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I was two weeks into my first thru-hike of the Colorado Trail, which, in those distant days, was as much a theoretical concept as it was a continuous stretch of tread connecting Denver to Durango. The first guidebook had yet to be published. Map, compass, and leaps of orientational faith were required to stay on the route in those pre-GPS days.
After a toe-crunching descent from 12,000-foot Kokomo Pass—behind Copper Mountain Ski Resort—the trail snaked past a series of crumbling concrete buttresses. Most architectural relics in the Colorado high country date to the late 19th century, but these angled stone walls clearly post-dated the mining era. They stood in a verdant meadow, abutting a steep mountainside splashed with conifers. If there was any interpretive signage nearby, it was well hidden.
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At that point, I had no idea the nature of the ground that lay beneath my feet. Turns out, I was walking through the heart of Camp Hale, which once served as the main training ground for as many as 15,000 elite cold-weather warriors who helped turn the tide of World War II. Those soldiers were members of what came to be known as the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division, members of which, upon returning home from bloody combat missions in Italy’s Apennine and Po Valley campaigns, laid the groundwork for what has evolved into Colorado’s world-class ski industry. According to the 10th Mountain Division Foundation, Camp Hale vets were involved in the creation and management for more than 60 resorts—including Vail Ski Resort, Aspen Snowmass Ski Resort, Keystone Resort, and Arapahoe Basin Ski Area.
In 1992, shortly after I passed through on my Colorado Trail hike, Camp Hale was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Interpretive signage soon followed, but not much else. What was left of the original infrastructure was left to languish, the weeds growing higher and those buttresses slowly disintegrating into the earth.
That will change at 1:30 p.m. on October 12, as President Joe Biden is expected to formally memorialize the camp’s legacy by declaring it—along with another nearby parcel—the nation’s newest national monument. The designation will protect the land from future development and mineral extraction while institutionally enshrining the memory of those who trained there and who subsequently fought and died in the war against fascism.
Soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division, which was started in November 1941, began reporting in November 1942 to Camp Hale, where they were blessed with tall mountains and plenty of snow upon which to train. “The purpose of the division was to fight in hostile mountainous terrain like the Germans, Italians, French, English, Greek, Russian, and Finnish armies had done,” says David Little, 10th Mountain Division Foundation historian. “The U.S. [Army] at the time had no real cold-weather or mountain capacity.”
Of the 15,000 soldiers who trained at Camp Hale, 1,000 were killed in combat. Another 4,000 were wounded. A 30 percent casualty rate serves as a clear indication of the intensity of the battles in which the 10th Mountain Division engaged. Given the sacrifices of its members and the legacy of the 10th Mountain Division, it would seem a no-brainer that the Camp Hale site would have garnered some manner of federal land protection. But the path to national monument status has not been smooth.
The two components of the new national monument—Camp Hale and a section of Tenmile Range along the Continental Divide—have for some years been part of a much larger legislative package called the Colorado Outdoor Recreation & Economy (CORE) Act, which itself consists of multiple parcels. For more than a decade, a long list of supporters that includes 26 governmental entities and more than 200 businesses has been working to get the CORE Act passed into law. The act, sponsored in its latest form by Colorado Senators Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper and Congressman Joe Neguse—with enthusiastic support from Governor Jared Polis—has been passed by the House of Representatives five times, but has never made it out of the Senate. It was reintroduced again last year.
The CORE Act consists of a potpourri of land-preservation components totaling more than 400,000 acres spread across the state, from the San Juan Mountains to Curecanti National Recreation Area to the Thompson Divide to Summit County. In the mix are new wilderness areas, wilderness expansions, mineral withdrawals, and the establishment of several “special management areas.”
There has been predictable opposition. Congresswoman Lauren Boebert, for instance, while not addressing Camp Hale specifically, in June called the CORE Act, “a partisan land-grab promoted by big-city Democrats who aren’t affected by the land-use bureaucracy that they are shoving down rural Colorado’s throat.” This, despite the fact that every facet of the act, including the Camp Hale parcel, consists of land already under federal ownership.
