The Colorado Mountain Club (CMC) has been a potent force in shaping environmentalism in Colorado. Its members developed an intimate relationship with nature through the CMC’s conservation work and recreational activities. The CMC’s appreciation of wilderness, a legacy of early environmental thinkers such as Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, fostered its embrace of a sophisticated ecological understanding of the natural world before many other conservation groups and the general public.
Since its formation in 1912, the Colorado Mountain Club has aimed to share and protect Colorado’s bountiful and beautiful wilderness. Its original mission statement set out to “disseminate information” and “stimulate the public interest” in the mountains and to make alpine regions “accessible” and “encourage the[ir] preservation.” The CMC has also advocated careful, scientifically based federal regulations to prevent exploitation by private industry.
The organization’s original seven members, who had already climbed sixteen mountain peaks between them, were led by Mary Sabin and James Grafton Rogers. These two individuals initiated the idea of the CMC, which quickly expanded to twenty-five charter members. Membership has fluctuated throughout the years and has expanded into regional groups throughout the state. Trail and Timberline, the CMC’s main publication, began in 1918. This publication continues to be the voice of the CMC, keeping members informed of the organization’s activities.
As part of its environmental education program, the CMC created a series of early guides to flora and fauna of the Rocky Mountains. It also produced regional hiking and skiing maps, sponsored lecture series, and set up slide and photography exhibits. The CMC has always had an appreciation for photography. The famous western photographer William Henry Jackson was made an honorary member in 1938 and attended several CMC outings. Members also constructed informational guides such as the mountain name indicator in Denver’s Cheesman Park, which labeled the panorama of mountains visible from the park.
Other CMC educational programs included a “school” held in 1939, which included rock- and ice-climbing instruction, as well as climbs on which the “students” put their newly acquired skills to the test. These “schools” evolved into extensive training grounds for all types of mountaineering skills. Courses in first aid, CPR, and other backcountry safety measures have become important parts of the club’s education programs.
The Colorado Mountain Club also played an integral role in the creation of Rocky Mountain National Park. Enos Mills, widely considered the father of the national park, was a charter member of the CMC, and James Grafton Rogers, another charter member and the first president, drafted the initial bill for the creation of the park in 1913. The CMC lobbied hard for support of the bill, which was finally passed in 1915. Although Rogers’s first draft was defeated, various letters among his papers testify to the CMC’s continued involvement in the bill’s passage. Members produced handbills lauding the proposed park’s easy accessibility and representation of the Rocky Mountains. The CMC’s success in convincing the public that the value of nature extended beyond economics and that the natural environment should be preserved marked a major milestone in the development of environmentalism in Colorado.
In the 1920s the CMC continued to promote its deep, often sentimental, love of nature. Its members conducted campaigns to preserve Colorado’s wildflowers, particularly the state flower: the Colorado Columbine. The Colorado Mountain Club’s “Good Woodsman” campaign was also a significant force in publicizing environmental protection. Members distributed signs admonishing campers to put out camp fires, keep the campsites clean, protect flowers and trees, and respect local wildlife.
The CMC of the 1930s absorbed many budding ecological concepts such as the balance of nature, put forth by environmental thinkers such as Aldo Leopold, well in advance of other conservation organizations. To the CMC, the widespread drought and subsequent Dust Bowl also served as a frightening example of what happened when humans upset the balance of nature. Poetry by CMC members about mountain ecstasies and stories of flowery nature declined in the 1930s, replaced by scientifically grounded ecological thinking, including opposition to government predator eradication programs that remained popular into the 1960s. In this and other positions, the Colorado Mountain Club was far ahead of the rest of the nation.
In a 1933 article for Trail and Timberline, “Should Mountain Lions Be Killed?,” M. Walter Pesman commented about the disasters that had occurred when humans destroyed predatory animals. He noted how the loss of wolves brought an increase in coyotes and that rodents flourished and grew destructive wherever predators were destroyed. He repeatedly stressed the concept of nature’s balance and how society’s disruption of ecology leads to unpredictable and possibly “dangerous” results. He relayed the Ecological Society of America’s recommendation that “Nature Sanctuaries” or “Nature Reserves” be set aside. By setting aside these areas, nature in all its fluctuations could be left alone and could teach humans how the natural balance functioned. He concluded that “a bit of humility on our part might be apropos in our meddling with nature’s scheme.”
Other environmental activities of the CMC have included successful opposition to water projects, including dams on the Colorado River, the Two Forks Dam on the South Platte, and Homestake II, an Eagle County diversion plan. The CMC also joined other like-minded organizations in supporting a national wilderness preservation bill, which Congress passed in 1964. The CMC’s writings about the mountains in the postwar period increasingly emphasized the intangible values of wilderness, which coincided with the club’s active promotion of wilderness preservation.
The Colorado Mountain Club continues to inspire a deep appreciation of nature through some 3,000 annual recreational activities and ongoing environmental advocacy. Trail and Timberline is now accessible online, and the club has expanded its activities beyond Colorado’s mountains. Two full pages of the fall 2015 issue offered “adventure travel,” with guided trips to Mount Everest, Mount Fuji, and the Italian Dolomites. Educational outreach continues through the club’s Youth Education Programs and articles offering safety tips for solo hiking. The CMC also maintains its environmental activism. The club played an important role in defeating two bills in the 2015 session of the Colorado State Legislature that would have opened public lands to oil and gas drilling.
The history of the CMC helps us understand the roots of environmentalism in Colorado. Club members, while promoting recreational enjoyment of the wilderness in many forms, also developed an increasingly sophisticated understanding of ecology. The CMC recognized, long before the general public, that humans must reenvision their place in the world as part of a much larger ecological community.