Four-wheeler concerned about Aspen backcountry pearl
August 8, 2012
ASPEN – Work by the Pitkin County Road and Bridge Department on a popular Jeep route near Aspen has a longtime backcountry enthusiast scratching his head and stomping his feet.
Carl Buckingham, a resident of Little Annie, contends that the county’s work on Pearl Pass Road this week actually made the route worse for travel rather than better. The county hauled a Caterpillar D6 bulldozer to the end of the pavement on Castle Creek Road on Monday and then scraped the surface of the gravel road to where it forks to Pearl Pass and Montezuma Basin, according to Buckingham, who witnessed the work.
“This operator drove 3.5 miles, ripping and tearing,” Buckingham said. Rocks and dirt piles were left on the road, where they will impede the flow of water, he said.
The four-wheel-drive road also was in rougher shape afterward: “You better have some skid plates on your vehicle,” he said.
Brian Pettet, county public works director, said judgment is premature.
“The work isn’t done yet,” he said. “There are some spots that need to be opened up to allow water to flow.”
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The bulldozer’s work was finished Tuesday, and it was hauled off the site. Starting this week, a backhoe will work for two or three days to finish up.
Pettet said the goal of the work was to repair drainage problems to ensure that water runs off to either side of the roads rather than down the middle. The county wants to avoid erosion issues that plague many backcountry roads. The county had no intent to grade the road to ease travel for motorists, he said.
Buckingham contends that the county’s work was unnecessary. He said the water bars functioned well and drainage was effective. He has taken it upon himself, along with others, to perform minor maintenance on the road for the past 22 years. Buckingham said he removed rocks from the side of the road when they blocked water. He trimmed bushes and trees that interfered with travel. He was part of a team that rebuilt a wooden bridge, which washed out a couple of years ago, roughly three miles from the end of the pavement. He’s undertaken so much informal maintenance, he said, that other regular users of the road have dubbed him the mayor of Pearl Pass.
Pettet countered that the county’s work was essential. There has been no maintenance on Pearl Pass Road for seven to 10 years. The county also recently worked on drainage on Express Creek Road, from Castle Creek Road up to Taylor Pass.
“If we don’t do some routine maintenance, the roads will fail,” Pettet said. The work had nothing to do with earning road-maintenance funds from the state or federal governments, he said. He was uncertain the county even gets funds for maintaining such rough routes as Pearl Pass Road and Express Creek Road.
Buckingham and Pettet talked about the project Tuesday morning, but Buckingham said his concerns weren’t eased. He remained “at wit’s end” over the work throughout the day after watching the dozer operator in action on Monday.
“I almost cried. I mean, really,” Buckingham said.
He was already wary of county road maintenance of backcountry roads for a different reason. Upper Little Annie Road and Midnight Mine Road were “wrecked” by the county years ago. Pettet said the county has an obligation to maintain the roads in residential areas to a higher standard. Road base and grading was performed on portions of Little Annie Road and Midnight Mine Road to make travel easier, he said. The county has no intention of performing that level of work on Express Creek Road and Pearl Pass Road. They are “two different animals” with a different standard of maintenance.
Pettet said Pitkin County pays more attention to detail than many counties while working on backcountry roads. Many counties will “go ahead and buff them out,” he said. Pitkin County wants the roads to remain rugged for high-clearance vehicles and has even placed many of them in the Rural and Remote zone district so there isn’t an expectation for greater ease.
But performing maintenance while maintaining the character of a rough road is a challenge. “It’s a work of art with heavy equipment, and that’s not always easy,” Pettet said.
Buckingham said he also was concerned about the county’s work on Pearl Pass Road because the bulldozer driver allegedly drove over the wooden bridge 3 miles from the pavement. The bridge washed out in high water a few years ago and was replaced two years ago this month, Buckingham said. Schmueser Gordon Meyer Engineers designed the replacement bridge, and volunteers such as Buckingham helped construct it. The bridge was designed to handle as much as 10 tons. The dozer likely was closer to 20 tons, Buckingham said. He and others are concerned about the integrity of the structure.
Pettet took a field visit to Pearl Pass Road on Tuesday but was unable to talk to the dozer driver. He said he was uncertain whether the heavy equipment crossed the bridge.
Pettet said he welcomes scrutiny of road projects by people such as Buckingham, and he is willing to consider issues they raise and convey the county’s view.