President Biden traveled to Colorado on Wednesday to designate a World War II-era military site as a national monument, using his executive powers to protect the historic landscape and delivering on a key priority for Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.) ahead of next month’s midterm elections.
Biden had yet to create an entirely new national monument, although he has expanded existing national monuments that President Donald Trump slashed in size. The designation applies to Camp Hale, which served as winter training grounds for the Army in the 1940s and which now provides critical habitat for wildlife including elk, deer, lynxes and migratory songbirds.
The Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument will encompass more than 53,800 acres and will also include the Tenmile Range, a mountain range with stunning views that is prized by hikers and rock climbers, according to a White House fact sheet.
National parks and other public lands are “treasures and wonders that define the identity of us as a nation,” Biden said before signing the proclamation to establish the national monument. “They’re a birthright that we pass down from generation to generation. And they unite us.”
In addition to creating the new national monument, Biden on Wednesday proposed withdrawing 225,000 acres in the nearby Thompson Divide from potential new mining or drilling. The Interior Department and the Forest Service will solicit public comments and conduct an environmental analysis on prohibiting energy development there for 20 years.
The move bypasses gridlock on Capitol Hill, where a sweeping bill aimed at protecting Camp Hale and other historic Colorado sites has repeatedly stalled in the Senate. Bennet, one of the longtime supporters of that legislation, faces a tougher-than-expected reelection race as Democrats fight to maintain control of both chambers of Congress.
Biden showered extra attention on Bennet at the event, calling him back to the stage after he finished his remarks to praise the senator’s work on Camp Hale and climate issues.
“This guy, he made this finally happen,” Biden said of Bennet. “At least me signing this, certainly. He came to the White House and he said, ‘I told you what I need.’ And I said, ‘I’ll do it.’ You know why? I was worried he’d never leave the damn White House.”
The president’s appearance in Red Cliff, Colo., illustrates the White House’s midterm strategy: sending the president to appear with vulnerable — but not the most endangered — Democrats for official White House events. The appearances let Biden tout his administration’s accomplishments — namely the Inflation Reduction Act and the bipartisan infrastructure law — or specific projects for the lawmakers, as was the case Wednesday. But in recent weeks, Biden has largely stayed away from the most competitive races.
Bennet is running against Republican Joe O’Dea, a Denver business executive. A spokesman for O’Dea said he opposes Biden’s creation of the national monument, which relies on the Antiquities Act, a 1906 law that empowers the president to safeguard public lands and waters for the benefit of all Americans.
“Joe believes conservation efforts around Camp Hale and the Tenmile Range should be determined by a bipartisan process in Congress, not unilateral and potentially unlawful executive action that could be subject to lawsuits and uncertainty,” spokesman Kyle Kohli said in an email.
House Republicans, led by Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado, raised similar concerns in a letter to Biden last month. The lawmakers added that the Camp Hale designation could lock up land that could be used for mining or timber harvesting.
A spokeswoman for Bennet’s campaign declined to comment. Speaking on Wednesday, Bennet said Biden’s “designation means more Americans will come to appreciate the extraordinary history of this place, a history that goes back to before when Colorado was a state.”
The legislation backed by Bennet, known as the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act, or Core Act, seeks to protect more than 400,000 acres across the Rocky Mountains. The measure — also sponsored by Sen. John Hickenlooper and Reps. Joe Neguse, Jason Crow, Diana DeGette and Ed Perlmutter, all Colorado Democrats — has passed the House four times but has run aground in the evenly divided Senate.
“Every time it passes the House, we get excited that things might happen,” said Brad Noone, a 10th Mountain Division Army veteran who deployed to Afghanistan and now lives in Salida, Colo. “But it always tends to stall out in the Senate. This absolutely feels like the closest we’ve ever come.”
During World War II, Camp Hale housed up to 17,000 troops of the 10th Mountain Division. At an elevation of 9,200 feet, the site was ideal for training in skiing, snowshoeing and rock climbing — skills that ultimately helped the soldiers defeat Axis forces in Italy. After the war, some of the same soldiers who toiled at what they called “Camp Hell” returned to the region to help launch Colorado’s booming ski industry.
One of those soldiers, Pete Seibert, went on to found the Vail Ski Resort, cementing the town’s status as one of the country’s top skiing destinations.
“We just wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Pete Siebert training at Camp Hale,” said Vail Mayor Kim Langmaid, adding that the site and surrounding public lands “are the lifeblood of our community.”
Soon after taking office, Biden set an ambitious goal of conserving 30 percent of the nation’s land and waters by 2030. Administration officials have been eyeing Camp Hale since July 2021, when Interior Secretary Deb Haaland visited Colorado and participated in a roundtable discussion with sponsors of the Core Act.
Last fall, Biden restored full protections to three national monuments that Trump had reduced in size, including Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante — known for their historical treasures of Native American art and settlements. Biden also reimposed fishing limits in the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, which Trump had opened to commercial fishing.
Biden vowed on Wednesday that the Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument would exist in perpetuity, despite Trump’s moves to undo protections put in place by President Barack Obama.
“It’s a permanent, permanent decision, an action that no future president can overturn,” Biden said.
Biden will continue his West Coast swing through the weekend with stops in Los Angeles and Portland, Ore., where he will raise money for Democrats and continue selling his administration’s legislative record.
Democrats, environmentalists and Indigenous leaders have urged Biden to use his powers to safeguard various other landscapes across the country. In particular, many advocates have focused on a site in southern Nevada known as Avi Kwa Ame, or Spirit Mountain, that several Native American tribes consider sacred.
“This designation shows that President Biden is thinking about his conservation legacy, not just restoring the damage of the Trump years but laying the groundwork for his own legacy going forward,” said Aaron Weiss, deputy director of the Center for Western Priorities, an advocacy group.
“It is our hope,” he said, “that Camp Hale-Continental Divide is the first of many national monuments that the president protects.”
Pager reported from Red Cliff.