In a blow to conservationists, hikers and others who fought hard for Gold Camp Road to be kept as a nature trail, foresters last week gave a final green light for motorized traffic to run in one direction along the scenic route.
But it is unclear if the road actually will become the belching smog trap feared by environmentalists, because the Forest Service says it can't, and won't, pay to repair the collapsed tunnel that shut down the Colorado Springs-to-Cripple Creek connection 17 years ago.
"It may never get opened if no funding comes forward," said Brent Botts, district ranger for Pike National Forest, in a press conference late last week. "That's one of the risks that we're willing to take."
The situation shines a spotlight on budget concerns in the Pike and San Isabel national forests west of Colorado Springs. The forests, administrated together with two regional grasslands, are grappling with a maintenance backlog of at least $15 million, including $12 million in deferred road repairs.
Compounding the problem are budget cuts that leave Colorado's foresters with about half the money they had last year for such maintenance.
Leading up to the Gold Camp decision, the Forest Service gathered more than 200 comments regarding the fate of the 8.5-mile road.
Local governments, joined by several business and tourism interests, generally favored a plan that would see traffic winding along the dirt road's narrows as a way to boost tourism. But 42 percent of people commenting in writing -- many of them hikers, local residents and environmentalists -- were opposed. They raised concerns that allowing cars on the road would ruin what has become a nature path, while imperiling safety and creating pollution.
The road closed in 1988 when Tunnel 13 collapsed. The cost of repairing the tunnel, and making the road drivable, is estimated at $1.3 million.
Nothing for free
Without the funds -- and another $50,000 each year to maintain the road should it open -- foresters await a third party or combination of groups to come forward with funding.
"If it opens -- and that's a big 'if' -- it almost says there has to be a fee or a toll to make it work," said Lee Milner, vice president of advocacy for the Trails and Open Space (TOPS) Coalition. "Somehow, I doubt that would be enough."
Milner's group, one of the most vocal during the public comment process, told the Forest Service it favored opening the road but only if it would be closed to traffic several days a week.
Despite the big question mark hanging over the road's fate, Forest Supervisor Bob Leaverton said an implementation group could iron out specific concerns like those of TOPS.
The group, to be created by the Forest Service, would include experts and officials, he said, adding that he ideally would seek the inclusion of people opposed to seeing the road opened.
But that's getting way ahead in the process, Leaverton said.
"Nobody's probably going to do this for free," he noted.
-- Michael de Yoanna