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Lawsuit, low ranking snarls Gold Camp Road plan



What has become a high-stakes effort to reopen Gold Camp Road to cars was struck down a notch last week when the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments assigned a low ranking to a Forest Service petition for $175,000 in federal transportation funds.

The low local ranking -- one of 13 transportation enhancement projects that the agency considered -- all but assures a thumbs-down at the state level, said PPACG transportation director Rob McDonald.

In addition, the Forest Service is facing a lawsuit by a coalition of environmental groups that are opposed to reopening the road to traffic.

Situated on the site of a mountainside railroad line that ran from southwest Colorado Springs to the Cripple Creek gold fields, Gold Camp Road was closed to automobiles when a tunnel collapsed in 1988. An $8.4 billion national backlog in forest road maintenance has precluded repair, which carries a $460,000 price tag.

Since it was closed to vehicular traffic, the stretch of road has evolved into a recreation spot popular with bicyclists, hikers, joggers, birdwatchers and nature photographers. In 1995, a group of environmentalists and trails advocates formed Champions of Gold Camp Road for the purpose of keeping the stretch closed to vehicular traffic.

Upon learning of the most recent Forest Service grant request, Champions combined with several other preservation groups -- including Cheyenne Commons, a non-profit open-space advocacy group, and Colorado Wild, a non-profit forest watch group -- to file a lawsuit in federal court. The Trails and Open Space Coalition recently added its name to the plaintiff list.

The suit, filed on April 7, asks federal court to stop the Forest Service from reopening the road until it conducts a detailed assessment of how traffic would impact the wildlife, recreation and environment along the road.

Attorney Steve Harris argues that the Forest Service is required to conduct such an assessment prior to any attempt to reopen the road.

Harris submitted a 29-page civil action with hundreds of pages of attachments detailing why a new assessment is necessary. Reasons include population growth that has resulted in dramatically increased traffic, the advent of gambling in Cripple Creek and a report from geologists that says widening the road will "significantly increase the risk of landslides," which could make driving hazardous.

Bill Nelson, district manager for the Forest Service's Pikes Peak District, believes that an environmental assessment conducted in 1990 remains adequate and further public discussion would be redundant.

"The forest plan currently in place identifies Gold Camp Road as a travel corridor, and we have no intention of changing that," he said. "We will continue seeking the funds needed to reopen the road to vehicular traffic."

The Forest Service has 60 days to respond to the Champions suit.

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