We all know that Copper Mountain is one of the greatest places on earth. The powder arrives in steady storms throughout the winter and the skiing is unmatched. Summer is a long dream of sunny days. The people are friendly and active. All beneath breathtaking views of the Rocky Mountains.
But locals know that the bustle around Copper conceals one of its best-kept secrets: It is a gateway into the Eagles Nest Wilderness, on of Colorado’s wildest and most spectacular parcels of national forest.
The border to the 133,000-acre Eagles Nest Wilderness is right across Interstate-70 from Copper’s parking lots. Visitors wouldn’t know it from the nondescript hillside across the highway, but the Eagles Nest is a place of towering mountains, abundant wildlife and outstanding opportunities for solitude. Best of all, it is slated to stay that way forever. As a federally designated wilderness area, the Eagles Nest enjoys the strongest protections of all our public lands.
The Eagles Nest Wilderness surrounds Summit County’s Gore Range, a craggy upheaval separating the communities of Silverthorne, Frisco, Copper and Vail. This assembly of jagged peaks is among Colorado’s most abrupt and beautiful ranges. Below its dizzying headwalls like blue lakes that stair-step downward through broad valleys. The surrounding forests, largely spared the ravages of the mining era, contain regal stands of old-growth spruce and fir. They provide habitat for mountain goats, black bears, mountain lions, elk and several other species.
The Eagles Nest is real wilderness. Most of its peaks are unnamed, except to a loose confederation of brave mountaineers who have risked their lives to climb them and have then granted them their names. The Eagles Nest hosts several spectacular peaks with alpine summits of over 12,000 ft. Mt. Powell, being the highest, reaches an impressive height of 13,575 ft. But the Eagles Nest is not just for the extreme. With no roads and expansive forests, it is a place for solitude and exploration on all levels.
The U.S. Forest Service manages the Eagles Nest to retain its wild character. In keeping with this, permanent structures and mechanized equipment, including bicycles, are prohibited in the area. The agency allows such usage on many parts of the national forests, but in wilderness areas it encourages more primitive forms of recreation. For those that enjoy hiking, camping, cross-country skiing, fishing, hunting and other non-mechanized forms of recreation, the area holds a lifetime of adventure. In a place like Summit County, Colorado, where the sounds of mechanization are harder to escape each year, the Eagles Nest Wilderness provides essential opportunities for one to truly get away and relocate the inner self.
Wilderness: Wild, Alive and Democratic
The Eagles Nest is part of the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS), a network of wilderness areas that spans the country. The system got its start in the early 1920s, as a growing number of people pressured the Forest Service to refrain from building too many roads. It was an era of exploding automobile tourism and massive road-building.
Although the wilderness movement sprouted from all corners of the nation, one of its seminal events occurred not too far from Copper Mountain’s ski slopes. At a little-known place called Trappers Lake, in the Flattop Mountains of northwestern Colorado, the Forest Service conducted its first experiment in wilderness preservation.
In 1919 the Forest Service hired Arthur Carhart as its first landscape architect, mimicking the strategy of its rival, The National Park Service. The intention was to build recreational developments similar to wildly successful retreats created by the Park Service. But within a year, Carhart would lead the agency in the unexpected direction of wilderness preservation.
Arthur Carhart was young, energetic and loved the outdoors. One of his first assignments was to survey the forest surrounding Trappers Lake, where the Forest Service hoped to build a loop road and a string of cottages for automobile tourists.
Carhart spent weeks walking the woods around Trappers Lake. He completed his assignment in 1920, but submitted a recommendation that the lake be left alone. No roads, no cottages. To Carhart, the lake already offered prime recreational opportunities as virgin wilderness.
It was an odd recommendation in an age of bold mechanization. And it was unusual coming from within an agency that managed its lands for use, not for preservation. But Carhart’s supervisors took his recommendation. Trappers Lake was left alone and eventually declared a “primitive area.” It was the beginning of the National Wilderness Preservation System.
Meanwhile, a young Forest Service ranger in the southwest was urging the Forest Service to preserve much larger areas. Aldo Leopold was an avid hunter, fisherman and outdoorsman whose favorite pastime was setting out for a couple weeks in wild forests. He came to see the road-building associated with automobile tourism as a treat to that type of primitive recreation. In 1924, he convinced the Forest Service to set aside 500,000 acres around New Mexico’s Gila River as the nation’s first “wilderness area.”
Over his long conservation career, Aldo Leopold came to recognize the interconnectedness of plants, animals and wilderness. Wilderness preservation, he argued, was an essential part of any successful land management strategy. It benefited recreationists and nature alike.
Bob Marshall was another early wilderness advocate. With a boyish face, a goofy sense of humor and an unquenchable thirst for wilderness adventure, Marshall devoted his short life to wilderness preservation. He was a marathon hiker, often hiking more than 30 miles in a single day. He was also a Forest Service employee and during the 1930s he convinced the agency to set aside millions of acres as wilderness. He also wrote the agency’s first official wilderness policy. In 1935, he founded the Wilderness Society with Aldo Leopold and others. The group would become the driving force behind the creation of the NWPS.
To Marshall, wilderness preservation was a democratic imperative. He argued persuasively that the Forest Service would be undemocratic if it did not set aside some portion of its lands for the admittedly small population that preferred non-mechanized recreation.
In the decades after Marshall’s 1939 death, dedicated men and women kept the Wilderness Society alive. Perhaps non worked harder than Howard Zahniser. Zahnie, as his friends called him, devoted the last eight years of his life to passing a national wilderness bill. He was as tireless in the halls of Congress as Marshall was in the woods. He carried a copy of the wilderness bill wherever he went and spent long hours in the Adirondacks rewriting the bill. After sixty-six rewrites and eighteen congressional hearings, all attended by Zahniser, his bill made its final trip to Capital Hill in the summer of 1964. Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law that September, but Zahniser unfortunately died four months prior.
The solitude of the Eagles Nest Wilderness and the other more than 600 wilderness areas across the country rests on the work of these and other dedicated activists. In an era much less mechanized than our own, they anticipated our need for wilderness.
An Enduring Resource of Wilderness
The Wilderness Act is a nearly poetic piece of legislation that assures “to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.” It created the national Wilderness Preservation System and defined wilderness areas as places “with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable,” with no roads, structures or mechanized equipment. The areas were to be managed for “outstanding opportunities for solitude and a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.”
The law instructed the federal government to set aside parts of the national forests, parks and wildlife refuges to be managed as wilderness areas in accordance with the 1964 law. And it included guidelines for creating new wilderness areas. It stated that no area could be designated wilderness except by an act of Congress. In turn, no area could be stripped of its wilderness designation without an act of Congress. Together, the law’s provisions give wilderness areas the strongest protections of any public lands.
In September, 1964, the newly-created NWPS consisted of only nine million acres in fifty-four units. Today, the system comprises of 105 million acres, or 5% of the American landscape. Its 662 units are spread throughout all but six states. Most metropolitan areas are within a day’s drive of a wilderness area. Their management is split between the Forest Service, Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service and BLM.
The NWPS is as diverse as America itself. it stretches from the subtropical swamplands of Florida to the tundra of northern Alaska and from the baked deserts of southern California to the lush hardwoods of the northeast. It is democratic, as Bob Marshall desired, providing recreational opportunities for that part of the population that desires a non-mechanized experience. And its ecological benefits, foreseen by Aldo Leopold, are only beginning to be understood. Biologists increasingly look to wilderness areas to understand today’s most pressing land management issues, including clean water, clean air, invasive weeds and fire. Wilderness areas, safe from the adverse effects of roads, also provide some of the nation’s best wildlife habitat.