CAMP HALE — An effort is underway to restore the Eagle River at Camp Hale, the 10th Mountain Division training site, from its path of the last 74 years resembling an irrigation ditch back toward its pre-World War II look and function.

Photos by William Henry Jackson, the famous landscape photographer of the 19th century, show a meandering river through the valley, called Eagle Park, clogged with willows and wetlands. A steam train chugged through the valley and later, at a railroad pull off called Pando, ice was harvested.

A crane digging a channel at Camp Hale to hold water from the Eagle River.
A crane digging a channel at Camp Hale to hold water from the Eagle River. Credit: Photo via Allen Best
What appears to be a recently dug channel full of water from the once winding Eagle River.
What appears to be a recently dug channel full of water from the once winding Eagle River. Credit: Photo via Allen Best

All this changed in 1942.

The U.S. Army first considered a site near Yellowstone National Park and other options before settling on the valley, elevation 9,200 feet, for training elite troops capable of engaging opponents in mountainous terrain. Access to a transcontinental railroad was key. Within a few months, streets had been created, barracks erected, and the river confined to a straight-as-an-arrow ditch. Nearly three quarters of a century later, it’s still in that same ditch.

After the 10th Mountain soldiers were dispatched in 1944 to Texas for toughening up, the Army began dismantling Camp Hale. Barracks and other buildings were leveled, including the auditorium where visiting dignitaries such as prize-winning fighter Joe Louis and actress Jane Wyman, the first Mrs. Ronald Reagan, appeared. The camp was used once more from 1959 to 1965, this time by the Central Intelligence Agency for training of Tibetan guerrillas, before the military reservation was returned to the U.S. Forest Service.

Soldiers marching at Camp Hale during WWII.
Soldiers marching at Camp Hale during WWII. Credit: Photo via Allen Best

Even now, cleanup from the war efforts continues. In 1997, an unexploded mortar shell was discovered on Mount Whitney, in the nearby Homestake Valley. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers later tried to uncover all old weapons of war from the landscape, returning again this summer for a final sweep using metal detectors. There’s some lingering asbestos. And there’s the ditch called the Eagle River.

Talk about restoring the river has occurred several times since the 1970s but never got anywhere, said Marcus F. Selig, of the National Forest Foundation, a nonprofit partner of the U.S. Forest Service. The new effort began in 2013, when 40 groups with a direct interest in the valley gathered to work toward a coherent vision for a restored landscape.

The Aspen-based 10th Mountain Division Hut Association has several huts in the area. Meeker residents Sam and Cheri Robinson have grazed thousands of sheep every summer in the mountains above Camp Hale. The dwindling number of 10th Mountain vets and now their descendants want the legacy of their war training remembered.

Stakeholders agreed that what exists now is “not a healthy aquatic ecosystem,” said Selig, who is vice president of programs at the foundation.

What has emerged is a plan that would create five to seven miles of a meandering, ox-bowed Eagle River in the valley bottom as it winds around to the east, toward the Climax Mine. The work would also create 200 acres of wetlands. The dirt moving would create a 300-foot-wide floodplain or riparian area.

A related but somewhat separate effort involves creating an even stronger historical presence. There are exhibits at a pullout along U.S. Highway 24, but more could be done to celebrate the history of the 10th Mountain, about which at least 20 books have been written, along with films and other remembrances.

The story of the 10th after Camp Hale picked up in fierce fighting in the Apennine Mountains of Italy. Among the veterans were Fritz Benedict, the architect who was an integral part of the post-World War II revitalization of Aspen, and Pete Seibert, who also spent several years in Aspen during its early incarnation as a ski town before eventually creating Vail. The two are just the tip of the ski history iceberg involving Camp Hale.

Then there are side stories. Camp Hale was also used to hold prisoners of war, in particular those of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Corps. For mystifying reasons, the Army also chose the place to station German-sympathizers deemed too risky to become soldiers. One of them included a brilliant Harvard-trained philologist, Dale Maples, who engineered an escape with two POWs. As told in a 1950 New Yorker story, they made it as a far as Mexico before being apprehended.

Getting the Eagle River out of its straitjacket will take an estimated $10 million to $20 million. The plan also needs Forest Service approval and is currently being reviewed under the National Environmental Policy Act process.

“It’s not happening anytime soon,” said Selig of dirt moving. “It’s a multi-year project. In the best-case scenario we would start work in 2018.”

Wetlands created at Eagle Park could be seen as offsetting wetlands destroyed elsewhere, such as by creation of a reservoir. One such reservoir is among the options on nearby Homestake Creek being studied by two Front Range cities and their Western Slope partners looking to develop more water storage. Such in-lieu payments could provide some of the money needed to complete the restoration.

Another funding possibility arises if Camp Hale gets federal designation as a national historic landscape. The idea was proffered by U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet on Memorial Day. No such designation now exists, and creating it would take an act of Congress. But a designation could also produce money for river restoration along with historic preservation.

“That would be wonderful,” said Aaron Mayville, district ranger for the White River National Forest’s Eagle-Holy Cross District, of the idea of federal funding. However, he also reports he has seen nothing in writing. “In theory, it could [provide funding],” he said of the potential historic landscape designation.

Mayville reports that the Army Corps of Engineers this year, in addition to trying to find old bullets and perhaps mortars with a metal detector, has been working to clean up asbestos. “They used asbestos building materials at just about every building out there,” he said, adding that the final work on asbestos removal will occur this fall.

Whatever happens in the future, Mayville said the plans must honor the reality that there have been multiple users in the valley, both historically and currently.

“It’s a very complex piece of ground,” he said.

The National Forest Foundation’s plan recognizes these different histories and the multiplicity of current stakeholders, Selig said.

“We are not doing full ecological restoration. We are not putting it back to exactly what it was. We are not leaving all history untouched,” he said. It is a “vision built on compromise.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and the Aspen Daily News are collaborating on coverage of water and rivers. The Daily News published this story on Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016.