A military legacy loosens its grip on a landscape

In 1942, the U.S. Army transformed a valley near Leadville, Colorado, into training grounds for its 10th Mountain Division. The high altitude, climate and steep terrain prepared World War II troops for critical battles in the Italian Alps. At Camp Hale, as the area at the headwaters of the Eagle River became known, thousands of soldiers learned to ski, mountaineer and survive in harsh winter conditions.

To build the camp, the Army Corps of Engineers brought in millions of cubic yards of fill by rail car to flatten the valley bottom. The Corps straightened the river’s natural sinuosity into a ditch system and drained the surrounding wetlands. Today, the valley bears only a few remnants of the old garrison, including the pillars of a field house that proved difficult to dismantle when the rest of the buildings were leveled.

But the river remains straitjacketed, the valley flat. “It’s a testament to the engineering that it’s still that way today,” says Eagle-Holy Cross District Ranger Aaron Mayville, “but it’s not the most healthy ecosystem.”

Now, two parallel initiatives seek to restore the ecosystem while still honoring the site’s history. One is a conservation effort that seeks to improve the valley’s ecology and to better educate visitors. The other is the Continental Divide Wilderness and Recreation Act, which, in addition to creating new wilderness and other protections in Eagle and Summit Counties, would designate Camp Hale as the nation’s first National Historic Landscape.

The current restoration plan has been successful. Spearheaded by the National Forest Foundation, the nonprofit partner of the Forest Service, the project brought together more than 40 stakeholders, including veterans, recreation groups and water rights holders.

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