A rural county says no to pork

  • Fritz Diether and Gary Hausler next to the Taylor River

    Jason Lenderman photo
  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.

High Country News Classifieds
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
    Posted: July 19, 2021 Application deadline: August 27 or until position is filled. Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action is seeking a fulltime Office Administrator...
    Posted: July 15, 2021 Application deadline: August 21, 2021 or until position is filled Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action is seeking three full time...
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
    High Country News (HCN) seeks an audience editor to attract and acquire new audiences and deepen engagement with them - in our newsletters, on our...
    High Country News (HCN) is looking for a Community Marketer to build and strengthen relationships between HCN and other organizations and individuals, with the aim...
    Job Announcement: Finance and Operations Manager Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August...
    Job Announcement: Development Director Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August 9, 2021...
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. This position is part of our...
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.
    The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is dedicated to saving the lands and waters on which all life depends. For more than 30 years, TNC has...
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-climate-energy-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Climate and Energy Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Climate and Energy Program Director Location: Helena, Montana; other...
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-wildlands-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Director Location: Portland or Eugene,...
    New w/25 year warranty. Shipped anywhere in the lower 48. Minimum order of 10 units. Call, text or email for current prices. .50-.80/ watt
    3.8 acres in pine and fir forest on a year round creek. Custom home, 2x6 framing, radiant heat, wrap around decks and established berry patch....
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!