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Witnessing history: A memorable day at Camp Hale

Locations: Columns, Opinion Published

The text from the White House press liaison came while we were at dinner in Avon. My wife Bonnie would be credentialed and able to join me the next day (Oct. 12) at the ceremony where President Joe Biden would dedicate the new Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument! We had learned that the event would actually be at the Camp Hale site just that day; I had obtained my credentials only a little earlier.

This was special. Bonnie’s father had been a ski trooper in the fabled 10th Mountain Division during World War II. Perhaps an unlikely candidate — he was a farm boy from central Illinois and was 30 when he enlisted in 1942 — he nonetheless underwent the vigorous training at the camp and was deployed to the Aleutians and then Guam for the remainder of the war. He returned to Illinois afterward, but every summer Bonnie’s family camped somewhere in the West. “Dad gave us our love of the West,” she said, noting that he would reconnect with his 10th Mountain buddies on those trips.

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We had driven by the training site on National Forest land numerous times and had stopped there once or twice. And like so many others — including Senator Michael Bennet, veterans’ groups, local leaders and tribal people — we had hoped that this day would come. Here it was at last!

We couldn’t have asked for more perfect autumn weather: crystal clear bluebird sky and cool, crisp air but with a warm sun. As we waited in Avon for the shuttle bus that would take the press corps to the site, we met two young reporters from the Leadville Herald Democrat (they noticed our Melanzana shirts). They were as excited as we were to be participating in an event of such magnitude.

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Arriving at the Camp Hale site reinforced what a big deal this was — a fleet of satellite uplink trucks, banks of klieg lights and cameras on risers, a small army of sound and video technicians, several emergency vehicles and EMT crews. And, of course, Secret Service agents everywhere, including pairs of sharpshooters perched on the cliffs high above our spot. This all, quite literally, in the middle of nowhere. It was a remarkable logistical achievement!

While waiting for the presidential motorcade to arrive (from Eagle County Regional Airport), I checked out an exhibit set up by the Colorado Snowsports Museum Hall of Fame. Its executive director, Jennifer Mason, said, “It means a lot to the museum to have the [monument] designation.” On display were large photos of the troops in training, literature and some of the gear used by the soldiers. I marveled again at how primitive the equipment was compared to what is available to us nowadays and how incredibly arduous the training must have been for my father-in-law and the others. 

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Guests began arriving and filled the tight semicircle of folding chairs around the dais platform — local residents and public officials, representatives from the two Colorado Ute tribes (including several women in beautiful traditional finery), many U.S. Forest Service employees and others, all of whom had worked to get the site’s national monument designation.

The main event

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The dignitaries began arriving and filling the stage: Governor Jared Polis, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Bennet and fellow senator John Hickenlooper, Representative Joe Neguse and Scott Fitzwilliams, supervisor of White River National Forest — all key actors leading up to this day. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, President Biden was up there among them.

Polis opened the proceedings by praising Biden. “As a long-time supporter of honoring our veterans and preserving these lands, I know firsthand that there is significant and strong local support for this designation to preserve our public lands, so I applaud President Biden for taking this action.” He was followed by the other officials on the dais who cited the years-long efforts by 10th Mountain veterans, environmental groups, local officials and, particularly, Bennet to get the site protected.

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Finally, introduced by Fitzwilliams and greeted by cheers and applause, Biden stepped to the podium and addressed the crowd. He touched on the legacy of the Ute peoples in the area (“This is your progeny, this magnificent land. You’ve been great stewards of these sacred lands.”); the fortitude of the troops who had trained at Camp Hale for their February 1945 assault on German troops in the Italian Apennines (“Imagine the courage, the daring, and the genuine sacrifice — genuine sacrifice — they all made.”); and the perseverance of Sen. Bennet in getting the national monument designation (“This guy, he made this finally happen — at least me signing this, certainly.”).

Biden then reiterated the surprise announcement that Secretary Vilsack had made — to huge cheers — only moments earlier: the administration would impose a temporary two-year halt on new oil and gas leases on the Thompson Divide as it explores instituting a longer 20-year “administrative mineral withdrawal” on new leases there.

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Will Roush, executive director of Wilderness Workshop, told The Sopris Sun, “It’s really heartening that the president and his administration have heard the voices of all of us who have been working to protect the Thompson Divide for almost a decade and a half,” adding that this action was a “meaningful step forward” to permanently protecting the divide.

And then the moment came for Biden to sign the proclamation. Before doing so, he invited the entourage of dignitaries, as well as two surviving 10th Mountain veterans, onto the stage around the small wooden table next to the podium. Sitting down next to the veterans, he declared, “Gentlemen, I sign this in your honor, in honor of all the warriors you fought with. And thank you, thank you.” Immediately upon signing it, a whoop went up from the Ute delegation, followed by raucous cheers and a standing ovation from the crowd.

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Being able to witness history being made firsthand is exceptionally rare, especially when one lives as far from the centers of power as we do. In this case, the center of power came to us — reportedly at the president’s insistence — and we will long cherish this extraordinary day!

The new national monument, covering 53,804 acres, consists of two units: the Camp Hale site itself, roughly halfway between Minturn (north) and Leadville (south); and, to the east, the Tenmile Range area of the Continental Divide, stretching southward from Frisco and between the Breckenridge and Copper Mountain ski areas to Quandary Peak. It will be managed by the Forest Service. For more information, see www.bit.ly/CampHaledesignation 

Illustration by Larry Day

Tags: #10th Mountain Division #Camp Hale #Ken Pletcher #President Joe Biden #Wilderness Workshop
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