McInnis’ plan for pass designation sparks concerns |

McInnis’ plan for pass designation sparks concerns

Lost in the scuffle over road closures in the White River National Forest is a proposal that could boost the number of vehicles crossing Independence Pass.

U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis has proposed in his alternative plan for the forest that Highway 82 be designated a “scenic byway.” That designation would draw extra attention to the highway east of Aspen on maps and marketing brochures.

While the scenic byway designation is overshadowed by other road fights, it didn’t escape scrutiny by a local environmental organization called the Independence Pass Foundation.

“I don’t think it’s imminent, but it’s something wrapped up in the whole forest plan controversy,” said foundation director Mark Fuller.

Foundation founder Bob Lewis urged supporters at a fund-raising party Saturday to protest McInnis’ plan – and many in the crowd seemed eager to oblige. The discussion followed the foundation’s annual bicycle ride up the pass, which attracted more than 300 participants.

Lewis claimed the scenic byway designation would just encourage more people to drive over the pass. More traffic would lead to more road maintenance and that would wipe out the progress the foundation has made in revegetating and stabilizing terrain around the road, he said. Always controversial The scenic byway designation has previously proved controversial in Aspen. The Pitkin County commissioners vehemently opposed the Colorado Department of Transportation’s intention to give Highway 82 the special attention about 10 years ago. Lake County embraced the idea.

“As I recall, it was just a traffic-generation issue,” said former Commissioner Jim True, who was in office then. County officials were convinced that the scenic byway designation increased traffic, and that more cars would compromise safety on the narrow, twisting highway over the pass.

But current Pitkin County Commissioner Dorothea Farris isn’t buying that argument. “It’s not as though nobody’s using the road now,” she said.

Farris is on a committee that oversees the West Elk Loop scenic bypass, which includes Highway 133 from Carbondale to McClure Pass. She said she didn’t think the designation brought additional traffic, but it made local jurisdictions eligible for special funds for educational efforts, trails and facilities like bathrooms. Forget the marketing Farris said scenic byways don’t have to be synonymous with marketing efforts. The West Elk Loop committee makes it clear that if a business wants to capitalize on the designation in marketing, it must do so on its own.

However, the Independence Pass Foundation believes the designation brings people – marketing efforts or not. It raised its concerns in a May 5 letter to the Forest Service.

“The current traffic levels on the pass have reached a point that threatens the safety and enjoyment of the recreating public,” the letter said. “In addition, the popularity of the pass has led to snow-removal practices which exacerbate erosion and soil loss in the interest of assuring a Memorial Day opening of Highway 82.”

The foundation’s letter said the environment shouldn’t be sacrificed for tourism, particularly in Leadville and Lake County.

“We are aware of, and sympathetic to, the needs of businesses on the other side of the pass, but we feel obligated to point out the environmental costs inherent in subordinating the pass’ environment to the needs of the motoring public.” McInnis explains reasoning McInnis’ Web site and his spokesman defended the designation as environmentally sound. Press secretary Josh Penry said drawing people to Highway 82 allows them to enjoy the environment without treading into it. It also provides access for people who cannot enjoy it by means other than via a vehicle.

The congressman’s Web site further explains that, “National Forest Scenic Byways are very popular and provide an important recreation opportunity. They also bring visitors which improve the economic viability of private business in adjacent communities and resorts.”

Ironically, McInnis may have sparked the discussion based on a faulty premise. His Web site contends that the federal government’s plan for the future of the White River National Forest includes the scenic byway designation for Highway 82 up the pass.

No so, said forest planner Dan Hormaechea of the Forest Service’s Glenwood Springs headquarters. That’s backed by information on the Forest Service’s Web site.

“No additions to the Colorado Scenic and Historic Byway System are anticipated,” the site said. “The current focus is on enhancing the existing system.”

The site further explains that scenic byway designations must be proposed by local community groups and agreed to by the state government.

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