This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act and, in special series, we're focusing on one protected area in our backyard, the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.
It took the work of three tireless women to expand protection in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness near Aspen. In 1964, just the high mountain peaks became wilderness. So, the women, called the “Maroon Belles,” worked to more than double the size of the preserved area. Aspen Public Radio's Marci Krivonen tells their story.
It’s mid-day at Joy Caudill’s home near Carbondale. The 86-year-old pulls out a hand-drawn map and spreads it over the kitchen table.
"This was the original core area, which when they passed the Wilderness Act, they said we’ll protect it. But, they said, there are all kinds of areas around it that are roadless and it’s up to you to check them out and make recommendations," she says.
Caudill, along with Dottie Fox and Connie Harvey were excited when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Wilderness Act on September 3rd, 1964. Right away, more than 70,000 acres in the Maroon Bells/Snowmass area were protected. But, the women knew more land was worth preserving so they started the Aspen Wilderness Workshop.
"We had crews that would go out and tromp around and see what was out there and see if there were disqualifying features. So, it was really fun," says Caudill.
Long before Caudill advocated for wilderness, she played in it. As a child she and her family would spend summers in Aspen, hiking, horseback riding and fishing.
"We hiked a lot in the Buttermilk area. There was no ski area then, so we just knew the area."
One day on a hike to Cathedral Lake, a loud noise cut through the still mountain air.
"There was someone I actually knew who was on a tote-gote, and tote-gote’s were motorized scooters. It made a horrendous noise that I could hear across the whole basin. And, that’s my first memory of thinking that something should be done."
A short drive from Carbondale is Connie Harvey’s home, on the banks of Castle Creek.
"We’ve had the occasional elk, we have deer here and lots of bird life," she says.
Harvey raised six kids on this land, not far from the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. Back then, she was also advocating for protection as one of the three “Maroon Belles” - a title she laughs at.
"That’s rather funny, I think. We never called ourselves that until we decided to participate in the Fourth of July parade. We got an old, funny looking car to ride in, the three of us. And, somehow that name was attached to us, and it stuck."
The three women became fast friends.
"Joy was my neighbor just across the river, and they had children about the same age as my children. So, we were very good friends and we had common interests in saving wilderness."
Dottie Fox, who died in 2006, joined the Aspen Wilderness Workshop shortly after it launched. She brought her understanding of political organizing, as well as her love of the environment.
The women, along with several other local supporters and volunteers, marked up maps, hiked miles of trails, came up with recommendations and even went to Washington.
"You lobby everybody, and especially your Congressmen. This is as true today as it was then - you have to have both senators and your congressman supporting a wilderness bill for your district, or it just won’t happen."
There was push-back from Congress and from the timber industry and hunters, says Joy Caudill.
"There was a lot of propaganda against it. Like, we’re going to be locked out of all of this land. And, they weren’t locked out, they just couldn’t bring their four-wheeler’s."
Harvey says there were concerns from other groups too.
"The other people we worried about was the ski company and whether it would overdo it’s clear-cutting and expansion on the mountains. Because, of course, once it’s a ski area, it can’t be wilderness."
After nearly two decades of work, the additional acreage finally became Wilderness.
"So it was actually the kind of thing that was a success twenty years later, after the (passage of the) Wilderness Act."
More than 180,000 acres received protection, including Mount Sopris, and American and Cathedral Lakes. Now, the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness is the fourth largest such area in the state.
Not only did the Maroon Belles help expand the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, they secured protection for the Hunter-Fryingpan, Collegiate Peaks, Ragged Mountains and the West Elk Wilderness.
But, there are still places in Western Colorado, that younger generations believe need protection. Sloan Shoemaker has been fighting for Wilderness in areas around the White River National Forest since the late 1990’s.
"In the Wilderness movement it’s always been known that we need to be patient and persistent and persevere because it takes a long time. It’s never been easy and I think it’s a little harder now."
Shoemaker is the current director of what’s now called the Wilderness Workshop. Since its inception in the 1960’s, he says things have changed. Instead of battling logging and hard rock mining, Wilderness supporters deal with natural gas drilling, population growth and a gridlocked congress.
"There’s been less Wilderness moved of late, certainly in the last decade or two decades, because of the challenges inherent in making Wilderness, but also because of our political divisions."
Wilderness advocate Connie Harvey says she supports the efforts of the organization she helped start. Across the country, she’d like to see more land protected.
"I’d like to see some other Wilderness places. They’re working on a lot of places that should be Wilderness but aren’t yet," she says.
Harvey may no longer hike trails or lobby congress directly, but she continues to write letters to her elected representatives, appealing for more Wilderness.