Camp Hale nationwide monument designed to champion recreation

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The mountains and meadows of Camp Hale teem with mountain bikers, hikers, campers, anglers and motorized off-road explorers all summer long. In the winter, backcountry skiers traverse ridgelines between cabins and ride chairlifts at Ski Cooper, while snowmobilers tear through the valley floor.

Soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division, whose training at Camp Hale had prepared them for the frigid battles of the Italian Alps during World War II, returned to Colorado to start one of the world’s most dynamic recovery economies.

“The region’s mountains and valleys also shaped our modern outdoor recreation economy, which supports millions of American jobs today,” said a White House statement announcing the new 53,804-acre Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument – Colorado’s ninth national monument and first since Browns Canyon in 2015.

President Joe Biden told dignitaries and the press gathered at Camp Hale on Wednesday that he taught his family and two boys to ski in Colorado.

“We’ll talk about that over dinner. All those memories that you all understandably take for granted are a big deal where I’m from,” Biden said.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks during the event to declare Camp Hale a National Monument on Wednesday, October 12, 2022 outside of Leadville. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Despite praise for the recreation, a new level of federal protection on public lands often prompts recreational users to vocally oppose changes that could affect their outdoor pursuits. Like a new designation for a national monument.

“This is new territory for us,” said Ben Dodge, the general manager of 10th Mountain Huts, which now has five of its 34 backcountry huts within the National Monument boundaries.

Because the new monument will be managed by White River National Forest, the permits for the 10 mountain lodges will not change with this forest, Dodge says, adding that he has not made any changes to the permitting process, user experience at the lodges, or as expected backcountry Travelers can book hut visits.

“I think there’s actually potential for the experience to get better,” he said.

Dodge points to the Vail Pass Task Force’s unique partnerships in the Vail Pass Recreation Area, which will border the National Monument’s northern edge, as an example of the Forest Service cultivating broad interests in a shared mission to protect a landscape.

“So many people and so many things to do at Vail Pass. Maybe that can be a model for recovery at Camp Hale?” Dodge said. “I am certain that recreation will remain an important part of the Camp Hale area. It’s an economic engine. There are people who put food on the table because of the recreation up there.”

The Biden administration appears to be committed to recovery in the new monument. The memorial fact sheet provided Wednesday details how 10th Mountain veterans who trained at Camp Hale returned to the country and helped establish and develop more than 60 ski resorts. The $374 billion outdoor recreation industry, the document says, was “inspired and built by these heroes.” The document promises that the memorial will “support a wide range of recreational opportunities, recognizing the continued use of the area for outdoor recreation, including skiing, hiking, camping and snowmobiling.”

A new management plan for the memorial will encourage educational resources to better share the region’s Indigenous and military history “while preserving space for the region’s growing recreational economy,” the White House statement said.

Despite all the promises to protect the recreation, it’s easy to see that the perimeter of the new monument carefully circumscribes the permitting boundaries of Copper Mountain, Breckenridge Ski Area and Ski Cooper. This is intentional.

“The memorial will not interfere with permits held by the region’s world-class ski resorts,” the White House statement said.

Dan Torsell, general manager at Ski Cooper, worked closely with the architects of the CORE Act in the office of US Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado. Original designs of the CORE Act’s Camp Hale Legacy Act protection included the ski area in what would be the first-ever National Historic Landscape.

Ski Cooper General Manager Dan Torsell riding the Moose Run at the new Tennessee Creek Basin site in February 2020. (Steve Peterson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Later versions of the legislation excluded Ski Cooper, specifically stating that nothing in the legislation or its protection would affect “any ski area approval”. It was also noted that recreational opportunities within the historical landscape should include “activities related to the historical use” of the area, such as skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, hiking, rock climbing and other trail activities.

“After some negotiation, everyone agreed that it is in our best interest that this special use permit area be exempted from the requirement of any new monument or landscape protection,” Torsell said.

Ski Cooper has approximately 3,400 acres on its special use permit issued by the Forest Service. By keeping those acres free of any additional protection, Lake County’s own ski resort was left with a clearer path to pursue long-term growth plans.

These plans may include upgrading the area’s lodge and possibly a chairlift, as well as sketches for installing chairlifts on Chicago Ridge, which were added to the ski area’s special use permit two years ago.

“I really don’t see anything here as a roadblock or problem,” said Torsell, whose ski resort was founded in 1942 to teach 10th Mountain soldiers to ski and regularly hosts events and rallies honoring 10th Mountain veterans. “I think the preservation of Camp Hale will only help us and the entire region.”

Since 2010, mountain bikers have also worked closely with Bennet’s office to ensure the CORE Act keeps the trails around Camp Hale open to mountain bikers. These trails include portions of the Colorado Trail (sections 7 and 8) as well as the Dirty Copper Triangle, Crane Park to Camp Hale Loop, Miners Creek, Peaks Trail, Spruce Creek Trail, and Wheeler Trail. The International Mountain Bicycling Association of Boulder (IMBA) said in a statement Wednesday that the Biden administration is protecting bike-friendly recreation areas at the new monument.

A map of Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument. (US Forest Service handout)

“We appreciate that the administration understands the value of outdoor recreation, particularly mountain biking, in these areas. It is important that these landscapes remain compatible with current and historic recreational uses and purposes while protecting iconic cultural sites,” said Aaron Clark, IMBA’s policy manager for government affairs, in a statement.

Motorized users, who have historically had restricted access when public lands have been overlaid with additional layers of protection, appear cautious. Most motorized user groups and clubs in Colorado filed formal objections to the CORE Act, with many focusing on proposed wilderness area expansions that would ban motorized and mechanized access forever.

Look at what happens to Bears Ears’ itinerary proposals after Biden’s expansion of these Utah national monuments, said Marcus Trusty, a third-generation Buena Vista resident who founded Colorado Off Road Enterprise to support motorized access and hiking trails. Proposed extensions to wilderness study areas and wilderness analysis areas at Utah National Monument, unveiled in August, would ban motorized use.

“This plan closes many routes and access points,” said Trusty, whose members often travel on backcountry Jeep roads between Red Cliff and the northern boundary of the new monument. “That worries us. Although Camp Hale isn’t nearly as big, we’ll be watching it very closely.”

There is no indication that the new memorial will restrict motorized access to historic trails, and it specifically notes support for snowmobiling and road-based recreation. But as the monument continues to attract more visitors, could that impact historical assets and perhaps lead land managers to restrict motorized access? It’s happened before, said Chad Hixon, executive director of the Trails Preservation Alliance, which supports access for off-road motorcycles.

“Sometimes the increased use on these designations can change the dynamics of how these lands are managed,” Hixon said. “I hope this process involves a lot of careful consideration of these unintended consequences.”

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