The environmental history of Colorado is a story of the interplay among land, labor, and leisure. By land, I mean the summation of all the things in the environment that Coloradans did not make: the climate, topography, sunshine, soil fertility, minerals, plants, animals, germs, water, and more. Labor is the work—most basically, the energy—that people invest in modifying the land to make it more conducive to human habitation and to produce wealth. As Coloradans have labored successfully, they have produced sufficient bounty to relieve themselves of some labor, giving them time and treasure to spend on things not of immediate necessity. This is leisure. Most obviously, leisure includes recreation, such as skiing or backpacking. But Coloradans have also appreciated science, aesthetics, education, and spiritual renewal—things that, while not of daily material necessity, nevertheless have great value, cultural value. So land comes first. Then humans modify it. Successful modification enables leisure. Sometimes they follow sequentially. Sometimes they interact all at once. Together, land, labor, and leisure can help us trace a timeline of the Colorado environment, from the earliest human occupancy to the present.
Colorado’s modern landscape formed, for the most part, over the last 70 million years or so. For 300 million years before that, give or take, the land space that became Colorado had been episodically submerged beneath swamps and seas and ancestral mountain ranges. Around 70 million years ago tectonic shifts in the plates of the earth’s crust slowly uplifted the mountains we now call the Rockies. As they rose, wind, water, ice, and gravity wore them down. Wind and rivers deposited the material eroded from the mountains to form fertile soils on the Great Plains to the east. To the west, rivers carved the intricate canyons of the plateau country that extends throughout most of the Southwest, most notably the Grand Canyon. All this took a long time.
The mountains also influenced the climate. As air masses ride the prevailing winds eastward across North America, little rain falls across much of the continent’s west. In Colorado the air masses rise up the western slope of the mountains, cooling as they do. Falling temperature lowers the amount of moisture the air can hold, and eventually rain or snow falls. The air masses continue eastward over the mountains but now carry scant moisture to drop on the plains. Today’s Colorado, then, can be divided into three parts, from east to west: plains, mountains, and plateau. The mountains are wet; the plains and plateau are dry. The mountains have forests, the plateau desert scrublands, and the plains grasslands. Everywhere, riparian zones (ecosystems along rivers) abound in living things. Higher elevations are generally cooler than lower ones, so ecological zones transition as the altitude rises.
Much of Colorado’s human history has flowed from these simple climatic, topographical, and biological arrangements. The first people to come to the place we will anachronistically call Colorado—at least 13,000 years ago—shaped their lives to this environment. Some of the oldest archeological sites in North America lie along Colorado’s Front Range at places like Lindenmeier, north of Fort Collins, and Dent, near Milliken. Such places indicate that the first peoples of Colorado were nomadic. Although plentiful, Colorado’s resources were dispersed. So people moved from place to place to gain the things they needed for life. Colorado’s landscape turned out to be ideal for this. From places like Lindenmeier and numerous other spots along the Front Range, people could access the resources of both the plains and mountains. With a day’s journey of thirty miles to the west into the mountains from grasslands to alpine tundra, they could obtain bison meat, berries from riparian bushes, timber for tipi poles, rock and wood for tools, and a vast array of plant and animal species for food, medicine, dye, and more. To access a similar variety of ecosystems by traveling north or south on the plains would have required them to cover hundreds or thousands of miles. Taking full advantage of the resources that Colorado’s environment provided, these first Coloradans and their successors until the sixteenth century integrated themselves thoroughly into the land and lived well.
The newcomers who began arriving in the seventeenth century revolutionized land use in Colorado. The changes got underway with the first arrivals of European explorers and traders. They brought horses and firearms, which changed the way the peoples there lived, how they used the environment, and much else about the cultures. Horses and firearms also made the plains a much more ecologically hospitable place by allowing people to tap the previously inaccessible energy sources of grass and gunpowder. Historian Elliott West has observed that by riding horses, which could consume and use the calories stored in grasses, mounted Plains Indians became radically more powerful organisms than their predecessors on foot. New energy sources meant new economic opportunities through hunting, trade, and raiding, luring Lakotas, Cheyennes, and Arapahos from the western Great Lakes region and the eastern Dakotas, Pawnees and Wichitas from the eastern prairies, and Kiowas, Comanches, and others from the mountains onto the Great Plains in the eighteenth century. Three hundred years after Columbus’s landing initiated a long period of population decline for many North American Indian cultures, the Great Plains actually saw an increase in people, and its inhabitants gained ever more control over their environment.
