Tempestuous political winds are blowing through Colorado's busiest forest.

Teddy Roosevelt established fourteen new national forest "reserves" in Colorado between 1902 and 1907. Under the leadership of legendary conservationist Gifford Pinchot, the Forest Service managed the forests as a publicly owned resource. Ranchers had to apply for permits to graze cattle, lumber companies were required to get approval for cuts, and illegal fences were taken down. By the end of 1908, the government had placed 15.7 million acres of Colorado land in the forest system, but many Coloradans were outraged by the idea that a federal bureaucracy was telling them what to do.

In 1907, a Public Land Convention was held in Denver. Western politicians and others gathered to berate the federal government, Chief Forester Pinchot and Interior Secretary James Garfield.

"My home is in the Reserve, and I earn my bread with a little ten-horse power sawmill, running the saw myself," one high country resident wrote in a letter to Roosevelt. "If you wonder why I object to the Reserve, it is because I love liberty, hate red tape, and believe in progress. I like self government, but to be placed under a bureau and in a Reserve is too much like going back to the kind of government you impose upon your Indians."

Even bicycles can damage the forest ecosystem.
Even bicycles can damage the forest ecosystem.

In many ways, today's fight over the future of the White River forest is a similar one. The political fallout is every bit as fierce as it was a hundred years ago and once again involves a Western politician who is opposed to a changing federal policy, although this time it is the Democrats who are trying to preserve the forest.

Sloan Shoemaker, conservation director for the Aspen Wilderness Workshop, believes many of the opponents of the Forest Service plan are clinging to the past, when Colorado was sparsely populated and it was easy to embrace the anything-goes ethos of the Wild West. "When there were fewer people the land could absorb the ramifications of people being able to do whatever they wanted to do," he says. "Now we know there are real limits we must operate within if we're going to keep the ecological system intact."

And even though most environmentalists are backing Alternative D, many of them are disappointed that it calls for only 43,000 acres of new wilderness areas. "Our inventory shows there are 300,000 acres of land available for wilderness in the forest," Shoemaker says. Most of the current wilderness in the White River forest is at high elevations and is frozen much of the year. Shoemaker says lower-elevation land that supports abundant plant and animal life needs wilderness protection to keep the forest whole. But since this is the same terrain coveted by ski areas, timber companies, and ATV drivers, trying to preserve it is a constant battle.

"Ecosystems can't just adapt to whatever the political winds are," he adds. "We're at a crossroads in history where we're playing God. We're deciding what will be consumed and what will stay wild."

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