Pikes Peak History

…the story behind the Pike National Forest


…the story behind the Pike National Forest

by Marion Ritchey Vance and John A. Vance

On the day after Thanksgiving of the year 2000, the stately Millennium Tree left its birthplace in the Pike National Forest and headed for the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. It followed the route of the historic Santa Fe Trail and inspired community celebrations all along its way. The 77-year old blue spruce was a gift from Colorado to the nation to honor the millennial holiday and mark the turn of the century. Four thousand ornaments fashioned by school children across the state graced the tree as it was lighted on December 13 in a nationally televised ceremony.

Symbolism and Sobering Witness
The tree was chosen as a symbol of nature’s wonders in general and Colorado’s rich endowment in particular. But it also bears silent and sobering witness to the complex interaction of this nation with its natural resources. It is no happenstance that the age of the tree is less than the century it commemorates. A hundred years ago, the place where the great tree grew was part of a “vast area of treeless devastation along the Front Range”.

Today we take for granted that a mature spruce tree can be found, cut, and sent off to showcase the bounty of the forest that is such an integral part of the Pikes Peak region. In fact, we tend to take the forest itself for granted. It is the picturesque backdrop for Colorado Springs; it frames the Peak; it is there for hikes and fishing and cross-country skiing …. it is just there.

But it has not always been there. At the turn of the last century, nearly three quarters of what is now Pike National Forest had been cut over or burned. Unbridled logging cleared the front range of trees from Central City to Cripple Creek; it is said that no timber in Colorado had been so exploited as that of the present Pike where the sawmills ran day and night. A history of the Forest describes the wholesale deforestation, slaughter of wildlife, over-grazed grassland, and damage from forest fire that characterized the area at the time public lands were first set aside as timberland reserves in the 1890s.

Genesis of a National Forest System

From the inception of the nation, timber built its towns and fueled its economy. Areas around settlements were soon stripped of forest cover. Trees were an obstacle to farming, to be cut down and cleared away. So long as the frontier remained, needs for lumber and farm land could be met by just moving westward.

By the middle of the 19th century, naturalists, scientists, writers and artists began to champion the beauty and the value of forests, and to decry their destruction. On March 3, 1891, with pressures building and the end of the session upon them, the U.S. Congress approved the Forest Reserve Act which authorized the President of the United States “to set apart and reserve public lands wholly or in part covered with timber or undergrowth whether of commercial value or not, as public reservations.”

Benjamin Harrison was bold enough to take full advantage of that legislation. Almost immediately, he issued proclamations that created the Yellowstone National Park Timber Land Reserve, the first of fifteen forest reserves of some 22 million acres established during his administration. His successors Grover Cleveland and William McKinley added 40 million acres. At that time, the reserves were under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior through its Bureau of Forestry.

The quantum leap in protected forest lands came with the administration of Theodore Roosevelt. Despite growing opposition to federally protected land, particularly from the western states, President Roosevelt nearly tripled the acreage under management.

While Roosevelt himself had a strong conservationist bent, he was heavily influenced by his chief advisor on conservation matters, Gifford Pinchot. Pinchot was a professional forester who had studied in Germany and came home convinced that western Europe was decades ahead of the United States in the management and protection of its remaining forest lands. In the 1890s, on the strength of his knowledge, family connections, and outgoing personality, Pinchot rose to prominence in forestry circles. He was named to the National Forestry Commission of the National Academy of Sciences which was charged with recommending management policies for the forest reserves. Pinchot urged administering the public lands of the West as a perpetual storehouse of timber and water. He took it upon himself to reassure suspicious westerners that the forest reserves were indeed meant to be used and not simply to be protected. That message was a popular one, but would put him at odds with many today who view National Forest lands as a sacrosanct environmental asset.

Pinchot’s philosophy gave rise to a long-standing precept of National Forest management: “multiple use--sustained yield”, producing wood, water, forage, wildlife and recreation opportunity in combination --not necessarily on every acre but over a given land area.

