- Associated Press - Saturday, September 13, 2014

FLAT TOPS WILDERNESS AREA, Colo. (AP) - A spark can be a curious thing.

There are those, such as the lightning strike hitting the once tall, thick timber surrounding Trappers Lake in the summer of 2002, that burst spontaneously and uncontrollably into flame. By the time that blaze expired, some 17,000 acres of the White River National Forest were reduced to ash.

Then there are the sparks that smolder, the glowing embers that must be fanned before catching fire. With the proper guidance and perseverance, they can offer a unique aesthetic and natural complement to the prevailing landscape.

Curiously enough, Trappers Lake, tucked away at 9,600 feet in the Flat Top Mountains southwest of Steamboat Springs between Meeker and Yampa, is renowned for both sorts of sparks. Signs of the Big Fish fire of 2002 remain throughout the dramatic landscape of soaring volcanic cliffs and pristine waters. The lingering reminder might be directly traced to the flash of insight by former Denver resident and original U.S. Forest Service “recreational engineer” Arthur Carhart, whom many credit with igniting America’s wilderness movement.

As the story goes, Carhart was assigned to spend the summer of 1919 laying out plans for a new road and several cabins surrounding the 300-acre Trappers Lake, second only to Grand Lake among Colorado’s largest natural lakes. Sharing camp with local outfitter and outdoorsman Paul J. Rainey, Carhart found courage and inspiration in a fireside conversation.

“Do you have to circle every lake with a road?” Rainey asked. “Can’t you bureaucrats keep just one superb mountain lake as God made it?”

Recognizing their shared belief, Carhart returned to Denver with a new perspective on land management. He persuaded his superiors that Trappers Lake was an irreplaceable resource that should be preserved in its natural state for all the public to appreciate. Development plans were abandoned, and the first-of-its-kind protection of Trappers Lake served as a watershed moment that many consider the beginning of the federal Wilderness Area program.

“Colorado is the flashpoint of the Wilderness Act, and Arthur Carhart was the man,” said Holly King, owner of Trappers Lake Lodge, which sits just outside the Flat Tops Wilderness Area boundary. “He was the one who identified the primitive area and that it should be protected, although it took a long time to get to the Wilderness Act. But somebody had to have the idea. It’s a shame he’s not given more credit for what he accomplished.”

Carhart’s unprecedented vision of outdoor recreation and the social value of wilderness as spiritual rejuvenation led the previously utilitarian Forest Service to establish the Flat Tops Primitive Area in 1932, now considered the “Cradle of Wilderness.” The flame was fanned by conservationist Aldo Leopold and ultimately recognized by a nearly unanimous Congress as the Wilderness Act of 1964, signed by President Lyndon Johnson 50 years ago.

“The people who passed this bill 50 years ago were incredibly foresighted and helped us by giving us a mechanism over the years to protect areas that are incredibly important to our culture, our way of life and our traditions,” U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado said on the anniversary of the Wilderness Act. “In Colorado we’ve learned that outdoor recreation is one of the things that drives our economy and our quality of life, and we also know how to create balance, I think.”

Although many nations have subsequently protected areas modeled after the Wilderness Act, the U.S. was the first country in the world to define and designate wilderness areas through law. While setting aside public land “where man himself is a visitor who does not remain” has become increasingly controversial through the past half century, the Wilderness Act remains one of the most successful U.S. environmental laws, offering protection to nearly 110 million acres of public land without a substantial amendment.

Today, the National Wilderness Preservation System encompasses 758 wilderness areas in 44 states and Puerto Rico. Here in Colorado, about 3.6 million acres of wildlands have been set aside, including the sublime landscapes of the Maroon Bells near Aspen, the Indian Peaks along the Front Range, the Weminuche in southwest Colorado and, of course, the 235,214-acre Flat Tops Wilderness spanning portions of the Routt and White River national forests.

With readily accessible Trappers Lake serving as the main attraction just a quarter mile from the Wilderness Area boundary, the landscape remains preserved much the way Carhart first viewed it, chiseled by wind and water, tempered by fire.

Among the insights Carhart offered the conservation community through the years was the importance of sportsmen to the success of an effective environmental coalition, understanding that they are ultimately striving for the same result. Perhaps nowhere else is the union more evident than Trappers and the Flat Tops Wilderness.

The lake remains the state’s top breeding ground for native Colorado River cutthroat trout and serves as an important spawn-taking site for wildlife managers. The surrounding forest is home to the largest elk herd in North America, sharing the expanse with mule deer, moose, bears and mountain lions. Big game hunters annually vie for a limited number of licenses, and Trappers Lake Lodge has a waiting list for its 15 cabins and six wilderness hunting camps accessible only on horseback through the second rifle season in late October, when snow typically forces them to close.

Among the fishermen, hunters, hikers and horseback riders making use of Trappers’ vast trail network, the recreational benefits of wilderness are readily evident. Less obvious are the benefits of biological diversity and scientific study in a largely undisturbed natural laboratory, where man’s impacts have been limited over time. Wilderness sites are home to Colorado’s cleanest air and water, with wild animals their only permanent residents. Even natural wildfires are allowed to run their course.

In recognition of that value, state political leaders ranging from Sens. Bennet and Mark Udall to U.S. Reps. Scott Tipton, Jared Polis and Diana DeGette all have wilderness proposals for worthy regions of the state lingering in various stages of the legislative process.

“After 50 years, we know that conserving our wilderness is the right thing to do for our wildlife, for our vibrant recreation economy and to sustain our unique Colorado quality of life,” said Pete Maysmith, executive director of Conservation Colorado. “However, as our state grows and pressures on our public lands continue, there is more work to be done. Colorado has several wilderness bills including Browns Canyon, Hermosa Creek and Central Mountains waiting for permanent protection.”

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Information from: The Denver Post, https://www.denverpost.com

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