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TCL > November 2002 Issue > Forming the Environmental Citizen: Colorado’s Early Legal Efforts at Protecting Outdoor Recreation

November 2002       Vol. 31, No. 11       Page  120
Historical Perspectives

Forming the Environmental Citizen: Colorado’s Early Legal Efforts at Protecting Outdoor Recreation
by Tom I. Romero, II

Not long after the rush to the Rockies in 1859, Colorado acquired a reputation as the "climate capital" of the United States. With lush forests, towering peaks, abundant wildlife, and fresh mountain air, the state became a mecca for those desiring a healthier life. One visitor even argued that it was nearly impossible to get sick while in Colorado. As evidence, the visitor explained that he "once knew a man who tried to make himself ill in order to get off serving on a jury. He ate nothing but pork fat and drank nothing but lemonade for a week, but he couldn’t do it. . . .The air that you breathe in Colorado enables you to avoid anything."

Although many of the first settlers to Colorado ventured to the territory with their minds focused on extracting the riches beneath the ground, the state’s beautiful scenery and abundant resources inspired early efforts at conservation and environmental protection. These early Coloradans took full advantage of the area’s outdoor activities and, from the outset, served as an example to all future generations of the need for the state’s natural resources to maintain its civic identity.

Although Colorado’s early legislators and governors were concerned about the state’s environmental and natural resource challenges, most influential in the early development of Colorado’s environmental laws were Colorado sportsmen and citizen groups. Founded as early as 1886, sportsmen pioneered the strategy of mobilizing concerned citizens to legally protect the state’s vast natural resources. Troubled by commercial hunters and buyers—called by one Colorado jurist as "the most persistent and heartless enemies of the game, and at the same time the most difficult to detect and punish,"1 sportsmen groups assisted in enacting the state’s first and most comprehensive fish and game laws (see below).

Not surprisingly, the Colorado Bar recognized Coloradans’ long-standing relationship with the state’s wildlife and landscape. In his dissent in Hartman v. Tresise,2 Justice Bailey of the Colorado Supreme Court noted that Colorado’s settlers were the latest in a long line of "energetic, freedom-loving people, excessively fond of outdoor sports, hunting, and fishing." As a result of arguments made by those like Justice Bailey and the persistence as well as success of sportsmen in trying to preserve many of the state’s natural resources, Colorado became known as "America’s playground." Soon, other influential citizen groups were born. Colorado chapters of the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society saw their beginnings in the years after the adjudication of these early Colorado legal battles at the beginning of the twentieth century. In this regard, Colorado’s purple mountains, fresh rivers, majestic wildlife, clean air, and outdoor enthusiasts provided the foundation for the collective environmental movement that emerged in the 1950s.


1. Hornbeke v. White, 76 P. 926, 930 (Colo.App. 1904).

2. 84 P. 685, 689 (Colo. 1905).


This historical perspective was written by Tom I. Romero, II, Western Legal Studies Fellow, University of Colorado-Boulder: In 1899, the Colorado legislature passed the state’s most comprehensive nineteenth-century law concerning the licensing and protection of game and fish in the state. "An act to protect game and fish" (Sess. Laws 1899, § 98, 184) provided for state ownership of all game and fish not already under private ownership, a limitation on the time and manner in which one could hunt or fish, and a restriction on what one could legally hunt. Colorado courts reaffirmed the validity of the Act in Hornbeke v. White, 76 P. 926 (Colo.App. 1904) and Hartman v. Tresise, 84 P. 685 (Colo. 1905). In other cases, early Colorado courts came down hard on mining companies that dumped tailings and other pollutants into Colorado’s public waters. See Suffolk Gold Min. & Mill. Co. v. San Miguel Consol. Min. & Mill. Co. 48 P. 828 (Colo. 1897). For insights into the environmental conscience of Colorado’s sportsmen clubs, see the Western History Collection at the Denver Public Library and the Stephen H. Hart Library at the Colorado Historical Society, which contains records of such groups as the Vallejo Gun Club and Mile High Duck Club. Some of the legal arguments made by these groups are recounted in Frederick S. Titsworth’s report on the annual proceedings of the Colorado Scientific Society in 1910: "Notes on the Legal Aspects of the Conservation Problem" housed at the Hart Library. Finally, the environmental development of Colorado’s legislators and chief executives can be found in the public and personal papers of Colorado’s governors located at the Colorado State Archives in downtown Denver:

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