Article by Marija B. Vader
Cottonwood Pass – October 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine
“What lasts longer, dirt or pavement?”
-Susan Gore, Taylor Canyon resident
FROM A COW’S POINT OF VIEW, pavement must seem silly. After all, how much grass grows through ashphalt?
Most people in Gunnison County don’t share the cow’s viewpoint, however.
Yet after chewing on the matter, Gunnison residents pretty much agree — in the case of Cottonwood Pass, pavement isn’t a good idea.
Cottonwood Pass connects Buena Vista with Taylor Park, and the road eventually lands in Gunnison.
Starting from Buena Vista, the road is in perfect shape, guaranteeing a smooth ride to the 12,126-foot summit.
But at the summit, the rocky road down to Taylor Park begins. It’s a rugged road, one which Gunnison County spends roughly $20,000 a year maintaining.
At the end of that dusty 13 miles of washboard is the pristine asphalt road which winds around Taylor Reservoir to the mouth of Taylor Canyon. Then, for 20 miles the narrow Taylor Canyon road winds through avalanche zones, skirting cliffs, and crossing the Taylor River in three places. On this stretch of road, which seems to have been built at the turn of the century, every spring the snow-melt reveals at least 15 potholes per mile.
Although the Forest Service owns the road, Gunnison County maintains the entire stretch. On the lower canyon road, the county spends around $50,000 a year on maintenance, filling potholes in the fall, and plowing snow in the winter.
Starting as far back as 1987, Gunnison County residents opposed paving Cottonwood Pass.
There are a multitude of reasons.
Many business owners in Gunnison would rather see the tourists come over Monarch Pass and shop in Gunnison before cruising up to Taylor Park.
And some area residents actually like traveling on a slow-moving, dusty road once in a while — since they, unlike their city colleagues, are not in such a faxspeed hurry to get places. Many Gunnison residents feel the federal government, already over its head in debt, shouldn’t spend the money to pave a road which leads straight from nowhere to nowhere.
Shouldn’t the collective “we” save the money for something more worthwhile — like feeding Cuban refugees? Or better yet, the government could take the $10 million it would cost to pave Cottonwood and put it toward another human rights package for Russia.
Or maybe we should just put the money in our piggy bank and ignore the pork-barrel beneficiaries who, like vultures, circle high in the sky in the hopes of swooping down when an unsuspecting guard (like you or me) takes a nap.
I’m told that if we don’t get the money for this project (money that’s not really there), somebody else will. But is that justification for spending what we don’t have?
Some people simply like to keep things the way they were when they got here.
Or could the Gunnison County reaction, as some suggest, merely be another manifestation of the so-called NIMBY syndrome? Not in my back yard — or on my mountain, either.
A few years ago, the Forest Service got the idea that if it paved campgrounds in Gunnison County, it would make the campers happier: a true wilderness experience on asphalt.
So the federal agency commenced to pave paradise, despite the cries from those of us who pay Forest Service paychecks.
Some of us simply cried “Uncle” to paving yet more of the earth. And some of us, admittedly, wanted the door closed after we got into the room.
I confess, I’m one of those.
I ARRIVED IN THIS BEAUTIFUL AREA more than seven years ago, after the Forest Service’s unwritten and unspoken “Let’s Pave the World” doctrine was well under construction. I traveled to Denver many times via Cottonwood Pass during the construction project which paved the Chaffee side.
But since then, I willingly bounce along the rough road up the Gunnison side — because the high sierra is supposed to have a few unbeaten paths. And when I have to go to Denver, I leave myself time for the washboards.
I like the variety.
From the first, I fought, and continue to fight tooth and nail, to keep at least a tiny piece of paradise the way the pioneer miners and other settlers may have found it. This world already has enough asphalt.
At the same time, I favor upgrading the lower 20 miles of the canyon road — where the pavement is frequently more akin to wilderness than pavement should ever be.
After severe winters, hundreds of chuckholes, ponds and fissures fill the canyon road — which means that those of us who use it have to drive like skiers on a slalom course.
Before another superhighway crosses Cottonwood Pass, Gunnison County residents need an all-season road around Taylor Reservoir, instead of a thinly disguised slalom run.
The first report of the Federal Highway Administration indicated that the Cottonwood Pass Road sees an average of 350 travelers a day during July and August.
The lower canyon road, on the other hand, sees l,39O cars a day during the same time.
OF EVERY ROAD in the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forest (GMUG), the lower Taylor Canyon road has the heaviest traffic. It’s also one of the most poorly mended roads in the GMUG forest.
On several occasions, the Forest Service has told us that it usually has money for construction projects, but it rarely has money to maintain what has already been built.
As far as I’m concerned, that’s like neglecting to clothe, feed, and house the baby — after giving birth to it.
The Forest Service said $19.5 million would fix the lower Taylor Canyon road. Yet, to pave the Gunnison side of Cottonwood would cost $11.5 million.
If the federal government is willing to spend money on a road, let it be the lower portion.
For whether they recognize it or not, even governments owe something to their firstborn.
The question arises: What lasts longer, dirt or pavement?
The answer: All roadways must be maintained — but beauty lasts longest untrampled.
Thus, the idea of increasing the traffic over Cottonwood Pass doesn’t appeal to most Gunnison County citizens — who feel that washboards and dust are a small price to pay to protect their scenic legacy.
Marija B. Vader lives along the Taylor Canyon Road and covers that and many other issues for the Gunnison Country Times.