An environmental watchdog group is predicting that if Gold Camp Road were opened to automobiles, Pike National Forest's worsening budget crunch would lead to possible closures of campgrounds and other cuts in service.
"There are all sorts of reasons not to reopen Gold Camp to vehicles -- the crowning one is the $1.4 million price tag," said Rocky Smith, forest watch program director for Colorado Wild, a nonprofit environmental group.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Forest Service issued a "preferred alternative" that would allow one-way automobile traffic on the scenic mountain road, which closed in 1988 after a tunnel collapsed.
The plan is opposed by a broad spectrum of hikers, horseback riders and environmentalists who say automobile traffic will bring crime and pollution to what has become a popular trail. But tourism boosters and local governments support the plan as a scenic drive that would connect Colorado Springs to Cripple Creek.
Forest Supervisor Bob Leaverton won't make a final decision until sometime in June.
Worsening the backlog
Meanwhile, foresters admit they don't have the estimated $1.4 million that is needed to fix Tunnel No. 3 and make necessary improvements to the road for car traffic.
"We have been up front since the beginning that we have not identified a funding source," said Pike planner Frank Landis.
He outlined hopes that historic grant money or local governments might fund some repairs. But even with help, foresters would see thousands of dollars a year in additional expenses associated with maintaining the road.
That would likely worsen the existing backlog in maintenance projects in Pike and San Isabel national forests and the Cimarron and Comanche national grasslands, said Ralph G. Stevenson, a forest program manager.
In all, the backlog is at least $15 million, he said. That amount includes $12 million in deferred road repairs -- of which $2 million is considered critical for safety, he said. Roughly $1.8 million in drinking water repairs have also been delayed. More than half of the water projects are considered possible safety hazards.
'Perfect storm' brewing
Compounding this crisis are looming budget cuts to the Forest Service, the result of congressional actions.
This year, key funds for repairs and upgrades were slashed in half in Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas. The states expect just $11 million for construction and maintenance, said Steve Sherwood, the Forest Service's regional director of recreation, heritage and wilderness resources.
"Pretty much everything is going to be affected to a certain extent," he said.
The cuts have forced foresters to prioritize how to funnel resources into the most used areas.
Less-visited campsites and trails could be closed. Some boat ramps might be swamped. In places, trash pickup could be eliminated, along with potable water availability.
Specific recommendations haven't yet been issued for any of the forests, but the process must be complete for all Rocky Mountain forests by 2007.
Sherwood called it a "perfect storm" creating less services at the same time forests are packed with visitors like never before.
Smith agreed, adding that given the dwindling resources he couldn't understand why the Forest Service would recommend that traffic should be returned to Gold Camp Road.
-- Michael de Yoanna
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