Biden Declares Colorado’s Camp Hale a National Monument

Presidential move will protect high alpine wildlands and a bit of US history

By Lindsey Botts

October 12, 2022

Winds whip the snow around Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021, in Camp Hale, Colo.

Photo by Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily via AP

President Joe Biden on Wednesday, for the first time, used the powers granted the presidency under the Antiquities Act to put new lands under federal protection as he designated 53,804 acres of the central Rocky Mountains a national monument. The newest public land addition, called the Camp Hale–Continental Divide National Monument, is about 110 miles west of Denver and includes a mix of alpine wildlands, historic buildings, and portions of the Tenmile Range. Biden’s move, long sought by Colorado conservation groups, will ensure that a World War II training camp is permanently protected for the enjoyment of generations of Americans who treasure the outdoors and value US history.

“This action will honor our nation’s veterans, Indigenous people, and their legacy by protecting this Colorado landscape while supporting jobs and America’s outdoor recreation economy,” the White House said in a statement announcing the declaration. “By protecting this iconic area and proposing a mineral withdrawal for the Thompson Divide, the president is building on a series of steps the administration has taken to protect some of America’s most cherished lands and waters.”

Conservation and veterans’ groups, including the Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Foundation, the National Parks Conservation Association, and the Wilderness Society, have been trying to protect the area for years. Late last month, outdoor recreation groups and a 100-year-old veteran rallied at the Colorado Snowsports Museum in Vail to call on the president to designate the camp as a national monument.

Permanent protection for Camp Hale has been a long time coming. In 1992, the National Park Service added the site to the National Register of Historic Places. In 2018, Senator Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat, proposed protecting the site as a National Historic Landscape, a first in terms of public lands classification. In 2019, Bennet joined Representative Joe Neguse to include the camp in the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act, an ambitious bill that aims to protect almost half a million acres in Colorado, but which has been stalled in the Senate.

With today’s announcement, those efforts have paid off. This is the first time President Biden has used the authority of the Antiquities Act of 1906, which gives presidents broad powers to create monuments that protect areas of key ecological, cultural, or scientific significance. In 2021, Biden restored federal protections to portions of Grand Staircase–Escalante, Bears Ears, and Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monuments, which had been shrunk by President Trump. Wednesday’s proclamation is the first time, however, that Biden has used the Antiquities Act to grant protections to an area that hasn’t before enjoyed strong federal protection.

For supporters in Colorado, the designation is long overdue. “Wilderness Workshop and other groups have been … building support for protecting the landscapes within the core act for over a decade now,” said Grant Stevens, the director at Colorado Wildlands Project, which supported the designation. “The national monument piece kind of has come in much more recently, and that's because with the [Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act] kind of struggling to move forward in the Senate, Colorado leaders … have really been looking at other ways to protect these landscapes, and executive action is one of those.”

Named after General Irving Hale, the area straddles the Continental Divide. At 9,200 feet, the Eagle River Valley, where the camp is located, proved an ideal spot to train troops in cold weather warfare. Charles Minot Dole, the founder of the National Ski Patrol, lobbied the army to create the specialized army division after he was inspired by the mountain skills used by the Finnish during the Soviet invasion of Finland at the start of World War II. By 1941, the army had agreed to create the division and started to look for a site.

The 10th Mountain Division trained there between 1942 and 1944. The division’s activities included both Alpine and Nordic skiing, mountain climbing, and cold-weather survival such as working in high-altitude, low-oxygen conditions and combat in deep snow. During training, the camp, which is nestled between Leadville and Red Cliff, included over 1,000 buildings, parade grounds, and a weapons range. At its busiest, the camp housed some 15,000 soldiers who fought a decisive battle in Italy's Apennine Mountains, helping the Allied powers defeat Nazi forces on Riva Ridge and Mt. Belvedere after several setbacks.

“The German line, what they call the Gothic Line, had stalled the Allied advance for about six months, pretty much all across Italy,” said David Little, a historian at the 10th Mountain Division Foundation, which has supported the designation. “They were the last unit sent to the European theater. And their first combat was in February of 1945. The war ended for them in May, when the German soldiers surrendered in Italy. And in July and August, they came back to the United States.”