On February 1, 1905 President Roosevelt transferred jurisdiction over the forest reserves from the Department of the Interior to the Department of Agriculture. The following month, Congress created the U.S. Forest Service, and authorized an operating budget. Gifford Pinchot became its first Chief and set the tone and policy for forest management for years to come. His dictum: manage for “the greatest good for the greatest number, over the long run.”

Today the vast system includes 155 national forests in 45 states and Puerto Rico totaling 225 million acres under Forest Service administration, including 35 million acres of designated Wilderness such as the Lost Creek Wilderness in our own backyard.

“An Outrage on Hardy Pioneers!”

Then (as now) regulating the use of public lands stirred deep resentment and bitter controversy. Newspapers, allegedly reflecting public sentiment, railed against government interference. The Denver Post declared President Roosevelt to be “ignorant as a woodchuck on Forestry” and urged miners and stockmen to unite in denouncing forest reserve policies.

On May 24, 1908, the Denver Republican wrote “the Forest Service is only an example of governmental assininity, or possibly the creation of a job for some favorite and is an outrage on the hardy pioneers who have entered that desert country with a desire to open up and develop resources much more valuable than these trees, which should be left open to appropriation and use of the present, not the future generation.”

Despite opposition, the reserves were created and established on a firm basis.

Birth and Growing Pains of the Pike

The land that eventually became the Pike National Forest was among the earliest set aside. Presidential proclamations in February, 1892 had established the Pikes Peak Timberland Reserve, the Plum Creek Timberland Reserve, and the South Platte Forest Reserve. The three were combined in l905 and officially renamed the Pike National Forest in 1907. Today, the Forest covers 1.2 million acres in a horseshoe-shaped expanse that reaches some 90 miles north to south from Denver to Colorado Springs, and stretches westward from the front range to Hoosier Pass, encircling South Park .

The area was largely a wasteland in the early 1900s. Country that had supported lush forests of pine, fir and spruce and abounded in wildlife until the middle of the 19th century was cut to the bone or burned over in less than 20 years. Populations of elk, deer, bear and bighorn sheep were decimated. The bison was all but extinct.

The dramatic change came with the advent of mining and of the railroad -- particularly the Denver, South Park and Pacific in the early 1880s. An insatiable demand for railroad ties, mining timbers, construction materials, fuel wood, and charcoal unleashed wholesale logging. When over-hunted game animals no longer satisfied the appetite for meat, thousands of beef cattle were trailed in and turned loose on the native grasslands.

A Mr. John G. Jack reported on his findings on the Pike Forest as of 1898 “There is little of the primeval forest remaining.” Manitou Park (near where the Millennium Tree was cut just north of Woodland Park) was logged over twice between 1880 and 1885. The second round finished off anything of value that had been left standing.

In addition, half a dozen major forest fires had swept the Pikes Peak area -- some caused by lightning, some by human carelessness, and some by way of cover-up for illegal logging operations. With the loss of ground cover, erosion became a major problem, and the watershed that served Colorado Springs and other front range cities was in jeopardy.

“Ride as far as the Almighty will let you”

Such was the scene that Col. W.T.S. May inherited when he was appointed Superintendent of Forests for Colorado and Utah on August 4, 1898 with a mandate to prevent forest fire and trespass, see to proper cutting and removal of timber, and supervise grazing of livestock on open range.

On August 8, 1898, Col. May appointed a young man from the Plum Creek Reserve as Forest Ranger in the State of Colorado. William R. Kreutzer thus became the first forest ranger on the Pike National Forest and, reportedly, in the nation. Young Kreutzer knew forests and he took his job seriously. His charge from Col May: “Ride as far as the Almighty will let you, and get control of the fire situation and as much of the mountain country as you possibly can, and keep some sort of a record about it.”

In a land where might made right and the nation’s riches were there for the taking, the newly-minted ranger began citing timber trespasses and requiring grazing permits. He faced gun-toting lumberjacks and cattlemen with powerful allies (including a Colorado senator) in Congress. Trespassers depended upon political pull to continue illegal operations. Though Kreutzer’s name came up repeatedly before his superiors in the Department of Interior, and he was told he should handle influential people “with gloves”, he kept doggedly at his job-- laying a solid foundation for those who followed. Mt. Kreutzer, on the Continental Divide between Cottonwood and Tincup Passes, is named in his honor.

