On a late summer afternoon I sat at my campsite in the middle of the Weminuche Wilderness. I pulled up the hood of my jacket and braced myself against the flashes of lightning that drove a hard rain from gray rolling clouds. Pushed by a 20-mile-an-hour wind, the droplets pelted my primitive campsite and the temperature dropped by 15 degrees in just a few minutes.
I’d watched and listened to the storm move in for an hour – the low rumble of distant thunder growing louder by the minute, the clouds building high and white and then dropping menacingly to low and black, obscuring the surrounding peaks. I flinched at a sudden flash, followed by the piercing crack of thunder.
For 20 minutes the storm covered the area, and then in about 15 minutes it melted down the valley. Trailing raindrops caught by the rays of the sun transformed into a sparkling prism, producing a rainbow across the valley. Remnant clouds were colored gold, pink and silver.
I sat transfixed by the spectacle. A couple of hawks circled nearby, a half-dozen deer browsed in the meadow below camp, birds and frogs called, a light wind rustled the tall grass.
Had I been near home as the storm approached, I would have rushed inside to avoid the onslaught. But here, at the headwaters of the Pine River, 25 miles from the trailhead, I sat with the deluge, felt the rushing air, absorbed the sounds and inhaled the aftermath.
This short episode illustrates just one of the reasons that I and thousands of other people venture to places like this. I whispered a short homage, thanking those responsible for working to set aside land in America as wilderness. I reveled in the reality that, in wilderness, all travel is by foot or on horseback. No mountain bikes, no four-wheelers, no motorcycles, nothing mechanized, and with any luck, no cellphone service.
This year we are celebrating these wild places.
In 1964, 50 years ago, federal legislation passed that allowed the establishment of wilderness areas. Conservationists, equipped with incredible foresight, recognized that great expanses of roadless areas, mostly in the West, should be preserved. The words in the Wilderness Act provide the clearest description of their vision:
“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
A push to establish wilderness in Colorado started as soon as the act was passed. In 1974, the state’s largest wilderness area was established right next door to Durango. Today, the Weminuche Wilderness encompasses nearly 500,000 acres and is accessed by 45 trailheads in an expanse that crosses the Continental Divide, sprawls over parts of four counties, two national forests (San Juan and Rio Grande) and stretches for nearly 100 miles from end to end.
Altogether in Colorado, 3.5 million acres are preserved in 41 wilderness areas, including the nearby 60,000-acre San Juan Wilderness south of Pagosa Springs and the 40,000-acre Lizard Head north of Dolores.
While the statistics offer a method to quantify the ideal, the feelings and words of those who travel into the wilderness provide the true meaning of these unique places.
Ann Rapp, a longtime La Plata County resident and owner of Rapp Corral, has been leading horse-pack trips into the Weminuche for more than 30 years. She speaks with elegance and respect for the wild country.
“The wilderness is something that is felt; it has to be experienced to understand what it truly is. Life slows down, my awareness heightens,” Rapp says. “But it is not all sunshine and bliss; it has every element in it to kill you.”
Wild places held the same allure for a man named Howard Zahniser, who came of age in the early 20th century and revered his home forests along the Allegheny River in Pennsylvania. While many people at the time recognized the importance of preserving wild lands, Zahniser worked as its unrelenting champion. In 1956, as president of the Wilderness Society, he drafted the original language for the Wilderness Act and worked with other conservation organizations for eight years to push the legislation through Congress. The legislative language was rewritten 65 times before it was signed into law.
Zahniser patiently worked the political grist mill, and while he was confident that the legislation would be passed, he didn’t live to see it. On May 5, 1964, Zahniser died of a heart attack; on Sept. 3, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the act into law.
Today, more than 757 wilderness areas in 44 states and Puerto Rico encompass 110 million acres of land managed by the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Land Management. These lands draw millions of visitors a year – backpackers, day hikers, anglers, researchers, naturalists, peak-baggers and hunters. Still, wilderness encompasses less than 3 percent of the land area of the Lower 48.
The Weminuche, one the most-visited wilderness areas in Colorado, attracts thousands of people annually. The spectacular peaks, glacial river valleys, alpine lakes and splendid quiet provide backcountry travelers with scenery and solitude that rivals any place on Earth.
The benefits of wilderness, however, go far beyond recreational pleasures.
Scott Wait is a senior terrestrial biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife in Durango. His job is to keep track of big-game herds and keep an eye on other animals, such as mountain lions, lynx and wild turkeys.
In the mid-1990s, the state agency, in cooperation with the Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service, made the decision to reintroduce Canada lynx to Colorado. These 30-pound cats with feet that resemble snowshoes thrived in Colorado a century ago and are uniquely suited to the high altitude of the Rocky Mountains. When it came time to transplant the lynx from Canada, agency biologists picked the Weminuche as the release site. The choice was easy: solitary lynx need large, undisturbed areas in which to roam, and they thrive in deep snow.
“I look at most of the land that’s available to wildlife and almost all of it is dominated by humans, it’s been disturbed,” Wait says. “But wilderness provides a unique environment. Natural processes are allowed to occur; animals aren’t constantly threatened by human disturbance.”
Natural processes include such things as avalanches, beaver dams, blow-downs of trees, raging torrents of water and rock slides. Those processes naturally create niche habitats that support everything from bighorn sheep to insects to all variety of high-altitude plants.
“You don’t see that happening in altered habitats. The seclusion, the peace and quiet, that’s the purpose of wilderness,” Wait says. “Wilderness is a place of low disturbance, and that is important for wildlife. Animal behavior is totally natural and relaxed. We can watch those animals for long lengths of time. But then we leave, we’re visitors.”
Hundreds of miles of streams flow through the Weminuche and most wilderness areas. Almost all those streams support dozens of species of aquatic insects, which in turn support healthy populations of trout. Stream banks are unaltered so they naturally support riparian vegetation essential for animals and insects.
Of course, all that cool, clear, clean water doesn’t just stay in the mountains. The Weminuche and every other wilderness area in Colorado act as massive reservoirs, collecting water in the form of snow during the winter and releasing it during spring and summer. The water provides domestic supplies for cities and towns, irrigation for farms and ranches, and replenishes the lower elevation rivers, such as those in Southwest Colorado – the Animas, Piedra, Pine, San Miguel, Dolores and San Juan.
As the sun set on the camp that day, I remembered other wilderness experiences: being unexpectedly surrounded by a herd of elk; staring in wonder at 100-foot-tall old growth ponderosa pines; diving into the frigid waters of alpine lakes; standing in the cool mist created by waterfall; and floating on raft through remote canyons.
What a privilege to spend time, simply, in these wild places, and to know that 50 years from now, some other wilderness traveler will camp in this same spot and observe, feel, breathe-in and gaze at the same wonders.
Joe Lewandowski, a resident of Durango, has been reveling in the wilderness of the West since 1977. He is the public information officer for Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s southwest region.