In August, Bennet, Hickenlooper, Neguse, and Polis signed a letter that urged President Biden to use the Antiquities Act of 1906 to designate at least part of the CORE acreage—20,000 acres encompassing Camp Hale and an additional 10,000 acres atop the Tenmile Range—to form the Camp Hale–Continental Divide National Monument.
The Antiquities Act, which was signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, gives presidents the authority to create, by proclamation, national monuments from lands already held by the federal government to protect significant cultural, natural, or scientific features. One-hundred-and-sixty-one national monuments have been created by presidents through the Antiquities Act to date, including at least one by every president except for Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Bush Sr. Some of our national parks—including Colorado’s Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve—began as national monuments through the Antiquities Act.
But this method, too, has its opponents, who say the process skirts due process and amounts to presidential overreach. (Of the country’s 129 current national monuments—most of which are administered by the National Park Service—only 40 were created by Congress.) Among them is President Donald Trump, who, in 2017, ordered a review of the boundaries of 27 national monuments established by use of the Antiquities Act. He notably reduced the Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument, established by President Bill Clinton in 1996, and Bears Ears National Monument, established by President Barack Obama in 2016, despite the fact that the Antiquities Act does not grant the power to undo the establishment of a national monument by previous presidents.
Biden restored the original boundaries of Grand Staircase–Escalante and Bears Ears in October 2021. The Camp Hale–Continental Divide will be Biden’s first use of the Antiquities Act to establish a new national monument.
Although the president is expected to make the designation on Wednesday, there are still numerous questions regarding the specifics of the Camp Hale–Continental Divide National Monument. It is likely that the new designation will include a 29-mile section of the Colorado Trail and Continental Divide Trail, but the monument’s borders, exact acreage, budget, and management plan have not yet been determined. This isn’t unusual when a new monument is established so swiftly with presidential use of the Antiquities Act.
Keith Baker, a two-term Chaffee County commissioner, was active in the establishment of Colorado’s last national monument designation: 22,000-acre Browns Canyon, which lies within the Arkansas River corridor between Buena Vista and Salida. Browns Canyon was signed into national monument protection by Obama using the Antiquities Act in 2015, but “the process actually began with an inventory conducted during the Carter administration,” he says. “The desire was to establish the monument legislatively, but there was opposition.”
Likewise, the potential Camp Hale–Continental Divide National Monument has been in the works for a while—“more than a decade,” says Pitkin County Commissioner Greg Poschman, whose father served in the 10th Mountain Division and fought in Italy. Still, the swift designation doesn’t mean there will be swift action to make it a beacon for visitors. When Biden establishes it as a new national monument, Camp Hale will not magically and instantaneously morph into a well-coiffed and well-developed tourist destination with electric outlets, picnic tables, and restroom facilities. (Currently, there are no mining or real estate development proposals on the land, which is part of the White River National Forest. There is one under-developed Forest Service campground with pit toilets, a few parking areas, and some signage, but that’s about it.)
“We hope that this new monument can become a draw to all who use and visit Colorado mountains,” says Little, of the 10th Mountain Division Foundation. “We trust the Forest Service will be able to continue to support the site with road maintenance, care, and interpretive signage for visitors. But, as with all mountain sites, we don’t want to destroy the nature of the area with major construction projects.”
Whether or not there are eventually vault toilets or picnic tables or interpretive trails, Camp Hale is one of those Centennial State landmarks that not enough Coloradans fully understand. Poschman’s father, Sgt. Harry W. Poschman, penned an as-yet-unpublished book about his experiences with the 10th Mountain Division at Camp Hale and in Italy. It contains graphic descriptions of the intensity of the training and the horrors of combat. I was fortunate enough to read the manuscript and came away with a DNA-level understanding of two things: First, why the men and women from that era are often described as America’s Greatest Generation, and second, why Camp Hale deserves national monument designation.