Traveling west over Rabbit Ears Pass, the first glimpse of the distant ramparts of the Flat Tops mountain range symbolizes a homecoming for residents of Northwest Colorado.
For many, the singular mountain range, which was created by an upthrust ancient seabed capped by flows of lava, also represents the genesis of the American wilderness movement.
President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act of 1964 into law 40 years ago this month. But it was decades earlier, in 1919, that a U.S. Forest Service landscape architect spending a summer in the mountains south of Steamboat Springs concluded that not enough was being done to protect wild landscapes.
Carhart and Leopold
Arthur Carhart, in his 20s at the time, resolved that Trappers Lake, deep in the Flat Tops, needed to be saved from its intended fate as a site for vacation homes.
Carhart and Aldo Leopold, an assistant District Forester based in Albuquerque, N.M., formulated the philosophical underpinnings of federal wilderness protection in a memo they co-wrote. Although their efforts would not bear legal fruit for decades to come, they are widely credited for the genesis of the system of wilderness areas that dot America today.
According to Leopold biographer Curt Meine, Carhart and Leopold in their memo recognized that America's lands of scenic beauty are finite. They concluded the land-use policy that would return the greatest value to the nation and the world was best served by protecting those finite areas from the "marring features of man-made constructions."
Carhart decided it was not a question of whether these wild lands should be protected, but rather, how best to accomplish the goal, Meine wrote.
"He and Leopold were not the first to voice concern for wilderness, but their meeting gave birth to a new endeavor within the Forest Service: to act on those concerns before the wilderness was gone," Meine wrote in his 1988 book, "Aldo Leopold, His Life and Work."
Carhart had spent July 1919 at Trappers Lake, where he had been assigned to survey several hundred building lots for summer homes that would ring the lakeshore. The expectation was that the Forest Service would lease those lots to homeowners.
Struck by the beauty of the lake, dominated by views of a dished out mountain known as "The Amphitheater," Carhart thought Americans would be better served if the vacation homes were never built.
Ironically, when the Wilderness Act was signed in 1964, the Mount Zirkel wilderness north of Steamboat Springs was among the original wilderness areas established, while the Flat Tops were left out. The Flat Tops Wilderness Area was not established until 1975.
People who take the trouble to read the Wilderness Act may be startled at how little mention author Howard Zahniser makes of snowcapped peaks and virgin forests. Zahniser had a long history of writing eloquently about the wilderness. However, much of the text of the law itself could be described as geopolitical descriptions of the roadless qualities that are to be preserved in designated wilderness areas.
In one section of the act, Zahniser describes wilderness areas generally appearing "to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable." He also talks about opportunities for solitude and primitive recreation.
Advocates of wilderness often point to a passage in which Zahniser describes wilderness as lands that are largely untrammeled by humans.
The Web page www.Wild erness.net points out that the word "untrammeled" often is misinterpreted to mean untrampled, when in fact it refers to a state of freedom, or lands that are free of human controls that might limit the forces of nature.
Forces of nature
The Big Fish Fire of the summer of 2002 was an example of the forces of nature taking hold in the Flat Tops Wilderness Area. The flames burned old stands of timber down to the shores of Trappers Lake, altering the landscape for human generations to come.
Jon Halverson, wilderness manager for the Hahn's Peak/Bears Ears Ranger District in Steamboat Springs, described how the Big Fish Fire illustrates modern wilderness management.
Although wildfires are recognized as part of the ecosystem that plays a role in the regeneration of the forest, the Forest Service cannot stand back and take a hands-off approach to managing fire in the wilderness, Halverson said. Instead, officials must take into account the need to protect public safety and private property on land bordering the wilderness.
Halverson's official duties are carried out in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness, but he often turns to the Flat Tops for his own recreation.
"Both personally and professionally, I recognize that wilderness is a very finite resource," Halverson said. "We are losing areas that are suitable for wilderness at a rapid pace. To me, it's critical that we take steps to protect what we've got left."
Halverson said his remarks should not be misinterpreted as advocating for the addition of more wilderness lands "at all costs."
Halverson said he is aware that many residents of the region think we have all of the wilderness we need, or perhaps too much.
Eighty-five years after Leopold and Carhart collaborated on their Trappers Lake memo, the wilderness debate continues within sight of the Flat Tops.
Moffat County Commissioner Marianna Raftopoulos said her county recently conducted a year of meetings that reached the conclusion that preservation of wild lands and open space does not have to preclude a variety of human activities currently barred in wilderness areas.
"We undertook a very extensive public process of land-use planning," Raftopoulos said. "We had more than a year of meetings and talked to all sectors," of the community including environmentalists, ranchers, chamber members and the general public.
The sentiment that came out of the process, she said, favored maintaining areas with wild characteristics without placing them under the formal designation of wilderness areas. Her constituents do not want to see additional wilderness study areas in Moffat County, Raftopoulos added.
"We can have a coexistence with multiple uses and still maintain the pristine, wild characteristics and open space," Raftopoulos said.
The next step, Raftopoulos said, is the creation of an advisory group called the Northwest Colorado Stewardship, which she said is bringing people from the oil and gas industry, government, private landowners and environmentalists into a collaborative process that will work to influence future policy regarding Moffat County's public lands.
The large tracts of public land in Moffat County, many of them managed by the Bureau of Land Management, are visibly different from the Flat Tops. There, mountains ranges begin to give way to desert-like canyons. PiÃ±on pine, sagebrush and juniper trees are more prevalent than aspens and spruce.
Wilderness advocate Reed Morris takes a view different from the one summarized by Raftopoulos. As the public lands protection organizer for the Colorado Wilderness Network based in Craig, he thinks some of the roadless sagebrush canyons of Moffat County deserve the same protections as Trappers Lake.
"When you stand on Lookout Mountain overlooking Vermillion Basin, it truly is spectacular," Morris said. "These beautiful landscapes have their place. They are not snowcapped peaks and mountain lakes, but they are definitely unique."
Vermillion Basin is not a wilderness area, but in June 2001 the Bureau of Land Management completed an inventory process concluding that about 77,000 of its total 81,000-plus acres have "wilderness character."
Cross Mountain, a nearby 7,800-acre peak that overlooks the valleys of the Yampa and Little Snake rivers, has been identified by the BLM as a "Wilderness Study Area."
Morris contends that the best way to preserve the plant and animal communities in those areas, along with the landscape, is to give them wilderness protection.
As Leopold's career in conservation unfolded, he became one of the nation's foremost advocates for wilderness and his book, "A Sand County Almanac," is revered to this day. Morris said Leopold acknowledged that the Wilderness Act of 1964 alone isn't sufficient to protect America's wild lands. Leopold tells us the Wilderness Act put the power to act into the hands of elected officials and citizens, Morris said. However, vigilant individuals still are needed to protect wilderness areas.
Two things appear certain.
The debate about the future of roadless lands here will continue almost in sight of the spot where Carhart first discovered the motivation to set aside special landscapes from human interference.
And, the Yampa Valley remains ringed by wilderness areas that ensure large expanses of roadless mountain ranges will always shape the human environment of Northwest Colorado.
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