White River National Forest is Colorado’s largest forest, and offers a lot
A number of years ago, a city-weary traveler was pulling off the road near the top of Vail Pass just as another road warrior was climbing back into his car.
A voice emanated from the car pulling off the road.
“What did you see?” asked the bodiless voice.
“Nothing, just trees,” came the bored reply, as the engine roared and the car pulled away.
Just trees? Hardly.
That seemingly endless view stretching before you from Vail Pass isn’t “just trees,” thank you.
It’s a view of the White River National Forest, a living example of where America’s national forests have been since the nation’s first forest preserve was founded in 1891.
And the forest, which at 2.3 million acres is the largest of Colorado’s 10 national forests, is likely a guiding light as to where the nation’s 155 national forests are going in the future.
The White River National Forest wasn’t the first forest preserve protected under the Land Revision Act of 1891. That singular honor went to another icon of the American West: The Yellowstone Park Timber Land Reserve, designated on March 31, 1891.
The White River Plateau Timber Reserve was set aside next, a few months after Yellowstone.
In 1905, the newly formed Forest Service took management of the area and the White River National Forest was here to stay.
In its 120 years of existence, the national forest has matured into a bustling place with recreational opportunities for everyone.
Each year, more than 9 million visitors collectively visit the forest’s eight wilderness areas, enjoy the winter wonderlands of its 12 ski resorts and wander the more than 2,500 miles of hiking, biking, horse and motorized travel trails.
It’s a “Vacationland” in its own right, and would take you all of this summer and a few more to see all the bounties waiting in the White River National Forest.
“Well, certainly the ski areas are one of the major draws to the White River National Forest, but we offer a wide range of recreational opportunities,” said White River spokesman Pat Thrasher. “From developed ski areas to remote wilderness, a lot of people come for different opportunities.
“It’s very hard to characterize all the visitors we see.”
Thrasher, a 37-year veteran of the Forest Service, can be forgiven his reluctance to characterize the “typical” visitor to the White River National Forest.
The forest’s 3,594 square miles makes it larger than 63 countries and both Delaware (2,489 square miles) and Rhode Island (1,545).
Its economic value reaches in the hundreds of millions of dollars each year, and if you live in Meeker, Kremmling, Glenwood Springs or the other towns that claim the forest as an economic resource, you understand what that land means to your lifestyle.
The forest reaches from the west end of the Eisenhower Tunnels to past Parachute and includes all or part of nine counties: Summit, Eagle, Pitkin, Garfield, Mesa, Routt, Rio Blanco and Moffat.
Mountain climbers have hundreds of peaks to choose from, including 10 of the state’s 54 peaks clawing the sky at 14,000 feet or more.
Those on horseback, whether on their own ride or taking advantage of the many guides and outfitters offering services, have a nearly endless selection to trails to wander.
Fishermen can choose from large reservoirs to backyard-sized ponds and from major rivers to one-step-and-you’re-across creeks, including some where you’ll find healthy populations of the state’s native trout.
And the fun doesn’t stop when the seasons change.
“Big-game hunting supplies a major segment of our visitors,” Thrasher said.
The elk herd in the White River section of the forest near Meeker, at close to 38,000 animals, is the nation’s largest elk herd.
Each fall, thousands of big-game hunters from Colorado and every state come to the forest to test their skills against elk, deer, pronghorn and moose.
Thrasher said the lack of major ski areas in the northwest part of the forest doesn’t detract from that area’s winter activities.
“That area is quite different from other parts of the forest in terms of recreation,” Thrasher said. “There aren’t any major ski areas but winter recreation remains an important part of the economy because of the snowmobiling up there.”
But the reality of managing one of the nation’s largest forest means facing the challenges of nature.
The 2002 wildfire season saw thousands of acres go up in smoke and included the deadly Coal Seam Fire that burned 12,229 acres in and around Glenwood Springs.
That same year, several fires combined to burn more than 22,000 acres in and around the Flat Tops Wilderness Area in the northeast tip of Garfield County.
The Big Fish Fire alone consumed more than 17,000 acres around Trappers Lake and took with it the historic Trappers Lake Lodge, which has since been rebuilt and is open for business.
Today, hikers, climbers, horseback riders and anglers will find much of the burned area full of new growth, although there the countless dead trees stand in mute testimony to the forces of Mother Nature.
Similarly, the current epidemic of mountain pine beetle is remaking how visitors and managers see the White River National Forest.
“There is some concern that the mountain pine beetle is significantly changing the charge of the forest,” Thrasher said. “A lot of the mature trees are dying and as those standing dead trees mature, there is increased risk of them falling or being blown over.”
Which means more responsibility on the part of forest visitors.
Acknowledging that outdoor recreation has some inherent risks, Thrasher said visitors need to be aware of where they park and where they camp.
“People love to park their cars in the shade and to camp under the towering pines,” he said. “But our word to visitors is be prepared and maybe change your approach a little as to where you park and camp and watch where you hike.”
Thrasher said parking your car or tent under a standing dead tree could be a prescription for trouble.
“Yes, I would say the risk is more if you camp or park in the shade,” he said. “Our suggestion is the clearer the space, the better.”
Dead trees, however, are only one of the many challenges facing the managers of White River National Forest.
When asked to name the forest’s leading challenge, Thrasher didn’t hesitate.
“We now have more people and more development living in proximity to the forest than ever,” he said.
Colorado’s roughly 5 million residents are living closer to (in some cases within) and using the forest more each year, which in turns means more conflicts, more demands on the forest’s resources and more potential for catastrophic impacts, from wildfire to avalanches.
And sometimes it means more personal conflicts, such as who actually arrived first at that much-desired campsite.
“You see it in the ski areas and their push to get open earlier in the season and to stay open later in the spring,” Thrasher said. “We are facing the challenge of being able to offer the amenities and services that encourage people to come here and our communities through the year.”
It’s learning how to manage and foster that growth without destroying the very reasons that make the forest so attractive.
“Do we at some point say we just can’t sustain this level of growth anymore?” Thrasher asked. “You already see some of that at the Maroon Bells.”
At that immensely popular destination near Aspen, with a view that appears in countless summer vacation videos, a restrictive bus system is used during the peak tourist season to reduce traffic on a narrow road and protect the environment.
“We are going to have to make certain management decisions,” Thrasher said. “We can’t build more resources wilderness or more of those unique places that people want to experience.
“And yet the forest belongs to all Americans, so how do we protect it from being loved to death? It’s something we have to look at.”
Something else to look at, anyway, since there is no end for things to see in the White River National Forest.
Just trees? Hardly.