Ralph Swain can’t help but laugh at himself and fellow U.S. Forest Service officers when he thinks back to March, as the coronavirus pandemic took root and tossed a blanket of uncertainty over American society.
“We had so many dang questions,” says Swain, the agency’s longtime member based in Evergreen.
For instance: “We didn’t know if they were gonna come.”
The answer quickly became obvious. As COVID-19 shut down cities and turned life upside down, people turned to nature in astonishing ranks. Parking lots were packed, trails were trampled, and tents lined meadows and mountainsides.
And Swain can’t help but laugh now. Because of how obvious the answer became, yes. But also because he now knows there was a lesson from 100 years ago.
In 1920, Coloradans were still dying, though less frequently, from the flu that had taken the country by storm two years prior. Also in 1920, there was a young man by the name of Arthur Carhart who was in the final stages of developing a recreation site intended to meet the demands of new outdoor masses.
In the San Isabel National Forest west of Pueblo, there was to be a “health” camp, as Carhart tended to call it.
It would become an inspiration for Forest Service campgrounds everywhere.
This has been a recent point of research for Swain, a passionate, amateur historian. Carhart “would’ve anticipated it,” Swain says of today’s crowding in the woods. “He would’ve said, ‘Oh yeah, they’re gonna come, and they’re gonna come in droves.’”
As they had been from Pueblo during World War I, escaping the heat and troubles of civilization for the cool, refreshing wilds of the Wet Mountains.
It was a troubling time indeed. In 1914, before men left for the conflict in Europe, before they contracted the fast-spreading sickness in the trenches, they were reeling from labor wars close to home. Miners, women and children died in the Ludlow Massacre, the fallout of which reached a short distance north to John D. Rockefeller’s steel empire in Pueblo.
“As a result,” reads a paper prepared by and for the Forest Service, “the local community sought increased and safe access to the newly discovered benefits of hunting, fishing, and family gatherings on public lands.”
This, researchers have noted, was all part of demands for more leisure and higher pay and the kinds of safer, 40-hour workweeks that were being negotiated in cities nationwide, not just in Colorado’s second-largest metro, as Pueblo was then.
Pueblo was an epicenter for soldiers returning from war. And they, like their fellow Americans, would have to find their place in an ever-changing world. In 1918, the war was ending, the flu was raging and the automobile boom was on the horizon.
Model Ts would go rumbling up the San Isabel National Forest. One popular destination: Squirrel Creek Canyon, where families could rest in the shade of spruce and pine, catch a breeze by the water, marvel at rock outcrops and gaze at the starry night sky.
These were “pioneering campers,” the Forest Service suggests.
“Cars would stream up there by the hundreds,” says Jeffer Wingate, a ranger overseeing the area. “It was kind of a new thing for a lot of city dwellers to get up in the national forest. Recreation in the national forest was kind of a new phenomenon.”
At the time, “the idea of recreation in the national forest was a radical one,” reads a Forest Service account. Timber production, watershed protection and grazing regulations were priorities at the agency’s formation in 1905, not recreation.
But recreation was what the working people of Pueblo demanded, putting pressure on the agency’s Al Hamel. He was increasingly aware of degradation and pollution in the forest he managed. “It was a complex humanitarian, recreational, and political situation that confronted” the supervisor, explains that Forest Service account.
Hamel turned to a young, rising, radical thinker in the agency.
In March of 1919, Carhart had embarked deep into the flat top mountains of northwest Colorado to Trappers Lake, where the Forest Service had tasked him with planning homes and roads.
Taken by the grandeur, he recommended no such construction take place. He found that “these areas can never be restored to the original condition after man has invaded them, and the greatest value lying as it does in natural scenic beauty.”
Carhart’s memos from that trip would become famous — considered the cornerstone of what became the Wilderness Act, protecting places “where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” These places offered power for people, Carhart clearly felt. As he famously observed in 1919: “Perhaps the rebuilding of the body and spirit is the greatest service derivable from our forests ...”
And “Carhart’s vision of providing public land access to the returning soldiers and the American people did not end at Trappers Lake,” Swain recently wrote.
Carhart heeded the call at Squirrel Creek Canyon. It was not like Trappers Lake, he found. Without quite the same benefit of remoteness, man’s mark on the canyon had been left, and it was worsening.
“With the rising use of the automobile and people in Pueblo coming out to these national forest lands, it was basically unmanaged recreation,” Swain says.
“And Carhart saw this more as an opportunity than a challenge ... People needed the outdoors, they needed to connect with nature. So how can we provide that opportunity but save the resource?”
Carhart’s first reports remarked on sewage, trash and damage to streams and hillsides. Public health had been a particular focus of his early career as a landscape architect; out of college in 1917, the Army assigned him to the Sanitary Corps at Camp Mead, where he was to incorporate new knowledge of how disease spread with his acquired skill of blueprinting spaces.
That went into the 1919-20 document titled “San Isabel National Forest Recreation Plan.”
Carhart prefaced with a passage from “The Natural Style in Landscape Gardening,” the 1917 book by Frank Albert Waugh. “We should all greatly reverence the native landscape,” the author wrote, “should seek to conserve it for human use and enjoyment; should endeavor to make it physically accessible to all, should work to open up for it the way to men’s hearts.”
Carhart’s 54-page San Isabel plan is widely considered the precursor to today’s master plans across public lands. They are lengthy and often lost on modern attention spans.
But the plans should be big, Carhart wrote, further advising managers to “keep the big plan in view during development ... so that the accumulative result will produce a magnificent recreation area which will be a pride of the Service and give in return to the people.”
The Squirrel Creek concept included brief pull-offs for cars to reach “private” sites, along with picnic tables, water pumps, trash receptacles, fire grates and latrines.
“This new idea called ‘camping’ took off,” the Forest Service later recounted.
Squirrel Creek Canyon was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2005. Though much was destroyed in a 1947 flood, remains of the old campground can still be found along the Squirrel Creek Canyon Trail, west of Pueblo Mountain Park and east of Davenport Campground. The canyon is about 5 miles north of Lake Isabel, the destination that Carhart also envisioned.
Largely lost around that old campground is a trail from Carhart’s day. Wingate hopes to revive it in the next couple of years, pending funds. “As a remembrance of what it was like,” he says.
He anticipates it would be busy — just as it was a century ago.
Swain is nearing retirement after nearly 40 years with the Forest Service. “Everything has changed and nothing has changed,” he says in reflecting. “The issues we dealt with when I first started are still on our radar today: visitor use, high use, overuse.”
Colorado’s growing population presents challenges. But perhaps Carhart would see an opportunity, Swain thinks. As he recently wrote of Carhart and fellow wilderness champion Aldo Leopold:
“They inspire us to take pleasure in things remaining ‘normal,’ like hearing birds chirping and the sounds of nature, seeing wildlife roaming free in wild places without roads and development, and gazing in awe at beautiful sunsets ...”