Aspen will mark a 50th anniversary this summer that will give everyone cause to celebrate.
The Wilderness Act was passed in September 1964, and the stunning Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness was among the first wave of areas to receive special protection in the country. The wilderness designation prohibits motorized and mechanized uses. It is designed to preserve landscapes as much as possible, free from the hands of mankind.
To some degree, wilderness has become a victim of its own success.
Flocks of tourists swarm Maroon Lake during the summer months. The slightly more adventurous load the trails to Buckskin Pass and West Maroon Pass. The Four Pass Loop is on most backpackers’ bucket lists. The Maroon Bells, Castle Peak, Pyramid Peak, Snowmass Mountain and Capitol Peak attract hundreds of climbers every summer. Popular destinations such as Snowmass Lake and Conundrum Hot Springs get so crowded at times that they resemble the atmosphere of a county fair.
The high visitation rate to the 181,602-acre wilderness area cannot necessarily be interpreted as appreciation of the special landscape.
“I don’t think we do celebrate wilderness all the time,” said Karin Teague, president of the board of directors of Wilderness Workshop, the oldest locally based environmental group in the Roaring Fork Valley. “We take it for granted.”
Wilderness Workshop is teaming with the U.S. Forest Service and other conservation groups to throw several events this summer to celebrate the passage of the Wilderness Act. One goal is to educate people about the special characteristics of the lands that earned them the protected status. Another goal is to give credit to the activists who had the foresight to fight for land protections, Teague said.
Wilderness Workshop and its partners won’t use the celebration to advocate for additional wilderness designations, but it will urge people to look 50 years down the road and contemplate what needs to be done to preserve the existing wilderness areas for future generations, Teague said.
The groups want to draw attention to the degradation that parts of the wilderness areas are facing. Population growth and the recreation explosion have sent ever-greater numbers of thrill seekers into the wild places.
“More and more people are out there enjoying them, but it takes its toll,” Teague said.
Climate change presents another set of changes that threaten to alter the refuges for wildlife and native plants, she noted.
But by and large, the tone of the celebrations will be celebratory, Teague said.
And why not? The Wilderness Act was very beneficial to Aspen and other mountain towns on the areas’ fringes as well as for people who love the outdoors. Maroon Bells-Snowmass, right on the doorstep of Aspen-Snowmass, is Colorado’s fourth-largest wilderness area. Is has 100 miles of trails and nine passes in excess of 12,000 feet and six peaks in excess of 14,000 feet.
None of the other nearby wilderness areas received designation in the initial wave. They were added later, in large part thanks to the efforts of Joy Caudill, Connie Harvey and Dottie Fox.
The Hunter-Fryingpan Wilderness was created in 1978 and expanded in 1993. It is 82,026 acres with 65 miles of trails between Independence Pass and the south side of the Fryingpan Valley. It blends in with the 30,540-acre Mount Massive Wilderness. The Continental Divide is the only real separation of the two areas.
The Holy Cross Wilderness covers 122,918 acres starting in the north side of the Fryingpan Valley. It was created in 1980.
The Collegiate Peaks Wilderness provides 167,584 acres spreading south from Independence Pass. It boasts eight peaks greater than 14,000 feet. It was designated in 1980.
The Raggeds Wilderness, south of Marble, provides a distinctly more secluded 65,393-acre pocket of wonder. It was created in 1980 and expanded in 1993.
To celebrate the national treasures, Wilderness Workshop, the Forest Service, the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, the Roaring Fork Conservancy, the Forest Conservancy and other groups are hosting everything from guided hikes showcasing lesser-known backcountry areas to an exhibit of photographer John Fielder’s photos at the Wheeler Opera House to a special performance at the Aspen Music Festival. They fall under the umbrella of a celebration called Wilderness 50.
A focal point of the celebration is the Maroon Bells Birthday Bash on Aug. 2 at the base of Aspen Highlands. It will feature music from four bands, food and beverages, displays and a presentation by activist Rick Bass.
For a complete schedule, visit www.wilderness workshop.org/events-page/wilderness-50th-events.