Garett Reppenhagen: The case for protecting Camp Hale's historic landscape

 ·  Garett Reppenhagen, The Daily Camera   ·   Link to Article

Growing up in Colorado, and being part of a family with a military tradition, I knew about Camp Hale. It wasn't until seeing the locations of World War II battles in Europe and hiking the training areas in the Rocky Mountains that I truly understood the amazing feats of the 10th Mountain Division. The mountain training center would have never been built in Colorado if it wasn't for the rugged landscape, high altitude, and severe climate.

When I heard about the proposal to extend wilderness and recreation areas throughout Colorado's Continental Divide, I joined the effort to include Camp Hale, because the lands challenged the 10th to become one of the most exceptional fighting forces the world has ever known.

The United States Army established Camp Hale in 1942 in Colorado — at 9,250 feet above sea level. The training area was named after the founder of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Colorado native Irving Hale. The base was used to train combat troops for alpine and high-altitude conditions. During WWII, the division used mountaineering and skiing skills to drive the German army out of the Alps of Northern Italy.

Camp Hale also played an important role in the development of the ski industry. After the war, the soldiers who trained at Camp Hale taught skiing and founded the ski resorts in Colorado's Continental Divide. Among the veterans, Peter Seibert developed the Vail ski resort, Friedel Pfeifer co-founded the corporation that developed Aspen, Laurence Jump opened Arapahoe Basin in 1946, and Bill Bowerman became a co-founder of Nike. Overall, the National Ski Hall of Fame has inducted 28 veterans of the 10th Mountain Division.

In 1965, the Army shut down Camp Hale and moved the 10th Mountain Division to Texas. Only one structure — a vault — remains standing today, although there are other ruins and eroded foundations visible on the ground. The U.S. Forest Service took over management of the area in 1966, designating it the Camp Hale National Historic Site.

In 2014, a group of stakeholders finalized a plan for comprehensive restoration of Camp Hale and the Eagle River headwaters. The goals are to restore river and aquatic health, repair wetland areas, remove non-native plants, and improve recreation. The Forest Service has started an environmental review of the plan.

I support a heightened designation of Camp Hale that would protect the surrounding environment and ecosystems, enhance the historic and educational value to visitors, and directly fund preservation of this national treasure.

As a member of the veterans' community, I care about the protection of America's public lands. These are the lands we love and swore to defend. A growing number of veterans are using the outdoors to help heal from the trauma of war. Our public lands and waters also inspire us to overcome physical injuries. These are the places we take our friends and families when we want to reconnect after long deployments overseas.

When I was serving as a sniper in Iraq, I would sometimes shut my eyes and dream about being home. It was the wilderness of Colorado's Continental Divide I imagined. The thoughts of serene vistas and majestic ranges kept me motivated for that next mission.

Recently, 275 Colorado members of my nonprofit organization, Vet Voice Foundation, signed on to a letter urging Sen. Bennet to include Camp Hale in the Continental Divide Wilderness and Recreation Act. That letter inspired the senator to announce his intent to protect Camp Hale on Memorial Day 2016 in front of a group of veterans that included WWII 10th Mountain Division heroes.

We are proud to include the designation of Camp Hale as a National Historic Landscape with the greater Continental Divide Wilderness and Recreation Act because the wide range of trail systems and connected huts that were used by the 10th Mountain Division fall into much of the already proposed wilderness and special management areas. Congressman Jared Polis has already introduced legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives, and Camp Hale is a welcomed addition.

As veterans, we fought to protect our country, including our precious public lands. We thank Sen. Bennet for supporting the conservation of the area in and around Camp Hale and we urge decision-makers on both sides of the aisle to protect this amazing landscape so that future generations may learn its significant history and enjoy its natural beauty.

Garett Reppenhagen is the Rocky Mountain director of the Vet Voice Foundation and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom with the U.S. Army 1st Infantry Division. He lives in Como in unincorporated Park County.