How National Forest Recreation Planning Got Its Start In Southern Colorado 100 Years Ago

Jun 23, 2020

A century ago the U.S. Forest Service's first landscape architect argued for protecting wilderness, but that didn't stop him from also making it easier to drive into the nation's forests. Arthur Carhart wrote the agency's first recreation plan and completed it in June 1920. It was for the San Isabel National Forest west of Pueblo.

The Davenport Campground sits at 8,500 feet in the Wet Mountains about 12 miles as the crow flies from Beulah. A half a dozen small camping tents are pitched in designated sites along Squirrel Creek. It's one of the first campgrounds created by Arthur Carhart's original plan and the Forest Service rebuilt it in 2010.

Squirrel Creek Shelter Plans
Credit U.S. Forest Service

"We've laid it out according to the original designs," said Jeff Outhier of the U.S. Forest Service.

He points out three-sided log shelters at the campsites and an open pavilion with multiple stone fireplaces. "We found Carhart's old designs. The little shelters, we don't really do those anymore, but at the time they did. And then of course he always had a pavilion for group type recreation," Outhier said.

This is now a tent only campground, so campers have to carry their gear across footbridges over the creek from the nearby narrow dirt parking lot. But back in Carhart's time, cars were becoming more common and he saw them as a way to improve access to nature.

"Most of the cars back then were probably Model T's. So cars were a lot littler back then, and that's why it seems a little tight around here," said Outhier.

Arthur Carhart stands near the supply, cook and sleep tents at a construction camp in the San Isabel National Forest, Colorado near Beulah in July 1920.
Credit U.S. Forest Service photo courtesy of the Forest History Society, Durham, N.C.

But while Carhart—who is unrelated to Hamilton Carhartt known for the work clothes company—was planning campgrounds, roads and picnic areas in Southern Colorado, just months earlier he convinced the Forest Service to scrap plans for cabins at Trappers Lake in Northern Colorado.

He'd stayed up late talking with some outdoorsmen camped there. "Their argument was the precious qualities of this lake belong to all the people," said Carhart in a recording from the 1970s. "And it's a basic principle of wilderness against any other use whatever."

Arthur Carhart at the Superior National Forest, Minnesota in 1920.
Credit U.S. Forest Service photo courtesy of the Forest History Society, Durham, N.C

That conversation inspired him to write a statement considered legendary in wilderness circles:

"There is a limit to the number of lands of shoreline on the lakes; there is a limit to the number of lakes in existence; there is a limit to the mountainous areas of the world, and... there are portions of natural scenic beauty which are God-made, and... which of a right should be the property of all people."

Connie Myers, the retired director of the federal government's Arthur Carhart National Wilderness Training Center in Montana, said the center's namesake is now considered one of the forefathers of wilderness conservation.

Carhart believed any concept of wilderness needed to include humans and that recreation planning should be specific to each place. Cortez author Tom Wolf wrote a biography of Carhart. Wolf said Carhart was a Republican and a Christian.

"That really underlies all of his thinking about recreation," Wolf said. "It wasn't just 'go out and have a good time.' He thought that if you shut up and listened to what you found in the backcountry, you would hear the voice of God. You would see the face of God."

Wolf said Carhart served in the newly formed Army Sanitation Corps. He also got the flu during the 1918 pandemic. These experiences informed his approach to protecting both health and the environment. And less than a decade after violent labor strikes in Southern Colorado's coal mines, Wolf said Carhart also saw recreation planning as a way to solve social problems too.

"He really meant it when he said that public lands recreation would make people better Americans," said Wolf.

Pueblo city, county, and forest officials with Arthur Carhart in center and his wife Vera Carhart fourth from right at Pueblo Municipal Camp area. Members of the Pueblo Commerce Club, with input from Arthur Carhart and forest supervisor Al Hamel, formed the non-profit San Isabel Public Recreation Association on November 6, 1919.
Credit U.S. Forest Service photo courtesy of the Forest History Society, Durham, N.C.

Carhart made sure to get the local community involved too. He met with Pueblo businessmen and other local leaders during his trips to Southern Colorado in 1919 and 1920. He got them to back the new plan and help build recreational resources still in use today.

Even a century later you can still sense Carhart's presence, said Outhier. "I can get emotional about it sometimes. So it's truly a unique feeling."

Arthur Carhart's vision and ideas influenced national forests across the country. And, although he didn't plan it, a new trail connects Pueblo Mountain Park to Squirrel Creek in the San Isabel National Forest. It's called the Carhart Trail.