FLAT TOPS WILDERNESS AREA — Jim Bedwell gazes up from his paddleboard, admiring the dramatic volcanic cliffs rising from Trappers Lake.
“This really brings it full circle for me. Natural beauty. A special place. This is what it’s been all about for me,” says the 64-year-old champion of recreation with the Forest Service who retires July 3, after 38 years with the agency.
Arthur Carhart, the fledgling Forest Service’s first landscape architect and recreation professional visited Trappers Lake back in 1919. He was tasked with mapping out a development of summer homes for a lucky group of permit winners.
He returned with a different idea: Some places are so beautiful and wild they should not be developed at all.
It took 45 years for Carhart’s idea to become the seminal Wilderness Act of 1964 and Trappers Lake became known as the “Cradle of Wilderness,” a gateway to the 235,000-acre Flat Tops Wilderness Area, the third-largest in Colorado.
“A big part of what Carhart was thinking about, besides preserving nature, was not just making this available to the few but available for all in its undisturbed, preserved state. The greatest good for the greatest number,” Bedwell says. “I’ve been honored and privileged to follow his lead.”
Gabriel Scarlett, The Denver Post
Jim Bedwell, the director of recreation, lands, minerals and volunteers for the Rocky Mountain region, Bedwell is preparing to retire in July.
Bedwell started his career as a Forest Service landscape architect working in Arizona. He stewarded the Sante Fe National Forest in New Mexico and Colorado’s Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests and Pawnee National Grassland, where he managed the permits for Winter Park and the now-defunct Berthoud Pass ski area. He served in Puerto Rico’s El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rain forest in the Forest Service network. He did two tours in Washington, D.C., serving as national director of recreation and heritage. And he’s concluding his career after 11 years as director of recreation, land, minerals and volunteers for the Rocky Mountain Region in Colorado, the agency’s most trafficked.
Over nearly four decades, he’s helped guide the agency’s shift from timber harvesting and extraction to a stronger focus on restoration and recreation. It’s been a slow process. But just as Carhart’s wilderness concept took more than 40 years to become a pillar of public land protection, recreation is growing as an essential principle for the Forest Service.
“Good ideas take time,” says Bedwell, who will remain in Colorado after he retires.
It’s been a tumultuous ride for Bedwell, whose job responsibilities included managing millions of acres and balancing the wildly diverse demands on that land. He’s been pulled by oil, gas and coal developers, pushed by timber and grazing interests, wooed by water developers, cajoled by motorized users, petitioned by quiet-use wilderness groups, beseeched by wildlife advocates and implored by ski resorts.
Like most Forest Service bosses, he’s been criticized for not doing enough for one group, or doing too much for another. But his legacy will be an unyielding defense of recreation, promoting the designation of wild and scenic rivers like the Rio Chama in New Mexico and elevating non-motorized wilderness recreation as a management policy.
“I’ve always been on the forefront in advancing the cause of recreation,” he says. “That’s been a big shift toward that better balance in resources, but there is still work to do in terms of recreation emphasis and understanding that it just doesn’t happen by itself. Recreation is vital part of what we provide and it really is what the American people largely look to us for.”
Gabriel Scarlett, The Denver Post
Jim Bedwell, 65, paddle boards at Trappers Lake on June 21, 2017 in the White River National Forest in Colorado. The director of recreation, lands, minerals and volunteers for the Rocky Mountain region, Bedwell is preparing to retire in July.
Another legacy for Bedwell is his uncanny ability to bring diverse interests to the table and find common ground. With a disarming laugh and laid-back style, Bedwell can quickly put a room at ease — even when the room is filled with folks who don’t typically get along.
“But you have to bring these diverse interests together,” he said, “and get them to agree on common interests and how to get the job done for the long term.”
Bedwell is big on deflecting credit to others. But he has a few accomplishments that remain a source of pride. He built the Forest Service’s Built Environment Image Guide, which defines the overall design motif reflecting the natural setting and cultural identity for the agency’s seven provinces, from mountains and deserts to plains and oceans. It will guide future facility design as the agency moves toward more public-private partnerships.
“The days of us designing and building all the recreation sites and designations are probably going to be limited,” he says, “but we still want to keep the character of the national forests in our built environment.”
He’s also championed the notion of sustainable recreation, helping to sculpt a framework that protects social, cultural and environmental characteristics as the agency installs new recreation infrastructure like roads and trails. That’s especially important as places like Colorado experience huge population growth.
Gabriel Scarlett, The Denver Post
Jim Bedwell, 65, hikes at Trappers Lake on June 21, 2017 in the White River National Forest in Colorado. The director of recreation, lands, minerals and volunteers for the Rocky Mountain region, Bedwell is preparing to retire in July.
“In connecting people to their land — and it is their land — we want them to experience nature and want them to appreciate the beauty and awe of these landscapes and to do that we will need a higher level of development in some areas,” he says.
Like ski resorts.
Bedwell co-wrote the 2011 federal legislation that allowed the Forest Service more leeway when approving summer recreation development at ski areas operating on public land. That law has enabled resorts such as Vail, Breckenridge, Snowmass, Copper Mountain, Winter Park and Steamboat — Colorado hills that are leading the summer development trend at resorts — to build things such as zip lines, alpine coasters, adventure courses, gathering places, educational kiosks and more trails.
Approving that kind of development in areas where a healthy permit holder — such as Vail Resorts — would be in charge of building and maintenance was “a no-brainer,” Bedwell says.
Those projects, such as Epic Discovery at Vail and Breckenridge and Heavenly in California, can introduce first-timers to their public lands, expanding the agency’s reach to the next generation of public lands users and — potentially — advocates.
“Most people get into their national forests through recreation. Some will take the next step and try to understand more about the ecology and environment and they will develop an even greater appreciation and support for their lands,” Bedwell says. “Some will go ever further and say ‘How do you make a living doing this,’ or ‘I want to volunteer, or ‘I will be an advocate.’ And it all can start at that resort zip line.”
Crafting the 2011 Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act is “a testament to his quiet skill and patience at bringing people together,” said Melanie Mills, the head of the Colorado Ski Country resort trade group.
“Patience is one of the qualities I think of when I think about Jim,” Mills says. “He’s got that mischievous twinkle in his eye and keeps things percolating along and I think he has kind of a remarkable legacy all around in terms of the various components of those recreation positions he’s worked in. He’s a steady hand and he’s a lot of fun too.”
Bedwell’s retirement coincides with the departure of Joe Meade, the Forest Service’s national director of recreation, heritage and volunteer resources. That worries resort industry players who aren’t seeing federal agencies rushing to fill vacant positions. The Interior Department last week announced plans to cut more than 4,000 jobs, including 1,000 at the Bureau of Land Management. The Trump administration’s proposed budget has the Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service, cutting its budget by 21 percent.
“I think the agency has a renewed focus on recreation and that will help us get folks in those positions,” Mills says.
Luis Benitez, boss of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, installed Bedwell on his advisory team, calling him “an icon in the recreation space.” Benitez laments the loss of institutional knowledge that comes with Bedwell’s departure.
“People like Jim were able to explain where the Forest Service has been to help us understand where the Forest Service needs to go. If you don’t know your history, it can make some of these essential partnerships more challenging,” says Benitez, who finds comfort knowing that Bedwell is not planning to leave Colorado. “He was one of those rare breeds with D.C. experience but that small-town Colorado mindset and that brought a savvy that will be incredibly difficult to replicate.”