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Enos Mills: Citizen of Nature, by Alexander Drummond

Review by Ed Quillen

Colorado History – July 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine

Enos Mills: Citizen of Nature
by Alexander Drummond
Published in 1995 by University Press of Colorado
ISBN 0870814079

Enos Mills, whose mountain exploits thrilled Colorado and the nation at the turn of the century, is so identified with Long’s Peak, Estes Park, and Rocky Mountain National Park that it’s often hard to realize how far his influence extended.

In a way, Mills was Colorado’s answer to John Muir of California’s Sierra Nevada (and Muir was something of a conscious example to Mills), but Mills was also much more: an adventurer, a most observant naturalist, a talented writer, a political advocate (for women’s suffrage, among other things), a paid spokesman for the Park Service and Forest Service, an early outdoor guide, a miner, an often irascible neighbor, and for several years, official inspector of Colorado’s snowpack.

And he lived only 51 years, at that, with 400-square-mile Rocky Mountain National Park serving as a memorial to part of his extensive activities.

Mills was born in 1870 in Kansas, but moved west as a teenager, and soon found a haven in Estes Park, where ranchers were discovering that tourists paid better than cattle. He began guiding people up 14,255-foot Long’s Peak, and filed a homestead claim that would eventually develop into his famous Long’s Peak Inn.

To finance those summer pursuits, he at first took winter jobs in the mines, generally at Butte, Montana, but for one winter in Cripple Creek.

All this may have made Mills a “Citizen of the West” as much as it made him a “Citizen of Nature,” but the man could go for days without food or much sleep, which meant he could stay for extended periods at a beaver pond and provide the first solid descriptions of the daily life of these rodents, and it allowed him to share and describe the habits of wolves and grizzlies as well.

But in many respects, the patient Mills was also the progenitor of today’s thrill-seeking outdoor types. He may have exaggerated his adventures when he wrote them up, but even so, they’re good reading — catching grizzly cubs, dodging avalanches, getting swept away by flood-swollen mountain rivers, three days of foot travel while snowblind in a fresh heavy snow.

Little wonder that he was a popular author and lecturer in the days when Theodore Roosevelt was president and a national hero with his emphasis on “the strenuous life.”

One Mills (and Muir) pastime was climbing to a treetop just before a storm, and swaying with the tree as the wind buffeted it. It sounds cheap and exciting, and I wonder why nobody tries that now, given the popularity many of Mills’ other mountain pursuits.

It was during Mills’s time that the federal government began withdrawing land, the start of the national forest system. Mills supported this at first, to the extent that he was paid for two years to travel the country and extol the Forest Service, but when he saw that the Forest Service would be focused on wood production, rather than protection, he turned against it.

That made him support more national parks, among them Rocky Mountain, to protect his beloved Long’s Peak. But Mills being Mills, he soon began fighting with the Park Service, which granted concession monopolies that interfered with the operations of Mills’s resort inside the park.

And to complicate matters, the Park Service and Forest Service were in a turf battle, with the Forest Service deciding to go after the recreationist market with roads and campgrounds, a move opposed by the Park Service, which wanted a monopoly on outdoor recreation.

The questions and conflicts that marked Mills’s career — with what attitude should we approach the mountains? are they a zone to be protected or a source of fuel and minerals? should local or national interests come first? turf battles between federal agencies — are still very much with us.

Here it’s a pleasure to get in on the ground floor of those battles, and to get to know a most interesting fellow in the process. Drummond provides a detailed and readable biography of Mills, warts and all (I have the feeling that I would have liked to hear Mills talk, but that I wouldn’t have wanted him for a neighbor), along with modern assessments of his writing, his scientific work, and his lasting influence, which extends far beyond Estes Park.

It added plenty to my understanding of how things got to be the way the are today, and what public-land conflicts we might reasonably anticipate in the future.

— E.Q.