For more than 100 years, hundreds of thousands of tons of gravel applied to maintain the highway washed down the mountain, ravaging stream banks, filling wetlands and threatening species like the greenback cutthroat trout.
A court-mandated paving and runoff management project now underway is slowly changing the highway's destructive impact. But down the mountainside, away from the highway, the streams remain gutted and sediment piles stand 6-feet deep in places.
Environmentalists who plan to clean up this mess received some welcome news this fall. The Colorado Water Conservation Board, a state agency, awarded the Rocky Mountain Field Institute a $12,500 grant to survey repair projects in locations more than 150 feet from the highway.
"It's not a lot of money," said local Sierra Club board member John Stansfield, "but it makes a tremendous difference."
The Pikes Peak Highway, built more than 100 years ago, became a recognized environmental hazard in the 1950s with the rise of heavy car traffic up the mountain. But it wasn't until 2000 that Colorado Springs, as part of a multimillion-dollar legal settlement with the Sierra Club, agreed to pave the highway to its 14,110 ft. summit within 10 years as well as provide erosion control within a 300-foot corridor.
The city also provided $300,000 for erosion repairs outside the corridor. A 2002 Sierra Club settlement with the Forest Service added $300,000 more for off-corridor repairs, bringing the total fund to $600,000.
"It's already money in the bank gaining interest until we get our act together," Stansfield said. The grant money, he said, will allow the Rocky Mountain Field Institute to determine the most ecologically sound way to spend the funds. Repairs would likely involve constructing rock platforms that would slow damaged mountain streams such as Ski Creek and Severy Creek. This is progress, but a full cleanup will require far more than $600,000, said Mark Hesse, the institute's director.
"We don't understand as well as we could about restoration in the mountains," said Brian Hyde, a senior water resource specialist for the Colorado Water Conservation Board. He said he hopes the grant money will provide new insights on how to restore high-altitude streams below highways.
The highway paving itself is advancing at a decent clip, said John David Jordan, a maintenance supervisor for the city's highway project. The 19-mile highway is now paved up to mile-marker 10 near the halfway picnic ground.
-- Dan Wilcock