Ecology Paves the Way up Pikes Peak

It's a rare day when environmentalists line up in support of paving a dirt road. But then again, the 13-mile stretch of gravel that snakes toward the summit of Colorado's 14,000-foot Pikes Peak isn't just any country byway.

After all, it was this precarious alpine track that led English professor Katharine Lee Bates to the Pikes Peak summit, which in turn inspired "America, the Beautiful," published 101 years ago on July 4th.

But because the rose-hued granite that likely inspired "purple mountain majesties" is also extremely friable, the 108-year-old gravel carpet that accommodated Bates (and millions of subsequent tourists) is causing extreme erosion problems, environmentalists say.

Over the years, they contend, thousands of tons of gravel, used to maintain the road, have washed over the alpine tundra, burying wetlands and clogging streams. Asphalt would solve much of that problem, they say.

"It's been hard to get support from some environmentalists," says Gail Snyder, author of a key study on road-related erosion. "The reaction is often: 'Paving is bad; it's not environmental.' But in this case, paving the highway is the best way to protect the mountain."

In an even odder twist, however, it's the area's most stalwart auto buffs who strongly oppose paving the road. Organizers of the 74-year-old "Race to the Clouds" - which occurs on July 4 - say paving the Pikes Peak Highway would ruin their annual auto-sprint, the second oldest road race in the US after the Indy 500.

They come for the thrill

Next week, hundreds of racers from around the world will gather in Colorado Springs to pit their souped-up cars, trucks, and motorcycles against the steep, snake-like course. They come, most say, for the unique thrill of ripping over the bumpy, loose surface at speeds up to 150 m.p.h.

"Paving the road would definitely change the race," says Leonard Vashscolz, a nine-time winner who says he probably couldn't afford to rebuild his race car to run on pavement. "It could be done, but the nostalgia and tradition would certainly be gone."

By maintaining a gravel highway, however, the city of Colorado Springs, which leases the road from the United States Forest Service, encourages the mountain's natural inclination to erode, environmentalists say.

Upkeep practices, such as grading, loosen the road surface and cast gravel over the road's edge or into drainage ditches, according to reports by Ms. Snyder and others. This, in turn, sends cascades of brown dirt into alpine meadows, she says.

Snyder has hiked much of the area's steep terrain, documenting road-related damage: gullies dug 30 feet deep by torrents of coffee-colored road spill; trees buried up to five feet in sand; wetlands filled by the spreading deltas of gravel.

Normally, rain and snow-melt seep into the Peak's loose granitic soil, emerging from mountain springs farther down slope, Snyder says. Where roadways capture runoff, however, water is channeled at unnatural speeds, picking up loose gravel as it rushes down hill. Snyder and other environmentalists say blacktop would reduce erosion by eliminating the need for grading and imported gravel. Each year work crews pour thousands of tons of new gravel onto the road.

But race enthusiasts doubt that pavement is the solution. An asphalt bed, they argue, would only increase runoff because it's less absorbent than gravel. Further, black top will likely break up in high-altitude weather conditions, necessitating expensive upkeep, they contend.

Additionally, they point to recent surveys showing most locals and tourists favor the dirt road because it limits traffic and maintains a rural flavor.

The question of whether or not to pave has been debated for decades. But the rancor increased in recent months after the Colorado Springs City Council voted in favor of paving, then explicitly stated that "paving" does not have to mean with asphalt. The city is now testing a product called Pennzsuppress D which contains gravel-binding resins untested on high-altitude roadways, says Dave Zelenok, the city's director of transportation.

If Pennzsuppress withstands the Peak's arctic conditions, Mr. Zelenok says, it's an ideal compromise. If the gummy road glue fails, however, Zelenok says he'll begin laying down asphalt in 1998, as called for in the city's master plan for the highway.

But environmentalists say long-time political and economic connections between city officials and the time-honored race are the real reasons for delay.

Colorado Springs Mayor Bob Isaac, whose nephew is a racer, scoffs at such suggestions. "Of course I'm interested in the race, but the race is not key," says Mayor Isaac. "What I'm really concerned about is safety."

"The weather changes up there every five minutes," says Isaac, adding that gravel provides more traction in snow than asphalt. "So what happens if you get a slick surface when there are people up there who've never driven at high altitudes? It's dangerous."

And not just for inexperienced wintertime drivers, adds the race's executive director Nick Sanborn. To date, only two competitors have died during previous races, but Sanborn says his insurance company is already worried about the liability associated with a paved track. A smooth surface, he says, would allow racers to burn up the hairpin course much more quickly.

For others, it comes down to money. To pave the road with asphalt, local taxpayers would have to produce an estimated $13 million over 10 years. Pennzsuppress D could reduce that price tag because it costs roughly $13,000 per mile, versus $250,000 per mile for asphalt.

But because even the best road stabilizer requires at least some grading, environmentalists contend asphalt is cheaper in the long run because it requires considerably less maintenance.

Clean Water Act

Further, they say, a paved road would bring in greater overall revenues because it would attract more tourists to the highway, which has been managed as city-run toll road since 1915.

And they argue that paving is also needed for legal reasons. Because the highway runoff impacts wetlands, streams, and even a city reservoir, environmentalists say the city is running afoul of the Clean Water Act.

In 1993, a Forest Service report backed up that claim: "Biological productivity of the streams impacted by sediment has been reduced by 85 percent... these streams are not meeting the goal of the Clean Water Act, which states that the biological integrity of the nation's waters will be restored and maintained."

But city and federal officials counter that they're working hard to restore mountain waterways. "We're very concerned about the Clean Water Act and that's why we're doing something about it," says Bill Nelson, Pikes Peak District ranger for the US Forest Service.

In the past decade, Mr. Nelson notes, city workers and volunteers have installed culverts, planted grasses on steep road cuts, and even erected small dams - all in an effort to stem erosion. As further evidence of progress, Zelanok says the amount of gravel deposited on the road has dropped from 50,000 tons per year to 10,000.

Still, Snyder points to potential violations. At several points along the road, she notes, road graders have pushed gravel directly into drainage ditches, putting loose dirt directly in the path of rushing water. Both sides now agree that whatever surface is ultimately applied to the road, the city will have to build extensive new erosion control systems.

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