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
  • YELLOWSTONE TREASURES: THE TRAVELER'S COMPANION TO THE NATIONAL PARK
    Dreaming of a trip to Yellowstone Park? This book makes you the tour guide for your group! Janet Chapple shares plenty of history anecdotes and...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • SAGE GROUSE CCAA COORDINATOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, headquartered in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a full-time Sage Grouse CCAA Coordinator. This position is part of a collaborative effort...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST
    Executive Director, Okanogan Land Trust Position Announcement Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, family farms, challenging politics, and big conservation opportunities? Do you have...
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Organize with Northern Plains Resource Council to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Starts $35.5k. Apply now- northernplains.org/careers
  • BEAUTIFUL, AUTHENTIC LIVE YULE LOG CENTERPIECE
    - beautiful 12" yule log made from holly wood, live fragrant firs, rich green and white holly, pinecones and red berries. $78 includes shipping. Our...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL DIRECTOR OF PROGRAMS FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA
    Crazy Horse Memorial, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, is currently accepting applications and nominations for the Director of Programs for The Indian University...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL® MANAGER OF RESIDENCE LIFE FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA®
    Crazy Horse Memorial is currently accepting applications for the Manager of Residence Life for The Indian University of North America. This position is responsible for...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Are you an art lover who dreams of living in the mountains? Is fundraising second nature to you? Do you have experience managing creative people?...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Public Lands Foundation, a non-profit organization supporting the multiple-use management of public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, seeks an experienced leader...
  • COLD WEATHER CRAFTS
    Unique handmade gifts from the Gunnison Valley. Soy lotion candles, jewelry, art, custom photo mandalas and more. Check out the website and buy Christmas locally...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    North Cascades Institute seeks their next Executive Director to lead the organization, manage $4 million operating budget, and oversee 60 staff. Send resume/cover letter to...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.