While conditions were harsh at Camp Hale, with winter temperatures frequently dipping below zero, some of the soldiers who trained at the camp eventually returned to call the valley home. With its multiple snowy peaks and long, cold winters, the area was perfect for soldiers seeking solitude and close proximity to outdoor recreation.

Among them were many adventurous individuals who are credited with establishing the modern ski industry, such as Pete Seibert, who is the founder of Vail Ski Resort. Other key figures include Friedl Pfeifer, Johnny Litchfield, and Walter Paepcke, who all played a role in establishing Aspen Ski Report; and Percy Rideout, who built Aspen's first ski school. Several other soldiers, like Dick Durrance, Walter Prager, and Gordon Wren, went on to become champion skiers. Others returned to become prominent public figures, like US senator and presidential candidate Bob Dole; Nike cofounder Bill Bowerman; and the Sierra Club's first executive director, David Brower, who also edited the Sierra Club Bulletin.

“There’s both the story of World War II there, but then, part of what I think is so powerful … is that so many of those veterans came back to Colorado and founded really what became our modern ski industry today,” Stevens said. “Those veterans are the reason that Vail exists, and Breckenridge and Arrowhead and all of the major ski resorts that are in the central mountains in Colorado. Almost all of those can tie their history to the 10th Mountain Division.”

After the war, the Central Intelligence Agency also used the camp as a secret training ground. By the late 1950s, a group of veterans had formed the 10th Mountain Division Foundation. The organization played a major role in establishing the first memorial near Tennessee Pass, a mountain top near Camp Hale. Called the Tennessee Pass memorial, the red granite slab includes the names of 1,000 soldiers who died in battle. Many of the buildings in the campsite were eventually disassembled by the late 1960s, but the deep connections for veterans remained.

Other than honoring the history of this key wartime training ground, national monument designation will preserve the natural integrity of the Eagle River Valley, which lies within the White River National Forest—2.3 million acres of fir, spruce, and pine that includes 10 mountain peaks over 14,000 feet, eight wilderness areas, and four major reservoirs. Today’s announcement also included the proposed mineral withdrawal of 225,000 acres in the Thompson Divide. While pre-existing leases won’t be affected, new leases will be prohibited.

Notably, the designation and withdrawal will protect the areas from future mining and drilling that could degrade the environment. The protections will also ensure that the areas receive much-needed funding for restoration, interpretive learning, and improved public access.

“This was so much about the landscape, be it the mountains, be it the type of training they were doing, the type of training that then, in turn, influenced the outdoor recreation, outdoor industry,” said Nancy Kramer, the president of the 10th Mountain Division Foundation. “It's about the people. It's about the people and the place.”

The campaign to ask President Biden to use the Antiquities Act to create the monument has been a top priority among conservation groups, local associations, and outdoor recreation groups in Colorado. This past August, Senators John Hickenlooper and Bennet met with Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to visit the camp. During that visit, the leaders floated this as a way forward to protect the area, said a representative from Bennet's team. The visit was one of the first signs that the Biden administration had an interest in using his power under the Antiquities Act. After that visit, Colorado leaders wrote to the president, urging him to create a national monument to honor the camp.

The Vet Voices Foundation sent a follow-up letter to President Biden requesting that he designate the site as a national monument. Over three dozen like-minded groups cosigned the letter, including the 10th Mountain Division Foundation.

“We recognize and thank you for making the conservation of America’s public lands and waters a priority by committing your administration to the important goal of conserving 30% of this nation’s lands and waters by 2030,” the letter reads. “Your ‘America the Beautiful’ Initiative has made strides over the past 18 months, and designation of Camp Hale–Continental Divide National Monument will contribute to this goal.”

The monument will continue to be managed by the US Forest Service. Those who advocated for the bill hope that the designation will generate a management plan, Kramer said. She hopes the designation will boost recognition and offer the public increased opportunities for learning and recreation.

“I'd say this announcement is incredibly exciting,” Representative Joe Neguse told Sierra. “It's exciting for Colorado, for all Coloradans, and for all Americans who enjoy public lands and who'd like to see our treasured landscapes preserved.”