by Eric Heltzel, reprinted from The Mountain Mail

Wilderness. A word that has been a functional part of our vocabulary for many years. But recent fires and flooding here in the Upper Arkansas Valley have caused me to consider this word with a slightly different view. So, I got out my New Oxford American Dictionary (old school), and here are three definitions: “(1) uncultivated, uninhabited and inhospitable region; (2) a position of disfavor, especially in a political context; (3) English wildeornes “land inhabited only by wild animals.

I stumbled a bit over No. 2, but it may be the one most relevant to certain occurrences of the last three years. In 1964 the Wilderness Act was passed into law after eight years of work and more than 60 drafts. The most succinct definition of the driving concept was written by Howard Zahnizer: “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

With today’s increased population it is becoming increasingly difficult to have public lands maintained according to this concept. In the mid-1970s I was backpacking in the Ruby Range west of Crested Butte. This area was not designated “wilderness,” but you wouldn’t have known that being there.

For five days I encountered one other person traveling on horseback and he turned out to be the new district ranger on the national forest. We stopped and had a short but nice conversation. He made a comment that has stuck with me all through the years. He said “when you designate an area wilderness you condemn it to be loved to death.”

The designation of an area as “wilderness” affords it protections to keep the place as wild as possible. They often include restriction of vehicles and allow no mechanized equipment. Some places even restrict campfires, not always something I find convenient. However, I have come to appreciate the necessity of these rules to try to keep an ecosystem intact.

As a member of the board of directors for Collegiate Peaks Chapter of Trout Unlimited and a resident of Howard, I have been involved in meetings and discussions with many people and groups about the Hayden Pass Fire and subsequent flood. Our most recent companion was the Decker Fire, a fire that outmaneuvered firefighting professionals and spooked many of us.

Some people questioned the actions of the U. S. Forest Service and why they didn’t get the Decker Fire extinguished immediately. Ecologically the fire was a good thing. The impact of beetles and drought caused many trees to die. Standing dead trees in such abundance is part of natural processes. Nature’s response is fire.

Dry conditions, warming temperatures and more catastrophic atmospheric phenomena are likely being exacerbated by human activity, complicating the issue.

The Decker Fire started in steep and rugged terrain, much of which is designated wilderness. It is desirable to “let nature take its course” but problematic when human property and safety are threatened. The truth is that trying to extinguish a fire in that terrain would be putting firefighters at great risk. Any harm to these hardworking people is not acceptable. So, the strategy was to attempt to contain the fire within the wilderness boundary.

The Hayden Pass Fire got started on July 18, 2016, and burned more than 16,000 acres. It was ignited by lightning and fueled by a high percentage of standing dead trees just like Decker. The fire management strategy was to keep the fire within the wilderness. This proved to be successful. The terrain is very steep and in places the fire burned so hot that it sterilized topsoil. This keeps plants from regenerating immediately.

Move ahead a couple of years and the area got hammered by an intense thunderstorm. With much of the soil unanchored by plants, a huge amount soil and ash came racing down Cottonwood Creek. This caused significant property damage and had a huge impact on the Arkansas River.

The amount of siltation has severely impacted the fishery downstream. Estimates put the discharge of the creek about 4,000 cubic feet per second during the flood. This puts the amount of water coming down the creek greater than what was in the entire Arkansas River.

Some people were incredulous that the Forest Service hadn’t revegetated the entire 16,000 acres that had burned – difficult in the extreme and combined with the wilderness concept and regulations that allow nature to take its course aggravated the situation.

People want to live near the wilderness but also want their property to be safe and to have proper infrastructure and services like reliable electrical power, law enforcement and fire protection. It’s a difficult balancing act for public land management.

Wilderness? My travels around the world have convinced me that one of the best things our country ever did was establish public lands. We should be proud that there was recognition that some of our special places need extra protection, hence “wilderness,” the political definition.

Those of us who choose to live in a place with wilderness should embrace how special it is but also accept that there is risk in having places that we don’t control. Enjoy it, support it, protect it.

For more information about Collegiate Peaks Chapter, including our events and projects, visit our website,

Eric Heltzel is membership coordinator for Collegiate Peaks Chapter of Trout Unlimited.