Arthur Carhart, Wilderness Prophet, by Tom Wolf

Review by Ed Quillen

Forest History – July 2008 – Colorado Central Magazine

Arthur Carhart, Wilderness Prophet
by Tom Wolf
Published in 2008 by University Press of Colorado
ISBN 0-87981-913-5

TODAY WE THINK of our national forests as fine places for recreation — hunting, fishing, camping, hiking, cycling, climbing, etc. — but that was not always the case. A century ago, the national forests were supposed to produce timber and protect watersheds. If you wanted to have some fun on federal land, you would go to a national park.

That changed in 1919, when Arthur Carhart, a landscape architect who deemed himself the first “recreation engineer” for the Forest Service, designed the first national forest automobile campground. It sat by Squirrel Creek near Beulah, southwest of Pueblo, and Carhart had some big plans for developing recreation in the Sangre de Cristo Range.

HIS PLANS NEVER came to fruition, for a variety of reasons. But Carhart stayed busy. He more or less invented formal federal wilderness by deciding that the best development plan for Trapper’s Lake, near Meeker, was not to develop it with a road and homesites.

He worked his way through college as a musician. He was an avid outdoorsman and a prolific writer of fiction and non-fiction about a wide variety of topics. He worked for and in professional organizations and outdoor advocacy groups, and was an active moderate Republican. He was a city planner and an authority on fishing and forests. He supported conservation, but also consulted for the pulp and paper industry, and advocated the extermination of wolves and mountain lions.

Born in Iowa in 1892 and educated there, Carhart spent most of his adult life in Colorado with a home in Denver that was the base for many trips into the mountains, often accompanied by his wife, Vee. He died in 1978.

Carhart was a busy man with his fingers in many pots, so his biography has to twist and turn in ways that can be hard to follow. Much of this deals with federal land management agencies, and yet there’s no clear explanation of how the public land was divvied up and how the agencies took their roles.

For the purposes of this biography, we can pretty well ignore the Bureau of Land Management, and focus on the National Park Service in the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Forest Service in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They competed for congressional appropriations and public attention.

At the start of Carhart’s professional career, in 1919 right after World War I, the gentry took the train to a national park like Yellowstone or Grand Canyon and stayed for a few weeks in a lodge.

Carhart, who worked for the Forest Service, figured the little guy with his Model T might enjoy some time in the woods too, and developed plans for auto-based tourism in the national forest, especially near cities like Pueblo and Denver — at a time when the Forest Service was geared for timber production. So conflicts were inevitable, both with the Park Service, and within the Forest Service.

Timber sales brought revenue, after all; building roads and campgrounds for tourists just cost money. However, the roads could also lead to places where the Forest Service could make money by leasing cabin sites.

CARHART ALSO ARGUED that getting workers into the woods made them better Americans, an important development after the lethal 1914 immigrant-labor conflicts at Ludlow, south of Pueblo. And he developed a co-operative funding program for recreation development with the movers and shakers of Pueblo.

Carhart also helped plan the Boundary Waters area in Minnesota, but left the Forest Service in 1922. Wolf traces his career in detail, and provides considerable insight into Carhart as a writer of guidebooks, outdoor adventure novels, children’s books, and pulp and upper-crust magazine articles. Any man who could support himself writing during the Depression, as Carhart did, had to be prolific, and Carhart was.

For his work to save Trapper’s Lake from development, Carhart became known as “the Father of American Wilderness,” but he opposed the 1964 Wilderness Bill. Wolf explains that this is consistent with Carhart’s philosophy. He believed the national forests should not be dominated by any interest — be it backpackers, loggers, ranchers, hunters or auto-born campers. All of them had a legitimate place and role on public lands, but they shouldn’t be allowed to harm the resource for others, as with stockmen whose over-grazing on public lands led to flash floods.

Carhart had nothing against wilderness zones, but he wanted them to be part of a bigger plan, with primitive buffer zones around the wilderness, and increasing degrees of development designated beyond — from a few ranch houses to downtown Denver.

In other words, Carhart was not doctrinaire, and he was difficult to pigeonhole as an advocate. That may explain why, even though he was prominent in his day, he is not as well known now as hard-core wilderness advocates like Bob Marshall, Enos Mills, and John Muir.

WOLF SUMS UP his subject: “Arthur Carhart knew that every interest group strives to socialize costs and privatize benefits. In contrast, he rose to national prominence as a spokesperson for the public interest, for the common person. He was a voice for moderation in conservation politics. He was never partisan. Whether he was writing about water or wilderness or grazing, his voice was distinctive and contrary, as if he were a twentieth-century Walt Whitman, a kindly curmudgeon of an uncle, appealing to the democratic best in us.”

I wish Wolf had provided us with more background about Carhart’s time, for it is difficult to comprehend Carhart and his colleagues without knowing about “scientific progressivism” — an influential philosophy in the early 20th century, especially when it came to land management. Today we seek to preserve and we assume that Mother Nature knows best. Back then, men like Carhart were always looking for ways to improve on nature: i.e., we can replace predatory wolves with big-game hunters, and our deer population will do just fine.

Carhart has long deserved a decent biography, and now he has one. This one isn’t always easy reading. Rather than a strict chronological or geographical narrative, this book tends to use asides which jump the reader back and forth in place and time, and that can prove confusing. But much of this terrain will be familiar to residents of Central Colorado. In our region, Carhart’s stamp remains to this day, with the San Isabel National Forest, where he began his career, still managed primarily for recreation, rather than for timber production or some other purpose.