U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse speaks at an event celebrating the establishment of the Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument near Leadville on Oct. 12, 2022. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)
The site of a World War II training camp nestled high in the Continental Divide is officially Colorado’s newest national monument and the first to be created under President Joe Biden’s administration.
Flanked by Colorado’s top elected officials and veterans of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division, Biden signed a proclamation establishing the Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument in a ceremony held at the former training ground, located outside Leadville.
“When you think about the natural beauty of Colorado and the history of our country, you find it here,” Biden said. “Soaring peaks and steep canyons. Black bears, bald eagles, moose, mountain lions. Water falls, pristine rivers, alpine lakes. The scent of wildflowers at the right time of the year.”
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Camp Hale was built in 1942 as a training site for elite mountaineering troops, who were given instruction in climbing, skiing and cold-weather survival. Soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division, who dubbed the site “Camp Hell” for its grueling conditions, went on to play a critical role in the fight against Nazi troops in the mountains of northern Italy in early 1945.
The camp also proved pivotal in the history of skiing in Colorado. In the years after the war, many 10th Mountain Division veterans returned to the Rocky Mountains and, with the skills they’d learned at Camp Hale, helped build the state’s growing alpine skiing industry.
“Theirs is an extraordinary story,” said U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat who has championed protections for Camp Hale for a decade. “A deeply Colorado story, I think, Mr. President, of service, vision, entrepreneurship and an abiding connection to the outdoors and our public lands.”
Biden proclaimed the Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument using his authority under the Antiquities Act, the first time he has done so to establish a new monument. Last year, he used his authority to reestablish protections for the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante monuments in Utah.
Roughly half of Colorado’s new monument will consist of a noncontiguous area to the east of Camp Hale, in the Tenmile Range south of Frisco, for a total of 53,804 protected acres. Protections for the two areas were a part of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Economy — or CORE — Act, a Democratic-sponsored bill that has repeatedly passed the House of Representatives only to be blocked by Republicans in the Senate.
Biden also on Wednesday announced plans for a 20-year withdrawal of 220,000 acres in the Western Slope’s Thompson Divide area from oil and gas leasing. A permanent withdrawal was sought in the CORE Act.
Fate of the CORE Act
Other CORE Act components, however — including wilderness protections for several areas in the San Juan Mountains — remain in limbo, with little apparent chance of overcoming a GOP filibuster in the Senate. Democratic U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper, however, said that Democrats hadn’t given up on the bill.
“We’re going to get it done in the coming year,” he told the crowd assembled Wednesday. He credited Bennet with the push to establish the monument under the Antiquities Act.
“If we’re not going to get it done in the near term, when time is of the essence, where people and their families have been working so long to make this happen … why wait?” Hickenlooper said.
There was little sign Wednesday that Republicans have tempered their opposition to the CORE Act. In a lengthy statement, U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert of Silt blasted Biden for the Thompson Divide withdrawal, a process that will be overseen by the Department of the Interior. Advocates for the withdrawal say that while no current plans for oil and gas drilling in the Thompson Divide exist, the withdrawal is necessary to guard against future development.
“Rather than working on real issues like reducing inflation and improving the economy, Joe Biden came to Colorado today to unilaterally lock up hundreds of thousands of acres through the stroke of his pen and prevent Coloradans from using our public lands for activities that we want and need,” Boebert said.
Judy Fox-Perry and William Perry, ranchers in the Thompson Divide area who have campaigned for stronger protections against oil and gas development, said in a statement that Biden’s decision recognizes “the importance of this incredible landscape.”
“For over a decade, local communities in and around the Thompson Divide have collaborated to fight against oil and gas development because we understand the tremendous value this landscape holds for our agricultural and rural economies and wildlife habitat,” Fox-Perry and Perry said. “We’ll continue our efforts to protect this extraordinary place in every way we can.”
Rep. Joe Neguse, whose 2nd Congressional District includes the new monument, said it was a “historic day,” fulfilling a promise that he and other Colorado congressional leaders made to 10th Mountain Division veterans who spent years advocating for the area to be permanently protected.
“The service of the 10th Mountain Division will never — never — be forgotten,” he said.
Biden singled out Bennet for his years-long advocacy for the monument. “This guy, he made this finally happen,” he said.
The president offered the pens he used to sign the proclamation to two veterans of the 10th Mountain Division who were on hand for the ceremony. He lauded the division’s veterans for their heroism, including the unit’s famous assault on a fortified Nazi position in the Appenine Mountains, accomplished by scaling 1,500-foot cliff at night.
“Imagine. It’s pitch-black. The punishing cold. The mission high in the mountains that hinged on the skills, strength and stamina that could have only been gained in a place like this,” Biden said. “Imagine the courage, the daring, the genuine sacrifice they all made.”
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