Arthur Carhart’s wilderness cradle and Denver’s recreation fan
by Allen Best
The Forest Service today calls Trappers Lake the “cradle of wilderness.” It’s a lovely place, set in a bowl of dark mountains created from lava flows 14 to 16 million years ago, their slopes now light green as vegetation returns after a major forest fire in 2002.
The lake is at the end of a gravel road east of Meeker, in northwestern Colorado, and a good five-hour haul from Denver. You can only imagine the difficulty of travel in 1919, when Arthur Carhart first glimpsed it. He was freshly returned from World War I, a landscape architect by training, and he applied first to the National Park Service. That agency already had one landscape architect and didn’t need two. The Forest Service hired him at its Denver office but gave him a title of “recreation engineer.”
Carhart was dispatched to the White River Valley to scout a road around the lake for use by several hundred summer cabins. When Theodore Roosevelt had traveled to Meeker in 1901 to hunt mountain lions, he had taken a stagecoach for the final leg from Rifle. But cars were becoming common by 1919, and the Forest Service felt obligated to accommodate the demand, even in remote locations.
At Trappers Lake, Carhart found a setting worthy of dissent. Without a road, there would be no cabins. Without cabins, everybody would have equal access to the scenic lake.
“There are a number of places with scenic values of such great worth that they are rightfully (the) property of all people,” he wrote in a later memo. “They should be preserved for all time for the people of the Nation and the world. Trappers Lake is unquestionably a candidate for that classification.”
In time, Carhart’s argument stuck and it became one of several seeds for the Wilderness Act passed 50 years ago this month by Congress. But a panel of speakers assembled by the Forest Service on Aug. 22 looked beyond the core concept of wilderness preservation as defined by the bill signed into law on Sept. 3, 1964. They also pointed to the broader mission of Carhart to make public lands available for recreation and discussed the choices and compromises that must sometimes be made as more lands are vetted for possible designation as wilderness.
Thomas Wolf, who wrote a biography about Carhart called “Arthur Carhart: Wilderness Prophet,” knew his subject personally. He said he was 12 years old and walking down the street in his Park Hill neighborhood when Carhart solicited him to mow his lawn at the intersection of 25th and Eudora.
Carhart wanted to democratize public lands, said Wolf. “He was a veteran, and like a lot of vets, he had an automobile and he wanted to use it. But he also understood there are places where you should stop and hunt and fish and let the wilderness experience come to you.”
While Wolf’s book stresses wilderness, other historians stress Carhart’s broader interest in providing recreational access. He was, they say, all about democratizing the public lands.
If you look at Carhart’s memo to his superiors, says Matt Pearce, a historian who teaches at the University of Oklahoma, “he was really disturbed that the summer homes would prevent access by others who wanted to see the lake.”
At the end of World War II, grazing and timber provided nearly all the revenues used to manage the national forests, said Pearce in a later interview. But Carhart saw recreation as another viable use—and it wasn’t just wilderness. “He was all about trying to integrate all these forms of recreation into different landscapes,” said Pearce, who grew up down the valley on a ranch near Meeker.
Carhart also helped create an automobile campground in the Wet Mountains southwest of Pueblo, the first in the nation on national forest lands. This was less than a decade after the great coal field war of Colorado. Violence was frequent during all parts of the year-long strike, but especially at the Ludlow Massacre of April 1914 that left 19 victims, most of them union coal miners or their children and most of them immigrants. The steel mills at Pueblo also employed many immigrants as did other industrial operations in Idaho, Montana and other parts of the country.
Anxiety about immigration
Historians say that Carhart’s work in recreation must be seen in the context of this regional discontent as well as a national anxiety about immigration. This was soon after the ascendance of Bolsheviks in Russia and jitters about spread of communist insurrection. In the days after World War I, even speaking German was seen as suspect.
In 1910, for example, 16.2 percent of Coloradans were of foreign birth. In 2010, another time of immigration jitters, it was 9.8 percent.
The challenge that Carhart and others saw was “how do you give the immigrants a sense of ownership and hence make them American patriots?” says Wolf.
Paul Sutter, a historian at the University of Colorado-Boulder, sees Carhart’s work in this bigger context.
“Carhart saw recreation as a really important way of healing these wounds” of the labor wars, he says. And he also sees land managers viewing their resource as being a place to help forge a new and distinctly American identity in this nation of immigrants. “I think many people thought the outdoors in general were good places to do that,” says Sutter, author of “Driven Wild: How the Fight against Automobiles Launched the Modern Wilderness Movement.”
Sutter identifies an additional anxiety about increased American industrialization and urbanization. In New York City, Frederick Law Olmstead’s response to the filth was creation of Central Park. But there was also a perception, turning on Frederick Jackson Turner’s thesis about closing of the frontier, that Americas were becoming detached from their virile roots.
