Counties edge closer to Rollins Pass accord
November 9, 2010
Officials from Grand and Gilpin counties say they are making headway with Boulder County on ways to reopen the historic and scenic Rollins (Corona) Pass someday.
A recent meeting among commissioners of the tri-county area left Gilpin and Grand County officials encouraged that the 32-mile route that passes over three counties, two U.S. Forest Service districts and near federally protected wilderness land may someday once again serve the touring public.
Users haven’t been able to continue the historic route to the other side of the Continental Divide since 1990, after Boulder County closed off the Needles Eye Tunnel at the top of the pass when a falling rock left a Denver man seriously injured. The incident became an $85,000 liability to Boulder County and a greater amount the U.S. Forest Service.
Since then, Boulder County has been reluctant to join the other two counties in reopening the pass to motorists, not only because of the liability, but also because of adjacent federally protected lands.
The road right of way was carved out of two federal wilderness bills, the James Peak Wilderness and Protection Area Act of 2002 and the Indian Peaks Wilderness Act of 1977.
“If we could come up with a way to protect the tundra and make Needle’s Eye safe, Boulder has said, ‘We can get out of your way,'” said Grand County Commissioner James Newberry, in a recap of the Boulder meeting during a Nov. 2 Grand County-hosted discussion about the issue.
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Newberry encouraged Rollins Pass advocates at the meeting to not get bogged down on who owns the road and language written in wilderness legislation, but to move forward with how Boulder’s concerns can be alleviated to make opening the road more plausible.
“Groups coming together, saying they want something done, has a lot of clout,” Newberry said.
Yet the project, which has been gaining momentum since 2005, faces both literal and figurative barriers involving the Forest Service, which due to an existing high pressure gas pipeline, natural resources and overall degradation of the high-mountain roads, has barricaded the top of Rollins on both the pass and the rough Boulder Wagon Road.
It has stated in the past that federal environmental approval would be necessary in order for the counties to move forward in fixing the tunnel and reopening the road – deemed a potentially costly and lengthy process.
Grand County officials hope to first come up with a proposal on which all three counties agree, then move forward in working with the Forest Service.
“That tunnel, that’s always been the big problem,” said Gilpin County Commissioner Chair Buddy Schmalz last Wednesday.
Gilpin County absorbs most of Rollins Pass on the eastern side, but the county does not maintain its length of the road.
“One of the solutions is to create a tunnel authority. All three counties could become part of an authority that owns and operates the tunnel,” Schmalz said. “Boulder was receptive to that, which I think is a big hurdle.”
That may be one idea to address Boulder officials’ and forest officials’ concerns about liability and safety of the pass.
“We have a long way to go in resolving these issues,” said Boulder County Commissioner Ben Pearlman.
But, “if all of those issues can be resolved to our satisfaction, then we can really start talking about whether it makes sense,” he said.
The project could face much public scrutiny on the east side of the Divide. A large number of Boulder County constituents worry opening up the area to through traffic could entice off-roaders to forge trails in wilderness, according to Pearlman.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Newberry illustrated how county officials might envision the pass for the future, which could be a combination of the safest portions of Rollins Pass Road and the Boulder Wagon Road on the top 6-8 acres within Boulder County’s boundaries.
The funds needed to improve those roads might be found in a combination of federal, local and private grant funds, with counties sharing maintenance responsibilities. But all of these details have to be worked out.
“We’ll deal with that when that comes up,” Schmalz said.
Meanwhile, some citizens of Gilpin’s town of Rollinsville eagerly await a road reopening.
For the small struggling mining town on the eastern side of the pass, the road could mean revitalization.
“It would explode the town,” said Lynn Slinger, resident and owner of several rental properties in Rollinsville. “It would help businesses flourish.”
The town contains about 12 Main Street businesses, including one grocery store and one restaurant.
Schmalz predicts opening the pass would “probably double property values.”
Yet her support for Rollins may not be shared by all who live there.
“Some people I’ve talked to think it would destroy the character of the town … ruin the cowboy character,” she said.