TENNESSEE PASS — President Joe Biden stood at the ruins of a World War II winter warfare training camp high in the Colorado mountains Wednesday, formally designating a new, 84-square-mile Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument, and celebrated the wildness of the West.
“You can feel the power of this place,” Biden said, basking in a landscape studded with green pines and golden aspens that he called “sacred,” lauding Ute stewardship across centuries. While addressing a gathering of state and national leaders beneath a cliff, he extolled “soaring peaks, steep canyons, black bears, bald eagles, mountain lions, waterfalls, pristine rivers, alpine lakes and the scent of wildflowers.”
He also spoke about the West broadly, at one point quoting from the late environmental activist and writer Edward Abbey on “the most beautiful place on Earth….many such places” that “every man, every woman carries in heart and mind.” Biden recalled his own family trips skiing – “all those memories that you all understand and take for granted, they are a big deal where I come from” – and hiking in the Grand Canyon, which he called a cathedral.
“It takes your breath away,” Biden said. “I don’t think, until you see some of these things, that you understand how important it is to preserve them.”
This marks Biden’s first wielding of executive power under the 1906 Antiquities Act to establish a new national monument on federally managed public land. He’s used this power previously to expand three existing monuments. His formal designation of 53,804 acres here along Tennessee Pass and headwaters of the Eagle River, all part of the White River National Forest, adds a layer of federal government protection against potential future development. It is expected to boost local efforts that began a decade ago to restore the delicate ecology that was partially destroyed when military leaders established Camp Hale.
Monument status gives veterans of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division who trained here “the dignity of public remembrance,” U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet said. An innovative WW2 unit, the 10th Mountain Division emerged in these mountains when a diverse group of men came together, worked together and then played a key role in a night surprise attack defeating Nazi forces in Europe.
During his visit, Biden also announced additional protection for a contested 225,000-acre area about 60 miles away west of Carbondale called the Thompson Divide — extending a pause on leasing land for oil and gas drilling. And he announced that, as part of efforts to deal with “the devastating impacts of climate change,” federal Inflation Reduction Act funds will be used in the West to improve efficiency in the use of water from the Colorado River, a shrinking source tapped by 40 million people in seven states and Mexico.
Colorado’s Sens. Bennet and John Hickenlooper, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Rep. Joe Neguse, Gov. Jared Polis and White House Council on Environmental Quality director Brenda Mallory joined Biden at Camp Hale, where a crowd of more than 200 included surviving war veterans, conservationists, Ute tribal elders and local political leaders.
Bennet for years has pushed for passage in Congress of the Colorado Outdoors Recreation Economy Act, which would help protect 400,000 acres in western Colorado, including land around Camp Hale. But that legislation, guided by Neguse and others through the House, hasn’t won Senate approval. Hickenlooper told the crowd “we’re going to get it done this coming year.” In August, he and Bennet, who faces a political challenge from Republican candidate Joe O’Dea, met with Vilsack at Camp Hale. Vilsack committed to urge Biden to consider using his executive power to create the monument. Bennet followed up, lobbying at the White House.
Presidents under the Antiquities Act have designated 129 national monuments around the country. In Colorado, those include the Brown’s Canyon, Canyons of the Ancients, Dinosaur, and Yucca House sites.
At Camp Hale, all that remains of a military base that covered 1,500 acres with 245 barracks housing up to 15,000 soldiers and support staff are concrete foundations of an ammunition depot, field house, and firing range.
Since 2013, the National Forest Foundation and other groups have been working to restore wetlands and streams around Camp Hale and also to commemorate the military history. Building the base required flattening and draining wetlands. Military engineers rerouted meandering Eagle River headwaters into a straight ditch. This erased pools. Native willows disappeared, replaced by invasive yellow toadflax and thistles. Water temperatures spiked, hurting fish, and as stream banks eroded the wildlife diversity in the area diminished, from stone flies on up the food chain to predators.
The land long has served as a popular base for hiking, camping, skiing, hunting, animal watching and riding around in off-road motorized vehicles.
And the cities of Colorado Springs and Aurora own rights to water from the river as it flows down from melting snow on mountain peaks – a tributary of the Colorado River.
Valleys here provide habitat for wildlife including elk, bear, lynx, pine marten, marmot, pika, otter, trout, white-tailed ptarmigan, rosy finches, migratory songbirds and ducks.
For centuries, Utes hunted here, buried their dead. Then in 1845, U.S. Army Gen. John Fremont led in explorers. Government surveys in the 1870s noted the nearby 14,009-foot Mount of the Holy Cross. Photographer William Jackson documented it in widely-seen images. And in 1881, workers installed a railroad. Gold and silver miners followed. In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt tried to protect some of the wildness by declaring a Holy Cross Forest Reserve.
Now as a monument this area will be saved “for all the people in America and the world,” Biden said. “It is a permanent decision, an action no future president can overturn.”
And he told of the role the 10th Mountain Division soldiers played in Europe, conjuring a cold, dark night during 1945 in Italy when they began a surprise attack mission “that hinged on the skills, strength and stamina that could only be gained in a place like this.” They scaled a 1,800-foot cliff “and broke the German defenses at a pivotal point in the war.”
Biden’s creation of a monument will help raise funds for a broad restoration and development of the monument with a visitor center, guided tours and the best possible interpretive signs, said Nancy Kramer, president of the Tenth Mountain Division Foundation, a group run by descendants of 10th Mountain Division soldiers.
“They came together and worked together. It was duty, honor and country,” Kramer said. “They were diverse. But they became pretty darn tight,” she said.
“That’s part of what we are missing today.”