Restoring a Forest

A popular image of the Forest Service is that of rangers arriving to protect wooded lands. In the case of the Pike, the job was first to recreate the forest. Protection of the front range watershed was paramount. That meant re-establishing ground cover as quickly as possible to stem erosion, and preventing further damage.

To cope with such a massive reforestation project, local foresters began experimenting with seed and seedlings. Seedlings proved more effective, but early nurseries yielded little reward for the arduous labor. The breakthrough came with establishment of a small planting station at the foot of Mt. Herman. Officially named the Monument Nursery in 1907, the seedling facility was one of the first in the forest system and the most important in the Rocky Mountains. Over its 58 years of service, the Monument Nursery produced millions of seedlings annually. By the early 1950s, more than 40,000 acres of denuded lands on the Pike had been replanted with Douglas fir, blue spruce, Engelmann spruce, ponderosa, limber and bristlecone pine. Monument supplied seedlings to other forests as well and to private farmers for windbreak and erosion control.

During the Great Depression, Monument Nursery was home to one of Colorado’s largest Civilian Conservation Corps camps. The Corps was key to the reforestation effort. From 1934 to 1942, CCC crews under Forest Service supervision designed and constructed buildings, fought fires, manned the nurseries and planted seedlings.

If Every Tree was Cut from Pikes Peak…..

Reforestation was not universally acclaimed…According to the Denver Republican (June 28, 1908) “ …it would behoove the citizens of Colorado Springs to bring an injunction suit against the government, which threatens to plant a million trees per year until twenty million are planted on the Pikes Peak “Reserve”. Water is scarce enough at Colorado Springs at present conditions, but if the government is going to attempt to water twenty million trees in addition to the trees now absorbing water, I can assure the citizens that in twenty years there would only be water for the trees and none for the city. It would increase the water supply of Colorado Springs materially if every tree was cut from Pikes Peak.”

The Colorado Springs Gazette of that day countered with: “Trees protect the watersheds, ensuring an adequate supply of domestic and irrigation water, without which the region could not survive.”

By 1965, with a relatively healthy forest in place, reforestation was no longer a priority for the District office. Nursery operations were moved to Basalt and the facilities converted in the 1970s to the Monument Fire Center. It now serves as base for the elite firefighting crews known as ‘hotshots’ .

The Second Century

As the Pike National Forest enters its second century, its paramount mission -- to protect the watersheds -- remains constant. What has changed is the level of demand which must somehow be met without jeopardizing the basic mission.

All forests are dynamic, in constant change from natural processes or human-induced pressure, but the front range forest ecosystems are especially fragile and vulnerable to human impacts. District Ranger Bill Nelson noted some of the major issues in managing the forest today.

Population Impact. Because the Pike borders directly on metropolitan Colorado Springs, it is classed as one of fourteen “Urban National Forests” in the United States. It is the most heavily used of Colorado’s eleven National Forests and may serve as a laboratory for others facing dramatic increase in use.

The Forest Service welcomes and encourages recreational use, and the good will of the public is critical if support for the system is to be maintained. However, because users of the forest do not always respect the public’s resources, scarce budget and staff must be diverted to law enforcement.

Wildland-Urban Interface. Particularly along the front range, there is no longer a buffer between urbanization and forest habitat. Its proximity to urban areas renders the Pike particularly susceptible to off-road motor vehicle use which accelerates erosion and disrupts habitat. The addition of dwellings in a flammable forest heightens the risk of conflagration and complicates fire suppression. Firefighting forces must increasingly concentrate on saving structures rather than the surrounding forest.
Encounters between wildlife and humans are more frequent -- almost always to the detriment of the wildlife.

Competing and Conflicting Demands. Given the inevitability of greater use, there will be a continual rise in competition for goods and services from a forest resource base that is more or less finite. There is constant tension between the concept of a ‘national’ forest and the often conflicting demands of special interest groups. The Forest Service is increasingly in the position of mediating competing demands and making Solomonic judgments as to what constitutes the greater public interest.

