Ninety-nine years ago, a signature in Washington, D.C., left an indelible, invaluable mark. On Jan. 26, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Rocky Mountain National Park Act.
Of course, it took much more than a simple signature to create the natural wonderland enjoyed nearly a century later by more than 3 million people a year.
First, of course, it took Enos Mills, the Longs Peak valley area author, innkeeper and naturalist who lobbied for six years to get Congress to preserve the northern Colorado lands for the public to enjoy.
A meeting with noted naturalist John Muir in 1889 first put the idea into his head, and a visit to Yellowstone encouraged it. He became convinced the area along the Colorado Front Range from Longs Peak to Pikes Peak should be reserved and protected.
In 1909 he wrote: “Around Estes Park, Colorado, are mountain scenes of exceptional beauty and grandeur. In this territory is Longs Peak and one of the most rugged sections of the Continental Divide of the Rockies.” He described that it featured forests, streams, waterfalls, snowy peaks, canyons, glaciers, wild birds, and more than a thousand varieties of wildflowers, but warned even then it was in danger of development.
“In many respects this section is losing its wild charms. Extensive areas of primeval forests have been misused and ruined; sawmills are humming and cattle are in the wild gardens! The once numerous big game has been hunted out of existence and the picturesque beaver are almost gone,” he wrote.
“These scenes are already extensively used as places of recreation. If they are to be permanently and more extensively used and preserved, it will be necessary to hold them as public property and protect them within a national park.”
Of course, the approved national park did not include as much land as Mills would have liked, and it took many years for the Park Service to acquire and remove most of the lodges and other inholdings that were there before 1915 and return the area to a more-natural condition.
There can be no doubt that the efforts led by Mills and joined by others in Estes Park and elsewhere in Colorado preserved one of the most remarkable natural areas in the United States.
A year of celebration officially begins Sept. 4, the 99th anniversary of the opening ceremony of the park.
But as people have known for nearly a century, and some early visionaries like Mills much longer, the area deserves to be celebrated all the time.