocating for wilderness protection. The “Wilderness Letter” remains a strong argument today for protecting America’s remaining wildlands.

“I want to speak for the wilderness idea as something that has helped form our character and that has certainly shaped our history as a people.

“…Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed; if we permit the last  virgin forests to be turned into comic books and plastic cigarette cases; If we drive the few remaining members of the wild species into zoos or to extinction; if we pollute the last clear air and dirty the last clean streams and push our paved roads through the last of the silence, so that never again will Americans be free in their own country from the noise, the exhausts, the stinks of human and automotive waste. And so that never again can we have the chance to see ourselves single, separate, vertical and individual in the world, part of the environment of trees and rocks and soil, brother to the other animals, part of the natural world and competent to belong in it. Without any remaining wilderness we are committed wholly, without chance for even momentary reflection and rest, to a headlong drive into our technological termite-life, the Brave New World of a completely man-controlled environment.

“We need wilderness preserved–as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds–because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed. The reminder and the reassurance that it is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten years set foot in it. It is good for us when we are young, because of the incomparable sanity it can bring briefly, as vacation and rest, into our insane lives. It is important to us when we are old simply because it is there–important, that is, simply as an idea.

…These are some of the things wilderness can do for us. That is the reason we need to put into effect, for its preservation,  some other principle that the principles of exploitation or “usefulness” or even recreation. We simply need that wild  country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.” -Wallace Stegner, The Wilderness Letter

Wilderness around the North Fork region presently includes National Forest areas like the West Elk, Maroon Bells (both 1964), and the  Raggeds (1980), portions of the Black Canyon National Park (1976), and Gunnison Gorge (1999), managed by the BLM.  Not much further, straddling Delta and Mesa Counties is one of Colorado’s newest additions—the Dominguez Canyon Wilderness (BLM, 2009).

In addition to those already designated Wilderness, a handful of other BLM lands are managed so as not to impair their suitability for future Wilderness designation.  These are Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) as established by an Act of Congress—and include two almost local areas on either side of Delta: the twisting arroyos and eroded mesas near the Devil’s Thumb (Adobe Badlands WSA), and the  wild canyon country around Roubideau, Potter and Monitor creeks, on the flanks on the Uncompahgre (Camel Back WSA).   Some other BLM WSAs include the Little Bookcliffs (between Palisade and DeBeque), Handies Peak and Redcloud Peak (near Lake City), The Palisade (near Gateway), Sewemup Mesa and Dolores River Canyon (Slickrock to Bedrock).


A beaver pond reflects the blue sky on a fall day in the Raggeds Wilderness.

The four Wilderness Areas that directly border the North Fork are impressive, and provide a variety of backcountry opportunities in a fascinating array of geology.  The West Elk, the Raggeds, the Black Canyon, and the Gunnison Gorge Wilderness Areas highlight an incredible diversity of landscapes and mark the transition from the Rocky Mountains into the spectacular, rugged canyon country of the Colorado Plateau. The North Fork’s nearby Wilderness Areas offer outstanding recreation opportunities including backcountry skiing, whitewater rafting, climbing, hiking, horse packing, world class hunting, and gold medal angling opportunities.

Wilderness Areas are managed with a ‘minimum tool’ approach, allowing natural regimes to play out as much as practicable, providing a baseline and a ‘control’ to the human experiment that has transformed the western landscape over the last 200 years.

“Except as otherwise provided in this Act, each agency administering any area designated as wilderness shall be responsible for preserving the wilderness character of the area and shall so administer such areas for such other purposes for which it may have been established as also to preserve its wilderness character.” –The Wilderness Act


The Gunnison Gorge offers a premier whitewater Wilderness adventure.

But Wilderness Areas are also meant to be utilized by people:

“Except as otherwise provided in this Act, wilderness areas shall be devoted to the public purposes of recreational, scenic, scientific, educational, conservation, and historical use.” –The Wilderness Act

Although they seek to leave intact, to preserve, important tracts of natural lands, where human intervention is minimal and generally only low-impact activity is allowed, Wilderness Areas are not meant to be museums or isolated examples of pristine nature.