The next phase of Colorado history began in 1858 with the Colorado Gold Rush and was characterized by labor. Miners were not the first to rearrange the landscape. As we shall see, Indians had also. Beginning in the 1820s, traders and trappers had depleted mountain watersheds of beavers and other fur-bearing animals. And Hispano settlers in the San Luis Valley in the 1850s began diverting water for agriculture and domestic use. Mining, however, applied unprecedented amounts of human labor to the land and transformed local landscapes at speeds and scales rarely, if ever, previously accomplished by humans in Colorado. In their thirst for gold, newcomers to Colorado tunneled into the earth, washed away hillsides, diverted streams, and cut down trees. They invested their muscle energy, and that of their animals and eventually their machines, in a dogged quest to alter nature to make it produce wealth. Over the next century, mining remained a primary driver of the Colorado economy and re-shaper of the earth, as gold fever gave way to booms in silver, coal, and ultimately even uranium, among other valuable minerals.Mining launched large-scale modification of the environment, but Coloradans extended the practice of laboring to make the land more conducive to habitation and wealth accumulation. Railroad builder and city founder William Jackson Palmer and his fellow entrepreneurs connected natural resources to supply centers and consumers to make Colorado’s abundance accessible and marketable. Farmers introduced new crops and figured out how to make money from local species, such as sunflowers. Agriculture scraped parcels clean of all native organisms and replaced them with new ones: domesticated animals and crop plants. Engineering projects moved water from places where it was plentiful to places where it was needed but scarce, thus undoing some of the age-old distinction between the wet Western Slope and the dry eastern third of the state.
In 1938 northern Colorado voters agreed to tax themselves to move some of the Colorado River basin’s copious waters east over the continental divide for use on farms and cities of the Front Range and plains. Other areas of the Front Range made similar moves. These and other enterprises to remake Colorado’s landscape generated enormous wealth. A few people, like Palmer, made grand fortunes, but even most ordinary Coloradans saw their material comfort improve in significant ways. Grocery stores, coal-heated homes, mail order catalogs, municipal water and sewage systems, and travel by train and then by automobile turned the daily labor of meeting basic needs for food, water, shelter, clothing, and movement into quicker and easier tasks.
Material comfort changed how Coloradans thought about their environment. Mountains were no longer forbidding places, full of dangers from weather, animals, hunger, and injury. They were places of adventure and excitement and scientific discovery. The western deserts were no longer barren wastes but beckoning places of spiritual renewal and human antiquity. Rivers were no longer liquid gold, to be diverted and redirected to water thirsty croplands on the plains or in the Grand Valley but were thundering waves of nature’s majesty, to be admired and rafted for thrill or sanctuaries for escaping the bustle of urban life. Former subsistence activities like hunting and fishing were now undertaken for sport. Once people’s labor had obtained material security for them, old environmental difficulties were reimagined as beauty, knowledge, and play.
While many dates for this transformation might be chosen, one decisive one is 1955, when Coloradans joined Americans across the nation in pressuring Congress to reject the proposed Echo Park Dam in Dinosaur National Monument on the grounds that the scientific, recreational, and aesthetic value of the park on the Colorado Plateau exceed the value that impounding water would yield. The nationwide effort to block the construction of this Colorado dam announced that leisure would sometimes trump labor in Coloradans’ decisions about how to interact with the land. Similarly, Colorado voters rejected the 1976 Winter Olympics, largely on environmental grounds, making Denver the first and only city in the world to have secured an Olympic bid and then turned it down. Coloradans also rebuffed the proposed Two Forks Dam on the Platte River for similar reasons.
Throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, organizations like the San Luis Valley Ecosystems Council and the Clear Creek Land Conservancy have encouraged stewardship of Colorado’s natural environment, while others like the Colorado Mountain Club have promoted outdoor recreation in the state and made tourism a staple of the economy. Institutions such as the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, the Center of the American West, and the Colorado Foundation for Water Education have made the state’s environment the object of intellectual and educational inquiry and stimulating public debate. Skiing, hiking, hunting, rafting, camping, and climbing grew in popularity through the second half of the twentieth century. Visitation at Colorado’s national parks and monuments, such as Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado National Monument, and Great Sand Dunes National Park soared, as did use of local preserves like the Denver Mountain Parks. None of these thrilling activities, however, would been have been enjoyed by people who traveled on foot or hunted or farmed to feed themselves. For those kinds of people, the outdoors was not “great”; it promised daunting labor. Although Coloradans continued to labor, farm, mine, and frack, for most members of Colorado’s affluent society of the twentieth century, the outdoors increasingly meant leisure.
Colorado’s environmental history, then, can be segmented into three broad periods. From at least 13,000 years ago or so, until the mid-nineteenth century, land influenced most aspects of human life, albeit with some notable exceptions. For the century after that, however, Coloradans dramatically increased their capability of reshaping the land to their liking through labor. So successful were they that they freed up disposable time and wealth to spend on having fun. Rocky Mountain National Park set visitation records in 2015, indicating that the era of leisure continues for the time being. This chronology of land shaping people, people re-shaping land, and eventually recreating in the land is simple and elegant. It explains a lot. It is not, however, the whole story.
