Guest opinion: The next 125 years of the White River National Forest
One hundred and twenty-five years ago this month, Congress empowered President Benjamin Harrison to set aside forest reserves. The White River Timber Reserve was the second such tract of land established in the country and the first in Colorado. The movement and decisions that followed established what we now know as the White River National Forest.
Today, the White River National Forest spans 2.3 million acres and is the most visited and one of the most beloved national forests in the nation. The forest boundaries stretch from beyond the valley floor of the Roaring Fork, up and over the jagged cliffs of the Flat Tops, beyond the summit of Mount of the Holy Cross and the valley floor of Camp Hale and reach out toward the Continental Divide and the bowls of Arapahoe Basin and Breckenridge. The diversity of landscape and use is immense.
The forest has not been without controversy or change. In 1907, the White River Forest Reserve became the White River National Forest; an idea that was highly unpopular then and still is to some today.
While the idea of a “national forest” was unpopular and unprecedented at the time — even bordering on radical — what the actions of the likes of Gifford Pinchot and Theodore Roosevelt established is something bigger and something to commemorate. National forests are a place to exercise a shared vision of democracy, or to use Pinchot’s words, a place conserved for “the greatest good, to the greatest number, in the long run.”
If you look around the White River and the thriving communities that surround it, you can see this vision realized by those who have come together and engaged in the future of the forest and by default the future of their communities.
It seems the White River has always teetered on the line of preservation and progress within its multiple-use mission. Entire communities and industries have been created around this land. Traditional uses such as timber, mining and grazing are visual reminders of the history and continue to provide important economic contributions locally. These uses have also made room for new focus areas on the forest: activities like recreation and ideas like wilderness preservation.
The history is storied, that is certain. The White River was a training ground for elite military forces for World War II that later led to the establishment of major resorts and the ski industry in the area. The forest is the home of the “Cradle of Wilderness,” eight wilderness areas and 10 peaks over 14,000 feet tall. There is no question it is a place and point of inspiration for so many bold ideas from bold people.
Given this history, what does the next 125 years look like? The White River is experiencing declining budgets and decreased staff capacity to manage the most-visited national forest in the nation. Some of you may have noticed that our trails need help and our facilities are in a state of disrepair. We increasingly rely on ingenuity, innovation, partners and volunteers to deliver basic services.
While I paint what seems to be dismal picture about the state of affairs for the White River as an organization, I also am very hopeful about the next 125 years. I see a committed current and future workforce of Forest Service employees who deeply value serving the public and caring for the land. I also see communities, members of the public, partners, volunteers and elected officials who are solution-oriented and dedicated to finding possibility, creating opportunity and helping us as managers make sound decisions.
Finally, I am hopeful for the people coming after us. I am hopeful that by working together we can pass on to future generations a sense of ownership and stewardship and also a sense of the importance of this place. The transfer of knowledge, the teaching of this history and the continued engagement of the public will be critical to ensuring the next 125 years of the White River National Forest is managed and cared for with the greatest good in mind.
Scott Fitzwilliams is forest supervisor for the White River National Forest.
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