Arthur Hawthorne Carhart (1892–1978) was a novelist, US Forest Service (USFS) official, and landscape architect known for developing a commonsense, nonpartisan, and democratic approach to conservation and natural resource management. His legacy lives on today in the Arthur Carhart National Wilderness Training Center in Missoula, Montana. In Colorado, Carhart is remembered for his role in the preservation of Trappers Lake in Garfield County.
Whether he was writing about water, wilderness, or grazing, Carhart’s voice was distinctive and contrarian, as if he were a twentieth-century Walt Whitman transplanted to the West. Carhart openly questioned the administrative practices of the Bureau of Biological Survey, the USFS, the National Park Service (NPS), and the Bureau of Reclamation, with a particular emphasis on maintaining healthy watersheds.
Early Life and Career
Carhart was born in 1892 in Mapleton, Iowa, and graduated from Iowa State College in 1916 with a degree in landscape architecture. He joined the US Army in 1917, and as an officer in the Sanitary Corps he developed layouts for military bases that prevented the spread of disease and promoted the health of soldiers. In 1919 he married Vera Van Sickle, his high school sweetheart. On March 1 that year, the USFS hired Carhart as a “recreation engineer”—the agency’s term for its first-ever landscape architect.
In his youth, Carhart struck up an alliance with Aldo Leopold, then assistant district forester for District 3 (Region 3) in New Mexico. There, Leopold helped create the Gila Wilderness, the world’s first designated wilderness area. After meeting with Leopold, Carhart wrote a far-reaching memorandum about wilderness management. “There is a limit to the number of lands of shoreline on the lakes,” Carhart wrote. “There is a limit to the number of lakes in existence; there is a limit to the mountainous areas of the world, and . . . there are portions of natural scenic beauty which are God-made, and . . . which of a right should be the property of all people.”
Early in his USFS career, Carhart surveyed a road surrounding Trappers Lake in the White River National Forest in Garfield County (now the Flat Tops Wilderness). The road was part of the USFS plan to allow the construction of private homes by the lake. But Carhart urged his supervisor to prohibit development by the lake and instead proposed zoning the area for wilderness recreation. His recommendation was accepted. By 1920, Trappers Lake was declared off-limits for development, marking the first time in USFS history that the idea of “wilderness preservation” came to fruition.
From Forest to City
Carhart resigned from the USFS in 1922 but continued to advise the agency until the 1960s. In 1923 he joined the Denver landscape architecture firm McCrary, Culley and Carhart, where he worked on thirty-six major landscape projects throughout the West until 1930. Carhart also served on the Denver Planning Commission, helping to guide the development of Civic Center Park, among other projects.
Although he did plenty of work in urban and suburban areas, Carhart continued to advocate for the protection of wild places. In 1938, for instance, he led the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Program in Colorado, helping to coordinate wildlife restoration efforts across the state. In the 1950s he was one of the most prominent local critics of a plan to build a dam at Echo Park in northwestern Colorado.
Carhart began a freelance writing career while working for the USFS and continued to author books, articles, and short fiction for the rest of his life. His publication list includes articles on home gardening and landscaping for Better Homes and Gardens and Sunset magazines, as well as the 1929 novel The Last Stand of the Pack, a critique of wolf extermination.
Carhart’s view of civilization as inseparable from nature is apparent in his writing. In his magazine articles, for instance, he recommended that homeowners use plants native to their region in order to create an authentic, healthy garden. In 1932 he published Colorado, a guide to the state for automobile tourists, and in 1950 he wrote Water—or Your Life, which reminded readers that human health is directly connected to the health of forests and watersheds.
Carhart’s 1952 novel, Son of the Forest, best encapsulated the major concerns of his entire career. The novel presents a richly peopled landscape somewhere along Colorado’s Front Range, where the fictional Shavano National Forest serves as the watershed for Denver. It is the job of the Forest Service to restore the watersheds of the Shavano to health. Writing for young people freed Carhart to write about Forest Service bureaucrats who lacked the courage to oppose the small clique of politically powerful, land-grabbing ranchers who used mob rule tactics to privatize public grazing lands. Beyond the portrayals, Carhart used his novel to imagine better ranchers. Son of the Forest matches the daughter of a rancher with the son of a forester. Overseeing this match is a less bureaucratic Forest Service that stands up to interest groups (including narrow wilderness groups) and genuinely serves the people of small, watershed-based political units, which Carhart thought offered a more democratic and authentically American alternative to the vast, centrally controlled national forests. Today, watershed-wide conservation efforts are underway throughout the West, just as Carhart prophesied.
Carhart died in 1978 at the age of eighty-six. In 2000 the environmental organization Audubon Society recognized Carhart as one of the world’s most important conservationists along with his mentor, Aldo Leopold, and former President Theodore Roosevelt.
Carhart’s ideas and work have undoubtedly helped people across the United States and around the world better understand and respect their connection to nature. But from his groundbreaking work at Trappers Lake to his Denver-based firm and the setting for one of his most influential books, Colorado clearly occupied a prominent and special place in the life and mind of Arthur Carhart. Indeed, all who enjoy the many scenic wonders of the Centennial State today do so in large part because of his efforts.
Adapted from Tom Wolf, Arthur Carhart: Wilderness Prophet (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2008).