Running between evergreen pines as tall as two-story buildings, staring down a footprint-less trail coated in new snow, Clare Gallagher stops short. She’s only a few miles from her grandparent’s house in Summit County, Colorado and near the often-choked Interstate 70 that slashes east-west across the state. But even here, in the mere periphery of the Eagle’s Nest Wilderness, there’s stillness. Nothing but her raspy cold-air breath disturbs the frosted forest’s muted charm, what Gallagher calls “earth raging magic.”
“Winter in the trees after snow is a mystical fairyland,” she says, explaining how she first discovered the wild-magic as a lanky-limbed kid in suburban Denver, driving into the mountains with her family on weekends and exploring the wilderness around Summit County—home to the destination ski resorts and hiking meccas scattered between Vail and Eagle. It was in that terrain that Gallagher trained to win the infamous Leadville 100-mile trail running race in 2016. “Honestly,” she says, “this is the place that taught me what trail running is, this place created the foundation of my career.”
Over the past year, though, the wild-magic has ignited Gallagher’s senses in a new way. In January 2018, Colorado Senator Michael Bennet and Representative Jared Polis jointly introduced the Continental Divide Wilderness, Recreation, and Camp Hale Legacy Act to Congress. The bill came on the dawn of the outdoor recreation industry’s multi-million dollar trade show’s debut in Denver, which, after twenty years, left Utah in favor of Colorado when Beehive state officials supported Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s review of public lands (and his eventual, controversial decision to reduce Bears Ears National Monument). If passed, Bennet and Polis’ proposal would grow the Eagle’s Nest Wilderness in addition to adding more slivers of wilderness, wildlife conservation and recreation management areas along the Continental Divide, in and around Summit and Eagle Counties. In total, it would re-designate nearly 100,000 acres of public land, including the creation of the nation’s first National Historic Landscape at Camp Hale, the roughly 28,000-acre swath of terrain where the 10th Mountain Division trained in preparation for World World II.
[blockquote3]Though land fights like Bears Ears have become national red-blue flash pointes, many of the wilderness conversations that take place every year as new bills are vetted and proposed instead boil down to a much more human scale clash between motorized and non-motorized recreationists.[/blockquote3]
“To not preserve [more of that area] is ridiculous,” Gallagher tells me one recent morning, shaking her green tea basket out from its single-serving pot. She’s been using her status as a champion runner to campaign for the bill and for the preservation of American wilderness at large.
“I feel like it’s really my duty to be sharing what I’m seeing and the importance of preserving what we have,” she tells me. “That space [along the Continental Divide], it’s no small miracle we still have that in 2018; it’s like it could have been 500 years ago. And we want to keep it like that for people 500 years from now.”
But, there is one voice of dissent.
Years before Gallagher was even old enough to step foot on a trail, Scott Jones was navigating his snowmobile across terrain around Summit County, in and out of the White River National Forest, the same forest within which Eagle’s Nest and eight other wildernesses are contained. It’s also the country’s most popular National Forest, attracting over 12 million visits each year. Jones, the president of the Colorado Snowmobile Association, wishes more of those visitors could be fellow snowmobilers, but as it stands today, snowmobiling opportunities are only suitable and available in about 7 percent of the White River National Forest.
“Some areas up there are exceptional for snowmobiles,” he says. “Other areas would be exceptional.”
Jones has been legislating against wilderness designations for longer than he’d like to admit, he says, and he represents the only coalition of organizations publically lobbying against the Continental Divide bill. A letter he presented in March 2018 to Senator Bennet and Representative Polis on behalf of the Colorado Snowmobile Association, the Trail Preservation Alliance, and the Colorado Off-Highway Vehicle Coalition, details the motorized community’s concerns that increasing the amount of wilderness in the state will further reduce motorized recreation and stunt future growth of the industry, as motorized recreation is strictly not allowed in wilderness areas.
“With the state population growing the way ours is, we’re going to need to expand,” he explains to me. “We’re going to need to do it thoughtfully. … When it all gets designated as wilderness, it makes those types of discussions difficult.”
Though land fights like Bears Ears have become national red-blue flash pointes, many of the wilderness conversations that take place every year as new bills are vetted and proposed instead boil down to a much more human scale clash between motorized and non-motorized recreationists.
The town of Montezuma sits just outside one of the proposed areas outlined in the Continental Divide bill. Surrounding the 68-person town is ample terrain available for motorized recreation use. It also happens to be where Gallagher’s other set of grandparents live. “Snowmobilers are everywhere there,” she says. “They’re horrible—well, they’re not bad people, but one snowmobiler can ruin the whole experience; all it takes is one engine revving.”
Snowmobile noise can actually travel up to 10 miles, depending on speed, the type of machine, and wind conditions, according to the Winter Wildlands Alliance. And though 10 miles might be an easy run for Gallagher, it’s farther than most snowshoers or cross-country skiers care to do in a day. Plus, as Gallagher mentions, those trying to escape into the mountains on foot aren’t also looking to dodge emission clouds from snowmobiles, which emit carcinogens and pose dangers to human and wildlife health. There’s enough of that along the nearby Interstate as it is.
Once, while out on a winter run, Gallagher says, “I was under a snowmobiler going above me on a slope, and it was terrifying. They weren’t [taking into account] any of the avalanche danger.” Later that day, she heard an altercation between a snowmobiler and a skier—they were arguing about particular safety issues in the area. “It was terrifying.”
