Everybody thinks they know the story of Camp Hale – Colorado's World War II era high-altitude army training camp located between Red Cliff and Leadville – and the illustrious 10th Mountain Division soldiers that trained there. The tale, as it's usually told, goes something like this: In 1942, the sounds of war echoed at the headwaters of the Eagle River, and the U.S. Army needed to train troops for combat in mountainous, and possibly snowy terrain. So the government appropriated 2.4 square miles of scrubland between Minturn and Leadville from ranchers, built a small city of barracks, a shooting range, and even a gymnasium, as would be needed for a peak population of 10,000 elite soldiers (including Vail founder Pete Seibert) that would end up training in the area between 1942 and 1945.
Now here’s the bit that’s lost on most people: Two summers later, after 10th Mountain Division troops had been shipped out – and went on to play important roles in combat in Italy’s Apennine Mountains, giving name to several future Vail ski runs in the process (Riva Ridge, Avanti) – the dismantling of Camp Hale began. Long after the barracks were razed to their foundations, after undetonated munitions were located and carefully carted away, one major environmental legacy of the war-era site endured. The Eagle River, which once meandered lazily through the valley’s wetlands, had been yoked into a straight-as-an-arrow ditch to accommodate the city streets of Camp Hale. Nearly eight decades later, it yearns to flow free.
If advocates have their say, the river likely won’t stay in its aquatic straight-jacket forever. A stakeholder process convened several years ago has coalesced around a vision of a wetlands restoration project along the Eagle River with recognition of the historical legacy of Camp Hale. Existing recreational uses are to be maintained. The U.S. Forest Service, which was deeded the property by the Department of Defense in 1966, launched an environmental review of the plans in 2015. However, nothing on the ground is likely to happen until 2018.
Lee Rimel helped forge the vision. A former real estate agent in Vail, he owns two backcountry cabins above Camp Hale, both located on the 10th Mountain Division Trail between Vail and Aspen. As an avid outdoorsman, he wanted to protect recreational uses around the Camp Hale area, while also was restoring the site's condition to the natural environment known by both homsteaders to the area and Native Americans before them. “History happened long before 1942, when the U.S. government acquired Camp Hale, and that needs to be respected,” he says, adding that those wetlands will benefit both people and wildlife, and this process “presents a unique opportunity to accomplish that.”
Much dirt must be moved before that goal can be met, including land around the rifle range, and then there's still the issue of possible remaining ordnance on the land – although the Army Corps of Engineers has worked previously to find long-lost explosives. Along with relocating the land and clearing forgotten artillery, there's other more logistical hurdles that need to be cleared, such as funding. The U.S. Forest Service and the non-profit National Forest Foundation, which convened the stakeholder process, have committed to $5 million altogether, but the project will take at least $10 million, says Marcus Selig, of the National Forest Foundation. Another potential revenue stream could be sale of credits created by the wetlands restoration to offset impacts to wetlands elsewhere, possibly at the nearby Climax Mine.
The plan calls for maintaining existing uses, as the area already sees a hefty amount of visitors vying to recreate and work on the Camp Hale surrounds. From a private parcel, Vail Valley based Nova Guides leads snowmobile and all-terrain vehicle excursions into the surrounding mountains. Backcountry skiers use the valley for access to several mountain-top huts linked by the 10th Mountain Trail. And for decades, Sam and Cheri Robinson have grazed sheep, starting in June and working their way up the mountain as melting snow gives way to succulent grasses.
U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat from Colorado, envisions congressional designation of Camp Hale and surrounding lands as the nation’s first National Historic Landscape. The vision is much the same as that of the stakeholder group of which Rimel is a part, one that honors the area's war-time history with interpretative and educational elements, while maintaining recreational use. The idea—not yet introduced as legislation—would also broaden the area's environmental protections by precluding future mining and large-scale timber-harvesting operations on surrounding slopes. The proposed designation might also make access to federal funding easier for river restoration and other projects, and could be seen as a catalyst for new wilderness designations in Colorado.
Among those interested in the proposed Camp Hale designation and restoration project is Vail’s Kerry Donovan — a former town councilwoman and now a Colorado state senator — who's acutely aware of the natural and historical significance of the area. Her grandfather, William Bird Mounsey, was a young man from Minnesota when the war broke out, “He knew how to ski, and the Army was looking for anyone who could ski and instruct in winter survival,” she says.
The first skiing soldiers were sent to Camp Lewis, at the foot of Mount Rainier, near Seattle, until Colorado was chosen for Camp Hale, and Donovan’s mother, then a baby, and her grandmother moved to Glenwood Springs to be relatively close. Despite his skiing expertise, Donovan’s grandfather was sent to fight in the South Pacific, and although he rarely talked about combat when he returned home, he used his skills as an outdoorsman — partly due to his time at Camp Hale — to found a wilderness education school. His love of the outdoors was passed on to his daughter, Diane, Kerry’s mother, who had a discernible environmental bent as an elected official in Vail. That’s the way Kerry was reared, too, “My childhood experience was getting kicked out of the door in the morning and not allowed back in until late in the afternoon,” she says.
With locals like Donovan on its side, Camp Hale and its surrounds might once again be home to a unique national site that's the first of its kind — a designation that permanently remembers the area's historical background, while looking ahead to its environmental future.