Gold Camp EIS a ‘ho-hum’ job?
Hefley, others displeased with results of $290,000 Forest Service road study
Feedback to the United States Forest Service decision on Gold Camp Road has been unenthusiastic so far - including
Congressman Joel Hefley's suggestion that a “ho-hum” attitude was behind it.
“I'm not happy with the results,” said Hefley, who had obtained the federal appropriation of more than $200,000 which allowed the Forest Service to develop an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) over the past year and a half on whether to reopen an 8.5-mile segment of the otherwise-operational historic mountain road to Cripple Creek. Speaking in a phone interview with the Westside Pioneer, Hefley elaborated: “I would have liked it if the decision had come down definitively one way or the other. Frankly, I didn't take this as much of an answer.”
Announced July 8 by Robert Leaverton, Pike National Forest supervisor, the final EIS calls for reopening the segment on a seasonal, daytime, one-way basis, but does not define how to do it or pay for it. The idea, as explained by Leaverton and District Ranger Brent Botts, is that an advisory committee of 9 to 12 citizens would be formed to work with the Forest Service in developing an implementation plan, finding funds - an estimated $700,000 is needed just to repair Tunnel #3, twice that much to open the road - and hiring a “third-party operator” to manage road operations.
Botts said afterward he expects to start the committee-formation effort this fall. The wait would follow a 45-day period in which appeals can be made to the EIS decision.
The implementation plan could include a limitation on what days the road is open during the week, Botts and Leaverton said. This had been the stated desire of Colorado Springs City Council.
In all, Botts estimated the Forest Service spent $290,000 developing the EIS. According to Kim Sears of Hefley's office, $210,000 of that came from a federal appropriation. The EIS process started in early 2004 and involved several public meetings, with more than 400 citizen or entity comments being turned in. A draft EIS, suggesting the same road-opening alternative (but without the citizen committee/third-party aspects), was released in January.
At the press conference announcing the EIS release, Leaverton touted the 790-page document's goal of “maintaining the historical character of the road and the environment and allowing the opportunity to provide a quality recreational experience to the broadest spectrum of people at the least economic impact on the resources of the Pike-San Isabel Forest.”
Among citizen groups who have battled over the road's reopening, the release brought about rare unanimity - that the Forest Service decision was unsatisfactory.
“It leaves more questions than answers. It's vague to say the least,” commented Jolene Thompson of Champions of Gold Camp Trail, which has led the effort to keep the 8.5-mile segment closed and thus retain a hiker-biker “recreational mecca” that has developed since Tunnel #3's closure in 1988.
“It sounds like the Forest Service wanted to do as little as possible, other than make a decision,” said Don Ellis of the Short Line to Cripple Creek, which has sought to reopen the road to cars to allow as many people as possible to enjoy its views and natural experience. “We didn't get our money's worth.”
He was also disappointed that the EIS did not address the data gathered by Short Line, showing that 95 percent of the current users typically do not go farther than the two popular trailheads in the first mile of the 8.5-mile segment.
Lee Milner, a road-opening opponent who has sought a compromise in which it would be open three days a week, questioned how high a priority the road is to the Forest Service. “My sense is that the Forest Service doesn't care about opening it,” said Milner. “They spent a quarter of a million dollars, and didn't even come up with a plan.”
Additional questions have been raised. As Milner noted, it is uncertain how appealing the management prospect might be to a third party, considering the limitations on traffic (EIS estimates do not exceed 300 vehicles a day) and time (April through November, daylight only).
As a result, a user toll is considered a strong possibility. A question for the committee is whether the toll should be applied to hikers and bikers as well as cars. Bicycles will already be subject to the one-way requirement, according to the Forest Service.
Another issue is the unofficial parking lot at High Drive, where Gold Camp Road from Colorado Springs now ends (and the 8.5- mile closed segment begins). The parking lot is about seven miles uphill from the where Gold Camp Road begins, at the intersection of 26th Street and Lower Gold Camp Road.
The flat, dirt area, which can hold 50 to 60 cars, is part of a 40-acre parcel that is privately owned and recently changed hands. Botts said he does not know what the new owners have in mind - just that if they decide to disallow the parking, the only remaining spaces would be the few that could fit within the Forest Service's 100-wide easement through the lot.
Ellis does not think such a scenario would be all bad. “It would force the issue of parking at the trailheads,” he said.
The Forest Service's rationale for not taking action on parking at the two trailheads - Seven Bridges and St. Mary's Falls - is that much of the land there “is not within the Forest Service jurisdiction,” the EIS states.
Thompson, Ellis and Milner said they or their groups will consider participating in the committee.
“We want to be involved,” Thompson said. But she added her belief that the Forest Service has greatly underestimated the costs, as well as the financial and legal entanglements that could result from having a third-party operator.
Also possibly interested in joining the committee, Ellis pointed out, will be officials from Teller County, who have strongly supported the segment's reopening as a tourism boon.
Hefley suggested the Teller County interest might be harnessed through an intergovernmental agreement that would give Teller a greater role in the process. Currently, because the segment is on Forest Service land in El Paso County, Teller's involvement has been just advisory.
Despite the criticism, Botts thinks the key thing is that a decision has been made. “At least now we have a decision box,” he explained. “We can implement within that box. Another good thing out of it is that the Forest Service is more successful when the public is a partner, so I think it's great. We'll sit everyone down (for the committee) and see how to make it work.”
He said the Forest Service does not have any funding sources or third-party operators in mind. However, he said that the agency has set up similar arrangements at numerous other park lands - including places (such as Mt. St. Helen's) where extensive citizen fund-raising was involved.
Botts said the first priority will be repairing Tunnel #3, which is about one mile beyond the parking lot. If no money can be readily found to fix it, the tunnel will be boarded up to keep people out, he said.
Tight money is clearly an issue for the Forest Service. “We've got more roads now than we need to take care of,” Botts said. “But it (Gold Camp Road) is a jewel out there, That's why we, say it would be good for a third party operator. It may not go to a Fourteener, but it is the road to Cripple Creek, and has a great vista.”
Botts said he would welcome any federal implementation funding; Hefley said such an appropriation might be possible. But first he wants to meet with Forest Service officials to get a better idea of the direction they really want to go.
“They say we can open it up, but there are so many strings attached, it's going to be very difficult to get it open again,” Hefley said.
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