The Winter Wildlands Alliance also reports most winter backcountry trails have no posted speed limits and “the most powerful snowmobiles today have from 125- to 177- horsepower engines, allowing them to travel at very high rates of speed. Snowmobiles weigh up to 600 pounds, and many can travel at speeds in excess of 90 miles per hour.” Thus, a snowmobile traveling at such speed will move nearly 200 feet before being able to fully stop.
Jones, on the other hand, generally feels slighted and unheard. “We’ve been raising our concerns for quite a while,” he says, as the snowmobile population has been growing in tandem with the ski and snowshoe industries, but few new snowmobile areas has been added to any part of the state since his efforts began. Because snowmobiles can travel so far in a day (the average snowmobile outing is over 100 miles), they need an extensive network of trails and access points.
“To lose any acreage is concerning,” he says. “We’ve been really trying to get some balance in there.”
Wilderness is one of the strictest designations a piece of land can have, as it generally prohibits activities like timber harvesting, commercial activities unrelated to recreation, motorized access and permanent road or structure construction. As such, wildness bills can take years or even decades to pass in Congress, explains Scott Miller, the Southwest senior regional director of The Wilderness Society who has been involved in the fine-tuning of the Continental Divide bill for the past five years. The varied interest groups vying to use public land for different reasons—be it backpacking, hunting, snowmobiling or resource extraction—often are at odds.
This is where the story of this bill really sets itself apart. It seems that everyone, save the motorized recreators and the timber industry, are on board. No red-blue stalemate. No overt colonial oppression tactics. No desperate money grabs.
As Miller puts it, “This bill was designed through a collaborative process with forest health experts and fire managers that resulted in a constellation of designations that reflect wilderness and wildlife conservation and recreation management needs.”
“That’s [why] it’s such a robust bill in my mind,” Gallagher explains, listing examples of the industries in favor of the bill, illustrating its widespread support: Vail Mountain Bike Association, Colorado Backcountry Hunters and Fishermen, Sierra Club, Vail Resorts, Outdoor Industry Association and U.S. Army veterans, to name but a few of the hundred-plus supporters.
Julie Mach, conservation director for Colorado Mountain Club, an organization that’s been involved in the bill’s campaign since its inception, helps me think of the Continental Divide bill like the final link in a chain of natural jewels. “It captures the last iconic features in that area that aren’t already protected.”
As of 2018, Colorado contains more than 3.5 million acres of federally protected wilderness that’s spread between 41 separate areas. Every acre of wilderness in the U.S. originated as federally owned land and, at some point, was nominated for a wilderness designation either by a federal agency like the U.S. Forest Service or a grassroots conservation or sportsman’s organization. In order for land to receive a wilderness designation, it must be presented to and receive approval from Congress in accordance with the Wilderness Act of 1964—a bipartisan measure that was passed to assure increasing populations won’t “occupy or modify” all areas within the U.S. and to preserve the benefits of wilderness for present and future generations.
At the moment, at least nine states have wilderness bills pending in Congress. Colorado has three; one of which, now known as the Colorado Wilderness Act of 2018, has been reintroduced in different iterations at least every two years since 1999 by Congresswoman Diana DeGette. The Continental Divide bill is now in its fifth iteration after nine years of work, and 2018 is the first year Senator Bennet felt like he’d garnered enough support to join Representative Polis’ endeavor and also introduce the same version to the Senate.
Mach admits refereeing between different public land users isn’t easy, especially as the spaces are meant for all people to enjoy. While skiers and snowshoers claim motorized impacts of noise, exhaust and safety concerns have infiltrated opportunities for quiet and quality recreation, snowmobilers counter that their access to forest lands is slowly growing extinct. “It’s a challenging balance to strike between motorized land users and non-motorized users. At some point we have to think about what really makes the most sense for the landscape,” she says.
According to a 2015 analysis of motorized and non-motorized winter recreation opportunities in National Forest lands by the Winter Wildlands Alliance, participation in both motorized and non-motorized activities have double in popularity since the ‘80s. Within that, however, data shows that for every one snowmobiler visit to National Forest lands in Colorado, there are two cross-country/backcountry skier and snowshoer visits. In the White River National Forest, the report shows almost 9 times as many non-motorized users visit the forest than motorized, though there are slightly more than twice as many non-motorized acres. “The consequence of this disparate situation is unequal opportunity for skiers, snowshoers and other quiet winter recreationists when compared to OSV users and escalating conflict between motorized and non-motorized uses on National Forest land,” the report concludes.
In any case, Mach says, “Most acres [proposed in the Continental Divide bill] are not high priority for snowmobiles; it’s steeper slopes than most can’t get up.”
So, really, what’s the bill’s hold up? Can this wrestling match produce a winner? Jake Kuhn, a field director for Conservation Colorado, paints the bill’s current situation clearly: “I don’t think there will be any movement until after the [midterm elections],” he says. “There’s tons of local support, and now we’re just waiting for a hearing. Senator Gardner (Senator Bennet’s Republican counterpart) is kind of neutral right now, we want to keep him neutral and not push him towards opposing.”
Until then, Gallagher says, the fight to preserve her mountain backyard might not be so different from her other endurance efforts; it’s the land, ultimately, that suffers and someone needs to stand up for it. “This bill, even though its a wilderness preservation bill, it’s a climate change issue,” she says. “Even if there aren’t extraction industries in this area, making it so land can stay as-is is supporting climate change mitigation.
“If we start ripping these places up and not making it clear that there’s truly wild places left in this Front Range mountain mecca, we’re doing Colorado a disservice.”