Wilderness Areas have always been conceived as part of a set of national protected lands within healthy functioning ecosystems, often part of a larger management framework of public lands—such as a National Park, National Conservation Area, or special recreation management or use areas.

“The idea of wilderness needs no defense, it only needs defenders.” – Ed Abbey, The Journey Home


Ed Abbey. “It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space.”

Colorado is steeped in the history of Wilderness conservation.  The very ‘Idea of Wilderness’ as a public land designation has some of its earliest roots in Colorado.  Notably in Arthur Carhart, who–recently returned from service during World War I and out surveying near Trappers Lake in 1919 for the U.S. Forest Service–looked at the alpine plateau jutting above the basin and settled on the notion that society would benefit more by keeping some places intact than by developing them.  His work, and that of others like Bob Marshall, Aldo Leopold and Howard Zahniser would eventually lead to the Wilderness Act more than forty years later.  Now, another fifty years after that, the National Wilderness Preservation System includes over 750 designated areas, protecting more than 100 million acres in 44 states and Puerto Rico.

“We need wilderness preserved–as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds…” -Wallace Stegner, The Wilderness Letter

Today Wilderness Areas protect some of Colorado’s most iconic landscapes and are enjoyed by millions.  These public lands provide outstanding recreation from kayaking, skiing, and climbing, to hunting, fishing, hiking and camping.  Wilderness Areas protect headwaters, riparian areas, and our clean water supplies.  Wilderness Areas secure some of the most important wildlife habitat, safeguarding Colorado’s big game herds and other wildlife.

One hundred years before Stegner wrote his letter, and more than fifty years before Arthur Carhart had his Flat Tops epiphany, Henry David Thoreau wrote about the renewal and benefit found walking in the woods.

“In wildness is the preservation of the world.” -Henry David Thoreau, Walking

As Thoreau found, a visit to Wilderness is to step into a place where human time is hard-pressed to intervene, and yet Wilderness also is able to provide perspective with which to better understand it.  Lao Tzu is credited with the saying:

“Nature never hurries yet accomplishes everything.”

37819--is-through-a-forest-wilderness-quote-by-john-muir-duly-posted-wallpaper-610x610 (1)There is a profound wisdom and humility in setting aside some of the world’s more natural places to follow their own rhythms, schedules and purpose.

 “Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of the wolf.” -Aldo Leopold, Thinking Like a Mountain

There is also profound ecological sense in it.  Wilderness’ rejuvenating power is not only a balm for the wary individual, but also replenishes our water supplies, restores our clean air, and helps balance greenhouse gas levels, maintain healthy wildlife, and provide for economic activity.

“Ask the questions that have no answers. Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias. Say that your main crop is the forest that you did not plant, that you will not live to harvest.” -Wendell Berry, Manifesto: The Mad Farmers Liberation Front

The history of Wilderness in Colorado is a key part of the history of public lands conservation in the west, but the final chapters have yet to be written.  Just this month (November 2014) the U.S. Senate passed out of committee a bill that would protect public lands in the Hermosa Creek watershed near Durango, including a portion designated as Wilderness.  And other efforts—in Central Colorado, in Gunnison County, at Browns Canyon, and elsewhere—are ongoing as local coalitions of citizens, businesses and organizations advocate for stakeholder-based conservation solutions including Wilderness proposals and public lands legislation.3274588

The effort to protect Wilderness in Colorado is not complete.  But to get the job done we must share the foresight that Wilderness visionaries had in decades past, to preserve for the decades to come a ‘glimpse of how it was in the beginning.’

Because Wilderness is not just about holding onto some of our past, nor is it only about providing outstanding recreational opportunities in the present. Wilderness preservation is also about the future.  Protecting our wilderness lands is, to borrow from the Mad Farmer, ‘investing in the millennium.’  It is to advocate for a ‘geography of hope.’


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