The Wilderness Act of 1964
The residents of Northwest Colorado, who enjoy dramatic views of the Flat Tops mountains, are uniquely situated to appreciate the 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act on Wednesday.
The act was signed into law in1964 by President Lyndon Johnson, but the Flat Tops did not attain wilderness status until 1975. Despite the 11-year delay, the Flat Tops and Trappers Lake are widely regarded as the cradle of statutory wilderness in the U.S. That’s because it was after a trip to Trappers Lake in 1919 to survey for cabin sites, a young U.S. Forest Service recreation engineer named Arthur Carhart made the argument that some areas of special beauty should be set aside from development.
In a memo he wrote after his visit to Trappers, Carhart laid out for the first time, the notion that the Forest Service was the appropriate agency to set aside and protect some of America’s wildest and most scenic lands.
The Flat Tops also represent the headwaters of the White and Yampa rivers. The Yampa, which begins in the town of Yampa and flows through Steamboat, Hayden and Craig, also played an indirect role in the passage of the Wilderness Act.
In the early 1950s, the federal Bureau of Reclamation was contemplating the billion dollar Colorado River Storage Project comprising a series of massive series of concrete dams that would tame the wild Colorado and store its spring flows for development of the West. The Echo Park Dam was proposed to be built near the confluence of the Yampa and Green in Dinosaur National Monument.
The dam would have flooded the scenic canyon we know today, but David Brower of the Sierra Club and Howard Zahniser of the Wilderness Society launched a successful campaign against Echo Park Dam, arguing it would have set a dangerous precedent to permit a dam to be built in a national monument or national park. It was Zahniser, who went on to campaign for the wilderness act, testifying before Congress and revising the language of the wilderness bill. He died before it was signed into law, but knowing that his efforts had been successful.
Celebration of Wilderness
Routt County residents will have the opportunity to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act with a series of local activities.
The signature event will be Walk for the Wilderness from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday at Olympian Hall at Howelsen Hill. Participants will pick up a passport and then walk along the Yampa River Core Trail, where they can visit informational booths presented by event sponsors Rocky Mountain Youth Corps, Trapper’s Lake Chapter of the Sierra Club, Friends of Wilderness, Yampatika and the U.S. Forest Service.
For every stop along the walk a person makes, they receive a ticket that will be entered into a prize drawing that includes items donated by Big Agnes, SmartWool, Ski Haus and other local businesses. The event also features live music from the Yampa Valley Boys.
In honor of the anniversary, Bud Werner Memorial Library also is hosting three Wilderness movies. “Wild By Law” will be shown Tuesday, “Green Fire” on Wednesday and “Forever Wild” on Thursday. All showings are at 7 p.m.
It’s important, on the 50th anniversary of America’s Wilderness Act, to gaze back through the fog rising off the mountains and acknowledge the inspiration that first recognized the intrinsic value of the relatively untouched natural beauty in our national forests. But looking back to 1964 may not be as important in 2014 as looking ahead to the next half century.
The 112th Congress, which met from Jan. 3, 2011, until Jan. 3, 2013, was the first since 1966 to fail to approve any new wilderness areas, hitting the pause button at an unsettling moment in the history of formalizing wilderness. There is optimism that the 113th Congress will snap out of that funk and add new tracts of untrammeled and roadless lands to the official list, among them, the proposed Brown’s Canyon Wilderness in Colorado’s Arkansas River Valley poised for wilderness status.
Landscape photographer John Fielder, an uncompromising advocate for wilderness, mused in the midst of a wilderness hike in July that it will be vital in coming years to inspire more young people to visit wilderness in order to form their emotional connection to special places like the Flat Tops Wilderness Area, south of Steamboat Springs, if the movement is to continue to grow.
Fielder was joined on his walk through wilderness by San Francisco State University professor of recreation, parks and tourism Pat Tierney, a wilderness veteran himself, after stints as a forest ranger as well as a National Parks Service river ranger. He is collaborating with Fielder on a book about the Yampa River due to come out next year. Their mission in the Flat Tops was to capture the headwaters of the river in images and prose.
Fielder readily acknowledged that bringing more people into wilderness inevitably would increase the impacts on environments intended by the Wilderness Act itself to be left untrammeled. It’s a trade he’s willing to make.
“I’ll do anything it takes to get people into wilderness,” Fielder said.
What Fielder is driving at is the tendency of people who have had a wilderness experience, and in particular, one of greater duration than the typical 6-mile day hike, to form a personal attachment to wilderness fostering a preservation ethic that lasts a lifetime.
The availability of accessible wilderness day hikes are important, but it’s an overnight camping experience, and one that comes with some privations and often a modicum of hardship, that really forges the bond. That’s when the need to consult a watch or a phone fades into the background and visitors get hooked on wilderness while quietly swapping stories of waiting out August snowstorms in a darkened camp (not by the campfire). That’s where they wonder at the vastness of the Milky Way and listen to coyote karaoke in solitude.
Steamboat resident Elaine Dermody understands the need to introduce more people to wilderness values. She has been a tireless advocate for wilderness stewardship and started the Friends of Wilderness here in 2000 to take care of the local Flat Tops, Mount Zirkel and Sarvis Creek wilderness areas. That led to a funding role in the National Wilderness Stewardship Alliance.
Ironically, Dermody confesses that members of her own book group have not visited the Mount Zirkel Wilderness, easily visible from downtown Steamboat, and are unclear about what wilderness is.
“Most of my friends in Steamboat are not involved in wilderness and some don’t even hike in wilderness,” she said. “With this being the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, I asked my book club what their concept of wilderness was. A number thought it was land you couldn’t go into.”