Although revealing, the timeline’s neat division of time periods obscures the ways that land, labor, and leisure coexisted, overlapped, bled into each other, and often shaped society through their interactions with one another. Let’s go back and take another look at those Paleo-Indians who arrived so long ago. We know they survived by hunting mammoths, bison, and other megafauna, at the mercy of the environment more so than any subsequent people to walk the ground in North America. But they did so not only for subsistence, but for aesthetics. Ornamental beads, awls, and needles for manufacturing and decorating clothing indicate that they appreciated splendor and bothered to make beautiful things. Life was not just one big buffalo hunt. And while the land made bison, we also know that the Indians did too (and elk, deer, and other quarry). For example, they burned the land to promote grassy habitats attractive to species they hunted and to ensure a plentitude of game. Or consider the peoples of the Four Corners area who, around 800 CE, erected reservoirs and channels to water their crops in an arid land. Later, they also constructed elaborate towns and built roads to Chaco Canyon and elsewhere. Clearly, Indians invested energy to alter the land and make it better fit their needs. Such snapshots reveal that they were people not only of the land, but of labor and leisure as well.
Another telling moment of simultaneity among land, labor, and leisure, played out in the 1860s and 1870s in the valleys below Longs Peak. In 1859 Joel Estes brought his family to the basin that would later bear his name. At first he tried to ranch but found the land—cold, snowy winters, short growing seasons, the burdens of clawing through snowdrifts to expose grass for hungry stock—made his efforts difficult and the profits small. So he returned to an age-old form of labor that human beings had practiced in Colorado for more than 13 millennia. He hunted—but he added an industrial twist. He and his family consumed little of the fruits of the chase themselves, instead hauling it to cities and mines to the south, where it sold for high prices.
While the Estes clan struggled to eke out a living more than 7,000 feet above sea level, William N. Byers, publisher of the Rocky Mountain News, arrived from Denver in 1864 looking for sport. Staying with the Estes family, he attempted to climb Longs Peak—for fun. He failed, but left the valley predicting it would one day be a leading pleasure resort. Two years later, Joel Estes took his family down to warmer, more profitable climes. The land had beaten him. Others like him would try their hands too, but soon it was evident that the best way to make a living in Estes Park was by catering to vacationers, people who labored elsewhere with sufficient success that they came to play at camping, hunting, hiking, fishing, and other things Joel Estes did just to get by.
Material security came unevenly to Colorado. The Estes’s labored mightily but could not bend the land enough to their needs to turn a profit. At the very same time, however, Byers and many others—notably Lord Dunraven and Isabella Lucy Bird—already enjoyed warmth, security, and full bellies in their daily lives. Such dignitaries found the lives of folks like Estes quaint and appealing enough to want to vacation by doing similar things. If one could not profit by laboring in Estes Park, perhaps one could play. In the shadow of Longs Peak, labor and leisure developed not in sequence, but simultaneously and in interaction with each other.
If the hard pioneer life obscured the leisure that was beginning to take root at the very same time, the reverse was true a century later. Leisure obscured labor. In the twentieth century people came to play in the Rockies, only dimly aware, if at all, of the labor that underwrote their leisure. Passengers in sumptuous rail cars moved across the landscape without breaking a sweat; not so, however, for the porters, waiters, maids, and janitors whose work created the sense of luxury the passengers enjoyed. Today, every car that zooms up Interstate 70 to the ski slopes is fueled by gasoline taken from distant ecosystems. Resort goers’ rooms are warmed and lighted by electricity from power plants supplied by the efforts of coal workers. Hikers and campers enjoy the comforts of light, insulated, water-repellant gear, and tasty and nutritious pre-packaged food made by factory workers far away from the sublime granite peaks. While rafting the whitewater of the Colorado or Arkansas rivers, toasting frosty fingers at a ski chalet, stalking elk in the forests, soaking in hot springs at the base of Mt. Princeton, and touring the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde, Coloradans experience an overwhelming sense of excitement, beauty, and relaxation—leisure. But none of it is possible without a network of labor, often invisible, that provides the energy and materials that make such adventures feasible. After all, it’s no fun skiing if you have to ride a mule to the slopes and spend the day—and night—in soaked clothing. Petroleum, Gortex, Thinsulate, central heat, air conditioning, cell phone signals, and the people who make, move, and deliver such amenities are a necessity for recreation. Anyone’s leisure in Colorado implies labor for someone else.
The essays in the Ecology section tell these kinds of stories. See if you can sort them into land, labor, and leisure stories. Then, look more deeply into them—even between the lines—and see if you can spot all three interacting to shape Colorado’s history.