Independence Pass work to continue | AspenTimes.com

Independence Pass work to continue

Naomi Havlen
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Work on the final climb up to Independence Pass will continue late this summer, but the project won’t close the pass early to automobile traffic as it did last summer.

According to Mark Fuller, executive director of the Independence Pass Foundation, the work to halt erosion on the so-called “top cut” of the pass and restore vegetation continued last week with extensive seeding. For the next two weeks heavy machinery will work on rebuilding the slope above the rock walls that line the highway.

The rebuilding project progressed in leaps and bounds late last summer and early fall, when geologists and engineers worked together to prevent erosion at the top cut from continuing. Soil was stabilized with use of a walking excavator that perched on the steep hillside and wire mesh to keep the restructured soil from falling.

Fuller said the rebuilding process will continue this year with placing fill material on the slope, covering it with topsoil and revegetative matting that serves as mulch. From that stage, native trees and shrubs can be planted on the hillside.

But at the high elevation, Fuller said plants and seeds take longer to develop.

“We built our first prototype retaining walls up there in 1995, and the vegetation there is starting to come in pretty well now and looking fairly natural,” he said. “It’s not native density yet, but it blends in fairly well with the surrounding vegetation. It takes between five and six years to get a foothold, and it can vary depending on the weather.”

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Fuller guesses that the areas seeded last year didn’t fully develop because of this year’s warm, dry spring.

“But lots of seeds and plants will often stay dormant and then come up several years after they’ve been put in the ground. Just because we have one or two bad years doesn’t mean it’s a futile effort,” he said.

There will be some brief lane stoppages for the next few weeks as machinery moves in and out of the area, but this phase of the project should be completed around Labor Day. When the pass closes for the season depends on the weather and decisions made by the Colorado Department of Transportation.

Last year’s major construction phase proved itself to be sturdy during last winter’s storms.

“It’s held up spectacularly,” Fuller said. “Mostly due to good engineering and good installation. It went as well as we could have possibly hoped.”

He said the rebuilding of the top cut has become a prototype for the restructuring of hillsides. The lengthy project is anticipated to last another five years.

“Less than 10 years ago, this was still a pipe dream for us,” Fuller said. “We’re pretty pleased with all the progress – it was so bad for so long, and now things are really going in the right directions.”

This is not the last year of the project – Fuller said there are more retaining walls to be constructed at the top cut and some major slopes to be worked on.

“We’re in the middle of a $1.6 million capital campaign aimed at completing the work up there,” he said, “including work just below the road restoring vegetation.”