Foundation focuses on project at Independence Pass summit |

Foundation focuses on project at Independence Pass summit

Aspen Times file

ASPEN – A nonprofit group concerned about the well-being of Independence Pass is changing its focus from healing old road cuts to educating travelers about the special environment.

The Independence Pass Foundation will concentrate for the foreseeable future on helping implement improvements along the Top of the Rockies National and Scenic Byway on Highway 82 between Aspen and Twin Lakes.

“We’re sort of in a transition stage as far as our mission goes,” said Mark Fuller, the foundation’s executive director.

Many of the big restoration projects the foundation has undertaken over the past 18 years have been completed, or the end is in sight. A multiyear effort to stabilize the bank above and below what is known as “The Top Cut” is 80 to 90 percent complete, Fuller said. The cut for Highway 82 on the last long straightaway on the west side of the pass summit left the mountainside frayed and bare. The foundation placed boulders to stabilize the mountainside and planted trees and vegetation to restore a natural look.

The same work is needed on two road cuts lower on the Aspen side of the pass, one across the highway from Tagert Lake and one across from Difficult Campground, Fuller said. But that work requires funds that the Colorado Department of Transportation cannot spare in these lean economic times.

“Those projects are seven years out at best,” Fuller said.

Meanwhile, the foundation and its partners will focus on educating travelers about the high-alpine environment of the pass by placing interpretative signs at strategic places. They are working with the Forest Service and Top of the Rockies to build a station at the summit of Independence Pass that will include interpretative signs about the Continental Divide, mountain scenery, history and natural resources, according to a draft management plan.

There is no grandiose plan for a visitors center. A simple interpretative station will be designed with input from the public.

“We don’t want to turn it into a public-relations negative by assuming we know what people want up there,” Fuller said.

The organizations also want to improve the parking area at the summit by separating the highway from the parking lot, possibly by moving the road slightly to the north. There can be 200 or more vehicles parked at the summit on busy summer days, including most weekends, Fuller noted. Vehicles pull in and out of the parking area at will, with no defined exits and entrances.

“It’s really scary sometimes,” he said.

The foundation also wants to team with partners to improve the visitor experience at the Independence townsite. The management plan raises the prospect of expanding loop trails, adding picnic tables and making the ghost-town experience more memorable. Interpretative signs will be placed at other important pull-off points along the highway.

Fuller said projects contemplated along Highway 82 will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. They won’t be undertaken all at once. They will be chipped away at when the partners raise the money.

“They’re the kind of projects people will be able to relate to,” Fuller said.

The foundation will contribute funds to the projects. The work at the summit is scheduled to occur this summer.

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