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.


While federal 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 it."


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 Winnebagos


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 forests.


"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.


Critics 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 accessible forests.


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 road.


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 pristine meadows.


"This has done more to unite people in the community from a wider political background than anything else," said Gary Hausler.


Cattle 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 favor.


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 said.





All or nothing


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 elsewhere.


"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."


Next, Taylor 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 miles.


* Jason Lenderman, HCN intern





You can contact...


* High Country Citizens Alliance, 970/349-7104;


* Gunnison National Forest Supervisor Bob Storch at 970/874-6600;


* Gary Hausler with the Taylor Park Cattle Association, 970/641-6085; or,


* The Federal Highway Administration at 303/969-5918.