GUNNISON, Colo. - On a brilliant fall day in central Colorado, Federal Highway Administration engineer Mark Taylor offered Gunnison County commissioners $38 million. The money would pay to reroute, widen and pave the road connecting the small town of Buena Vista, pop. 2,141, to the even smaller town of Almont, pop. 300.
The 35-mile road meanders through the
Gunnison National Forest, climbs over 12,000-foot Cottonwood Pass,
and skirts ranches along the Taylor River. Part gravel and part
pavement, the route is open only in summer and fall. That could
change, Taylor told a roadside gathering of county commissioners,
environmentalists and ranchers, who toured the site of the proposed
project. The road could blossom into a full-blown highway, open to
tourist and truck traffic seven months out of the year. All the
county had to do was say the word.
money is usually welcomed by the rural West, this group was as cold
as the rushing river. Squinting into the sunlight reflected off the
season's first snow, locals grilled Taylor about the impacts a
highway might bring.
Later, Gary Hausler,
speaking for the five-family Taylor Park Cattle Association, called
the tour a waste of time. "We want to leave this as a mountain
road," he said. "We don't want people driving 50 miles an hour on
Taylor was frustrated, saying he'd never
seen such opposition to a road project. "It comes to a point where
it would be better to move to another route," he said. And in the
end, he had to move on, because in November, Gunnison County
commissioners turned down the biggest pork barrel project they'd
seen in decades.
Commissioner Marlene Zanetell
explained why. "The Federal Highway Administration underestimates
the commitment of Gunnison County citizens to preserve their
quality of life," she said. "They're like junkyard dogs."
Paving the way for
The proposal to improve the Cottonwood
Pass road was a part of the federal government's Forest Highway
Program. Over the last seven years, Congress has set aside $1.2
billion to build highways in America's national parks and national
"The goal of the Forest Highway Program
is to improve on-the-ground infrastructure," says Bill Gournay,
director of engineering for the Forest Service's Rocky Mountain
region. Gournay says Congress created the program in 1916 to open
"large tracts of unaccessed lands to the driving public."
In 1979, the Gunnison National Forest put the
Cottonwood Pass road on the forest highway waiting list. Thirteen
years later, in 1992, its number came up and the Federal Highway
Administration (FHWA) set to work planning the road and completing
the necessary environmental assessment, which eventually cost
$650,000. But before the FHWA could start work, it needed the
approval of Gunnison County and the Forest Service.
Gunnison National Forest Supervisor Bob Storch
supported the project, saying the existing road couldn't handle the
60,000 vehicles traveling it every year. A wider, straighter road
would see fewer accidents, he said.
speculated that the agency had other motives. Timber companies in
Taylor Canyon use the road for logging operations, which have
totaled 7.45 million board-feet in the last five years. There are
plans to cut another 5.6 million board-feet. Also, recreational
user fees may be imposed in Colorado national forests in a year or
two, according to Storch. User fees bring in extra dollars for
Gunnison County found the
offer tempting. Like many rural counties, its largest expense is
maintaining roads. "It's the biggest part of our budget by far,"
said Commissioner Zanetell. The project would provide money to
replace three old bridges on the Taylor Canyon
But opposition from residents was universal
and organized. Ranchers, environmentalists and business owners
decried the program's plan to cut down trees, blast cliffs, build
retaining walls in the Taylor River, bulldoze hillsides and pave
"This has done more to unite
people in the community from a wider political background than
anything else," said Gary Hausler.
Association president Palmer Vader said that if the highway is
paved, "the whole East Slope (of Colorado) is going to be here.
It's just going to ruin the wilderness effect people come for now."
An overwhelming majority of business owners
agreed, according to High Country Citizens Alliance (HCCA) director
Vicki Shaw. Susan Gore, owner of the Blue Addiction clothing store,
circulated petitions to businesses in nearby Gunnison and Crested
Butte. Gore said 119 owners or managers were opposed to the
project, and 10 supported it. County Commissioner Rikki Santarelli
said he received 1,200 comments opposed to the road and only 12 in
And when the cattle association and HCCA
felt that county commissioners and road builders still weren't
listening, they enlisted the help of Colorado Republican Sen. Wayne
Allard, who sent his aide, Andy Colosimo, to make sure the
engineers listened. "We don't believe the federal government should
be working in opposition to the locals," Colosimo
Still, it's not every day that Uncle Sam
throws around cash like candy canes at a Christmas parade. If we
don't take the FHWA up on its offer, lamented Forest Supervisor
Storch, "That money will go somewhere else in the state."
Gunnison County commissioners tried a little
horse-trading in hopes of getting money to replace the bridges
without rebuilding the whole road. But federal safety standards
required the road builders to widen, pave and re-route the road in
order to avoid legal liability. The program is intended to build
highways, not maintain country roads, explained FHWA engineer Larry
Smith. "We don't have an interest in maintenance work," he said.
At a meeting on Nov. 10, county commissioners
agreed unanimously to send Mark Taylor and his federal money
"If they can't listen to local
concerns, then we have no use for them," said Fritz Diether, a HCCA
representative who sits on the Crested Butte city council. The
fight was about more than money, he explained. "It's a turf battle
for controlling our county, and the type of sprawl and development
that occurs when you pave roads."
and the Forest Highway Program are headed to Guenella Pass in
central Colorado, between the towns of Georgetown and Grant, where
the FHWA has plans to spend about $40 million over 24
* Jason Lenderman, HCN
* High Country Citizens Alliance,
* Gunnison National Forest
Supervisor Bob Storch at 970/874-6600;
Hausler with the Taylor Park Cattle Association, 970/641-6085;
* The Federal Highway Administration at