DENVER (KDVR) – America has a new national monument: Camp Hale-Continental Divide. President Joe Biden was in Colorado Wednesday to designate his first national monument since taking office.

Biden discussed how to protect Colorado’s environment in addition to the Camp Hale-Continental Divide announcement in Leadville, roughly 100 miles west of Denver.

The announcement is a boost to Colorado’s senior Democratic senator, Michael Bennet, who has for years advocated for the designation and is in a competitive re-election bid this November. The location is an alpine training site where U.S. soldiers prepared for battles in the Italian Alps during World War II.

“We’re doing it not just for today, but for all the ages,” Biden said, standing amid the rugged, sun-drenched backdrop flanked by mountains as far as the eye could see. The remote site was located off a winding road past an abandoned mine and an old mountain home. “It’s for the people of Colorado, but it also goes well beyond the people of Colorado. It’s for all the people across America and the world.”

While most national monuments protect extraordinary natural landscapes, there are at least 12 other military sites designated as national monuments by other presidents.

“This is a historic day for Colorado,” Bennet said in his prepared remarks at Camp Hale. “With this designation, Mr. President, you offer [the service of the veterans of the 10th Mountain Division] the dignity of public remembrance. You safeguard this place and its history, not only for them, but for America. And you ensure that, years from now, we can bring our grandkids here and tell them the story of the 10th Mountain Division and their contributions — not only to Colorado, but to humanity. And for that, Mr. President, Colorado will be forever grateful.”

Political aspects of the new national monument in Colorado

Democratic candidates have been far more likely to appear with Biden if it’s an official White House event, and that was the approach in Colorado, where Bennet stood alongside the president to tout the designation.

“You have excellent taste, Mr. President, for your administration’s first national monument designation,” Bennet said Wednesday. “Your designation means more Americans will come to appreciate the extraordinary history of this place — a history that goes back to before when Colorado was a state.”

Meanwhile, Bennet’s opponent, Republican Joe O’Dea, dismissed Biden’s visit as “a political stunt.”

“It’s not changing our economy. It’s not changing the price of gas,” O’Dea said in an interview. He added that while “Camp Hale’s a special place,” its preservation should have come through Congress. O’Dea called Biden’s unilateral action a “usurpation of power.” A far more sweeping conservation bill has been stalled in Congress due to opposition from Republicans.

Under the Antiquities Act of 1906 signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt, presidents have the power to establish or modify national monuments from federal lands to protect their “special natural and cultural features,” according to NPS. President Joe Biden has used the Antiquities Act three times so far – twice to change the boundary of a national monument and once to restore activities on the land.

O’Dea, a businessman with a moderate profile, has mounted a competitive bid against Bennet, who has served in the Senate since 2009. National Republicans believe he is among the party’s best recruits this cycle.

In a separate move, the Biden administration also announced Wednesday it is pausing new mining, as well as the drilling for oil and gas, on 225,000 acres of public land in the Thompson Divide, a natural gas-rich area not far from Camp Hale.

Early days of Camp Hale

The former temporary military site situated in the Pando Valley was built in 1942 as a training facility for the United States Army’s 10th Mountain Division for World War II.

Soldiers learned how to ski and navigate high country in preparation for battle in the mountains of Northern Italy during the second world war.

“The army began construction of the camp in April 1942. Named Camp Hale, in honor of former Brigadier General Irving Hale, a Denver native, the camp occupied 1,456.8 acres of the Pando Valley floor,” the Colorado Encyclopedia website says.

The site says the camp cost the Army $31 million to construct which diverted the flow of the Eagle River.

According to the History Colorado site, the camp was built in just seven months. It consisted of:

  • 226 barracks
  • 33 administration buildings
  • 676-bed hospital
  • A veterinarian hospital for horses, mules, and dogs
  • Five churches and chapels
  • 100 mess halls
  • A bakery
  • Three theaters
  • One field house
  • Indoor pistol ranges
  • Seven post exchanges
  • Two service clubs, one officers club
  • Horse and mule barns
  • Grain storage
  • Coal storage
  • Numerous warehouses
  • A stockade
  • Vehicle-maintenance facilities
  • Weapons ranges
  • Six underground ammunition magazines
  • Four water storage tanks
  • Three fire stations
  • A school
  • Post office
  • Medical and dental clinics
  • A combat village
  • Two ski areas

The small city in the middle of the mountains at 9,250 feet was completed by laborers consisting mostly of men outside of draft age and those exempted from the draft.

What happened to Camp Hale after the war

The Colorado Encyclopedia said prisoners of war were ordered to dismantle the buildings at Camp Hale in 1945 after the war was over and the materials were used to build at Fort Carson. The camp was reactivated for soldiers from Fort Carson on a limited basis to train. It was then used as a CIA site to secretly train Tibetian military personnel from 1959-1964, the encyclopedia said.

The Department of the Army officially closed Camp Hale at the end of 1965 and transferred the land to the White River National Forest. The Forest Service later constructed two campgrounds, the Camp Hale Memorial Campground and the East Fork Campground, as well as a picnic area.

10th Mountain Division

The US Army’s first and only Mountain Infantry Division was a combination of the 85th and 86th Mountain Infantry Regiments to the 87th Regiment, the Colorado Encyclopedia says. The camp housed more than 15,000 troops in approximately 1,000 buildings after its opening and was used as a training center from 1942-1945.

“Soldiers in Camp Hale learned to scale rock, ski and survive, preparing for the war they were about to fight,” said Biden, who for Wednesday’s announcement was joined by two veterans from the 10th Mountain Division. He praised the troops’ “skill, strength and stamina that could’ve been only gained in a place like this.”

The 10th Mountain Division was deactivated after the war and members of the division returned to Colorado and played a key role in developing many ski areas including Aspen, Vail, and Loveland. Other ski areas around the country also have ties to members from the division.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.