The response to both, says Sutter, was to put Americans in touch with nature, and that would, according to the thinking of the time, bring out what Abraham Lincoln had called “the better angles of our nature.”
Imaging Denver’s recreation fan
Carhart lasted only a few years with the Forest Service, leaving in 1923 with the complaint of being “muzzled.” He became a writer and continued to expound his vision of recreation for the masses but with a different toolbox. One of his early articles was in a publication called “Denver Municipal Facts,” in which he urged Denver to reimagine itself not simply as a headquarters for mining, logging and other extractive industries, but with access to a “recreation fan.”
The recreation fan he imagined extended from Denver westward into the mountains. While it did not imagine the powerful transformative force of I-70, it’s not far off what has transpired during the last 90 years. Mountain recreation is arguably Denver’s most valuable asset.
He also wrote a homage to federal wolf hunters who were trying to kill the last of the wolves, including a crippled but defiant wolf on Castle Peak, south of Eagle, called Lefty. That book was called “The Last Stand of the Pack,” although Wolf says that Carhart later moderated his views to see wolves as heroes, too.
As for wilderness, Sutter notes that Carhart himself never seems to have used the word, at least in his early writings. His vision was about access and preservation of scenic qualities. Working then from New Mexico, Aldo Leopold had thought differently about purpose but also scale. He believed dedicated areas needed to be big enough to absorb a two-week pack trip.
By that definition, the Flat Tops Wilderness Area—where Trappers Lake is located—is indeed wild. Designated formally as wilderness by Congress in 1975, its 234,000 acres can easily accommodate a two-week pack trip with room left over.
Howard Zahniser is credited with the most influential work in crafting the wilderness bill of 1964, including its definition 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.”
Hewing to the spirit of that language can be trying to forest managers. Ralph Swain, the Rocky Mountain wilderness program manager for the Forest Service, said every week he gets a new request to allow motors inside wilderness areas for some good reason or another. Each has merit, but taken together, they would impair the wilderness character of any protected place.
Even the Forest Service struggled to reconcile motors and management. Swain told about a trail construction project many years ago in the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area along Colorado’s Continental Divide, between Granby and Boulder. Creating the gravel for the trail was hard work and involved breaking up rocks and then wheel-barrowing them to the site. At length, the decision was made to use motorized equipment. The job got done, and far more quickly than if only human labor was employed. But the trail also was wider, deeper and altogether more than necessary. That, he said, is what motors do to wilderness areas.
Wilderness adoption always did involve compromises, many revolving around water development. Designation of the Flat Tops stalled for several years because of ambitions to build dams, one of those sites being at Trappers Lake.
In creating the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area and the Holy Cross Wilderness, which sandwich Vail, Congress specifically noted that wilderness designation could not impede a trio of Front Range cities from plans to develop water rights originating in those tracts of land. Those ambitions, however, seem unlikely to be realized.
Compromises have become even more difficult in recent years. Those areas now being evaluated for wilderness preservation “didn’t make the first cut for a reason,” said Jill Ozarski, senior natural resources advisor to U.S. Sen. Mark Udall in Colorado. “It’s not that they aren’t incredible landscapes,” she added, but usually for other reasons they fell on the cutting-room floor.
She cited the case of Brown’s Canyon National Monument and Wilderness, between Buena Vista and Salida. She remembered two years of going to about 70 meetings, many of them with Udall in her company, where they worked through issues one by one. Sometimes it took hours of conversation to get to the simple matter of moving a boundary line to eliminate a ditch.
Ozarski also sees frustrations with the strict rules of wilderness specified by Congress in 1964. People want to let their dogs run unleashed, as they can in ordinary national forests or BLM lands. There are concerns about allowing management of forests to protect adjacent communities from wildfire. Now, with the landscape of dead trees caused by various epidemics of various beetles, people justifiably worry about the potential to get hit by falling trees while hiking on trails.
New coalitions of human-powered users are being formed, said Ozarski. They want fewer restrictions than what is sometimes called upper-case wilderness, as defined by Congress in 1964, but with a common interest in excluding extractive industries, including mining and in some cases logging.
The result is a hybrid. “They’re like Brown’s Canyon, half wilderness and half something else, and what is that something else is a complicated issue for agencies,” she said.
Is wilderness being redefined? That was Sutter’s question, and while he didn’t disagree, Swain talked about the core need: places for people to recreate.
They spoke about this while in the background was Trapper’s Lake and, all around, the blackened landscape of 2002 is now recreating itself, the gray snags of dead trees a lingering legacy of the dark forest that previously existed. Whether it’s as beautiful as what Carhart saw in 1919 is, like all art, in the eye of the beholder.
This article is from the Sept. 5, 2014, issue of Mountain Town News. For a subscription to the e-mail based e-magazine, please send a $15 check to Mountain Town News, 5705 Yukon St., Arvada CO 80002. Include your e-mail address.