Close-to-home examples are the current controversy over restoring automobile use to the Gold Camp Road, surfacing of the Pikes Peak Highway, and the recent limited ban on shooting near roadways in parts of the Pike. One caller interpreted the latter action as a sign that the Forest Service is abetting gun control and taking orders from the United Nations.

Fire control/fuel management. In the wake of recent fires, the President has launched an initiative to reduce fire danger in the National Forests through thinning of trees and removal of the accumulated debris and underbrush that fuel the flames. The Pike National Forest will be a major participant in this large scale, labor-intensive effort.

Not in my backyard. This sentiment is a major factor and constraint in managing the Pike today. There are 178,000 acres of in-holdings both public and private within the Forest, and miles of external boundaries. This makes for a lot of neighbors, many of whom have long enjoyed unrestricted use of adjacent public lands for their private purposes. Disputes are inevitable when National Forest uses (trails, public access, hunting, grazing, timber cutting etc.) are not viewed favorably by those across the fence.

Management by lawsuit. In this litigious society, we are quick to pull the lawsuit trigger when it comes to managing our public property. As a result, many decisions on National Forest management are now handed down from the judiciary rather than being developed through the give and take of planning processes and negotiation.

Caring for The Commons

The public lands are this nation’s “commons”. How the nation manages them is one of the pivotal issues of our day. Locally, the question of caring for the commons -- in this case, America’s mountain, Pikes Peak -- has been addressed by the Pikes Peak Multi-Use plan. It offers a creative alternative to fighting things out on the ground or taking them summarily to court.

The Plan represents a collaborative, region-wide effort with citizen input. At the start of the process, the managing partners -- Colorado Springs Utilities, the U.S. Forest Service, BLM, and state, county and city governments set out their goals: determine the impact of growth; develop an environmentally-based plan that establishes preservation of water quality as its highest priority; balance preservation of the Peak with public access and commercial use; identify and protect quality wildlife habitat; encourage the public to behave in ways that will help preserve existing resources.

The resulting Regional Vision Plan is the blueprint for the future management of the Peak Region. Implementation will likely be incremental rather than wholesale, and will no doubt stir some controversy. What is important is the established framework of regional consensus through which disputes can be mediated.

“Whose Woods These Are…. I Think I Know..”

Pride of ownership was in the air at the base of Pikes Peak when hundreds of people turned out on the frosty November morning in Woodland Park to send off the “People’s Tree”. It was the opening salute of weeks of holiday ceremonies honoring the chosen spruce. More importantly, it was the culmination of a two-year process that engaged thousands of school children, 4-H youth, and volunteers across Colorado in exploring and valuing their natural heritage. The Millennium Tree became, as one fifth-grader put it, “a tree that stands for all the trees”. It left for Washington as an ambassador, appealing for wise stewardship of the nation’s forests that allowed it to grow.

-Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum; Starsmore Center for Local History
-Raymond G. Colwell, “Pikes Peak and the Pike National Forest”, 1953,
-Robert Frost, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”
-Harry Galbreath, “The Pike National Forest”, Colorado-WPA Writers’
Program, 1936-1942, manuscript
-Pikes Peak Library District; Local History Collection: historical files,
letters, biographies and oral histories, and human interest stories
-Pikes Peak Ranger District, “Monument Fire Center: A Place in History”,
Government Printing Office, 1997, booklet
-Alfred Runte, Public Lands, Public Heritage: The National Forest Idea.
Roberts Rinehart Publishers, 1991

Special thanks to the staff of the Local History Collection, Penrose Public Library; the U.S. Forest Service; the Library of Congress; the office of Senator Wayne Allard


  • Memorial Grove
    Please make a special effort to keep this tradition going. Past participants have found it to be a great way to show respect for those who dedicated their lives to public service in the Rocky Mountain Region of the U.S. Forest Service. This is a private ceremony for family and friends of the departed and is held annually on the first Saturday in May.