Dermody prizes overnight excursions into the wilderness because they afford her the ability to enjoy sunrise and sunset in a pristine setting. But she’s also aware of the role wildlife, including vocal coyotes, can play in making that connection.
Tears came to her eyes this month while describing a day when coyotes “welcomed” her back to the Flat Tops Wilderness Area.
Dermody had missed the wilderness experience while recovering from an illness, and when she was finally hardy enough for a hike in the Flat Tops, she eagerly joined a group headed for the Mandall Lakes to transplant tiny pine trees in areas where frequent camping had hardened the earth.
“What happened was that we were going up the trail and heard coyotes howling, which is very rare in the middle of the day,” Dermody said. “I said, ‘Oh my god, they’re so happy I’m back out in the wilderness.’”
For U.S. Forest Service Wilderness Program Manager for the Yampa Ranger District John Anarella, the appeal of wilderness has to do with the way it clears his head.
“It’s how being among the natural world puts your mind at ease,” Anarella said. “It’s so simple. Your mind’s not going all over the place. To me, it’s a simplification, a relaxation.”
Perennial snowbanks feed wilderness watershed
Fielder renewed his emotional connection with wilderness this summer while camped by a no-name beaver pond beneath the long igneous wall of the Flat Tops’ Lost Lake peaks. A day earlier, he had seemed rapturous while photographing a large patch of low-growing alpine sunflowers in the tundra above 11,000 feet.
“This is the largest field I’ve seen in 40 years,” he exclaimed, returning to compose one new wildflower composition after another.
Still, it was the lush meadow by the beaver pond that really took hold of him later that same day.
Gazing to the east from a campsite set well back from the pond, the view took in the Lost Lake peaks dominated by one dome of basalt that is just shy of 12,000 feet.
Fielder, who had risen shortly at 5 a.m. to be in position to catch first light bouncing off the peaks and reflecting in the pond, exclaimed upon his return, “This is the epitome of sublimeness!”
The little creek full of brook trout that fed the beaver pond represents the headwaters of the East Fork of the Williams Fork (is that enough forks for you?), a significant tributary of the Yampa that flows into the main stem just west of Craig.
Tierney, who served an extended stint as a National Park Service river ranger on the Yampa and Green rivers far downstream in Dinosaur National Monument, suggested that the protection of pristine watersheds like the one that had captured Fielder’s attention is ample justification for the Wilderness Act.
The little creek was fed by water that seemed to leap out of the ground on a gentle hillside. Tierney pointed out that this creek/pond/meadow system was made possible by the perennial snowbanks of the Flat Tops. He theorized that the porous igneous rock beneath the thin layer of topsoil soaks up and conveys water from melting snow like a sponge.
Asked what this meadow, only about 6 miles from a county road, might look like today if the Flat Tops had not been given wilderness status in 1975,Tierney paints a different scene.
“There would probably be a gravel road up here and likely a dam,” Tierney said.
Ironically, it was people who wanted to preserve the ability to build a dam on the South Fork of the White River who resisted inclusion of that drainage in the Flat Tops Wilderness Area and held up wilderness designation for the “cradle of wilderness” for more than a decade.
Geologic history of the Flat Tops
When it comes to the Flat Tops, its admirers have to look back more than 50 years to understand the history of the landscape. In fact, they have to look back more than 50 million years to understand how these mountains came to be so flat.
According to the Forest Service, the Flat Tops were formed throughout millions of years by a combination of volcanic and glacial forces.
It was about 52 million years ago that a giant, swirling lake of magma began to uplift the entire White River Plateau.
Gradually, the earth gave way resulting in 10 more mild volcanic eruptions, 12 million years ago. The lava that oozed out of fissures spread out across the landscape, where it hardened into rock and provided an erosion resistant cap on the uplifted plateau and surrounding valleys.
It wasn’t until a recent ice age that the friction caused by melting glaciers sliding down cliffs carved out the bowl-shaped cirques epitomized by the Chinese Wall.
The Devil’s Causeway, easily the best-known geologic feature in the Flat Tops, was formed by two such cirques in direct opposition to each other, resulting in the narrow arrete that lures so many day hikers in the wilderness area to test their courage by walking across the narrow stripe of uneven rock with sheer drop-offs on either side.
During a visit to the causeway in late July, 25 to 30 people were clustered, half on the north side and half on the south side, taking turns walking, or scooting on their butts across the rocky causeway. One group of older teenage males gave it a good look and decided it wasn’t for them. And that’s easy to understand; everyone has his or her personal tolerance for heights.
Wilderness equivalent of a roller coaster
What makes the Devil’s Causeway intimidating is the fact that when one looks down to assure safe foot placement, the void on either side comes into view in one’s peripheral vision. It raises pulse rates and commands respect.
Anarella, who received national stewardship award from the Forest Service in 2009, agrees that the Devil’s Causeway serves as an attraction that introduces people who might not otherwise visit to the wilderness.
“It’s this rite of passage thing,” Anarella said. “You can buy T-shirts that say, ‘I crossed the Devil’s Causeway’ at Montgomery’s General Store in Yampa. We get 70, 90 cars in the trailhead parking lot some days. I actually put an infrared trail counter on the Causeway Trail this year. It’s only been there for about three weeks, and I don’t have a tally.”
It might seem sacrilegious to suggest the Devil’s Causeway is to the Flat Tops Wilderness Area what the Mind Eraser roller coaster is to Elitch Gardens amusement park. But if the thrill factor of the Causeway creates even 100 or 200 new wilderness fanatics annually, it could make a difference.
The future of the 1964 Wilderness Act is ahead of us.