INTRODUCTION: A lot of people worked for more than a decade in the 1960s and 70s to create Eagles Nest Wilderness, led in Congress by Senator Floyd Haskell and Representative Jim Johnson. But probably no one knew the terrain better, or could advocate more persuasively, more eloquently, or more passionately than Bill Mounsey (1918 - 2012), the subject of this month's newsletter. Read what he fought for, on our behalf.
It was a long haul struggle.
With overwhelming public support, President Ford signed the bill on July 10, 1976, although some cabinet members urged him to veto it.
- First, CDOT wanted to punch I-70 up South Willow Creek and tunnel under Red-Buffalo Pass. That idea was squelched by Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman.
- Next, The Forest Service and President Nixon's administration pressed for a "Wilderness on the rocks" - mostly above tree line. This option lived a long life, right up to the days before final approval in 1976.
- Finally, the Denver Water Board (DWB) proposed an audacious plan to tap every creek in the Gores, and take the water to Denver. The Denver Post editorialized vigorously on their behalf, but, as Maryann Gaug writes in her popular book, "A court-appointed water referee ... ruled that the DWB had neither claims nor rights to the water." The DWB, however, kept on fighting to the end.
Bill Mounsey testified at numerous hearings about wilderness areas. He was a co-founder and President of the Colorado Open Space Council and its Wilderness Workshop (now Conservation Colorado), and supervised study teams on Eagles Nest and other Wilderness Areas, as well as hiking over (and eventually drawing) most of their proposed boundaries. Not surprisingly, he was recognized in Federal Court as an expert witness on wilderness matters.
Take a look at some of Bill's letters from 1973 to get a near-first hand sense of the magnitude of the battle.
All this would seem to be enough for just about any person, but Bill Mounsey was so much more, as only someone like a grandchild can relate. Read Kerry Donovan's recollections below.
My Grandfather, Bill Mounsey
by Senator Kerry Donovan
It is hard to know where to start talking about my grandfather, William Bird Mounsey. His life is marked by one campfire story after another. He was Teddy Roosevelt Jr.’s Courier, was awarded a bronze star; worked in a missile silo; messed around with the Monkey Wrench Gang; and went to Panama during the revolution, to name just a few stories.
But, I remember his writing. From my earliest memory of him, his handwriting is present. He was often jotting down a note about a bird we saw, or writing down a map coordinate. Sometimes, I’d find him sitting, head in hand, at his desk sculpting his latest letter. He had handwriting that was elegant and sailed across pages and pages of yellow lined legal paper with a grace earned at a time when handwriting carried the weight of our communications. He thought about things deeply, wrote about them repeatedly, and used a thesaurus with skill. This resulted in ideas that were difficult to challenge, but I was always grateful that he invited me to learn how he arrived to them.
What I cherish most about those invitations was that he entertained working through basic queries, such as, “What caused Mesa Verde to be abandoned?” and, “Why do we have time?” He, being a man of the outdoors, would often prompt me to ask him why we care about wilderness — complicated questions to ask for someone who was not yet old enough to even drive. I wonder now how he, an Army Major, patiently let a twelve year old debate and challenge his lifetime of thought and experience.
On a drive back from The Maze, after seeking the right angle to watch the Spring Equinox fall upon the canyon stone, I found myself riding shotgun in a Jeep with him. Under the cover of a desert-dark night, he began to recount the horrors of war. Although he had trained at Camp Hale, he had fought in World War 2 in the Pacific theater– now recognized as the site of some of the harshest fighting conditions of the war. Just this once, he spoke of watching the bullet he fired from his foxhole travel through another human.
He recounted hiding behind trees and listening for the breath of an enemy before he jumped out with a clenched knife. The enemy’s recurring tactic of bringing an American soldier who had been captured within earshot of their camp at dawn coincided with the crows of the island roosters. He spoke of finding an empty tin can while on patrol, knowing that the enemy had camped there the night before, and what these memories meant to him decades later. He told me that it was difficult to separate a rooster's crow from the audible suffering of his fellow soldiers, and his helplessness to save their lives. Rusty cans in a field became equated with years of killing. He stopped talking, and we crossed back into Colorado.
He never spoke of these war experiences again.
Years later, we were discussing Wilderness, and he began to discuss another previously untouched topic. In the woods and the defined boundaries of wilderness, he knew what to expect. It was safe space for him. He knew the sounds of the wild, and could label each one a bird or beast. He knew the streams came from pure sources. What most people described as wild and untamed to him was familiar and comfortable. Wilderness came with a set of definitions and parameters that allowed him to let his guard down. He knew he would only find people on foot – enjoying a tranquil trail constructed by hooves. He would wake-up to finches - not a rooster.
Wilderness, and his commitment to it, was an intricate issue for him. He thought about it, wrote about it, and challenged it. The south boundary of the Eagles Nest Wilderness was meant to battle the new interstate and let people stare into the trees from their cars. This was deliberate. The logging roads were included so people could see them reclaimed by the slow advancement of the front line of the pines. Wilderness, a place removed from the hand of man, was a place to recover from man-made war.
Today, the idea that veterans can find solace and recovery in the outdoors and in the wilderness is an idea with strong support. At the time that he was fighting for the establishment of the Wilderness Act, and then drawing the boundaries of Eagles Nest, this was an idea well ahead of its time. But, Bill knew he was on to something. He survived because of it.
Wilderness is a quintessentially American idea. Public Lands are the embodiment of democracy - lands that belong to all regardless of where you came from, where you are, where you are going. And so, it is fitting, as we pass the 40th anniversary of the creation of Eagles Nest Wilderness (in 2016) and approach the 25th anniversary of FENW (in 2019) - that we continue to embrace the healing qualities of Wilderness that have existed far before our legal recognition and protection. And continue to write about them.
About Kerry Donovan: A Colorado native, Kerry’s roots go deep in Eagle County. Her parents were early arrivals in Vail, as was her grandfather, Bill Mounsey.
Kerry runs the family's Copper Bar ranch near Edwards. She raises Highland Cattle, produces vegetables for area restaurants, has a noisy flock of chickens, as well as horses and mules.
Kerry majored in anthropology at Notre Dame, then worked as a archeologist throughout the Rockies in cultural resource management, recently working for two local non-profits (Vail Valley Foundation and Minturn Community Fund). She served a term on the Vail Town Council, and in In 2015 was elected Colorado State Senator, representing District 5.