After gaining no ground with Boulder County, commissioners in Grand and Gilpin counties are looking higher for a resolution on Rollins Pass.
The historic mountain pass links Grand to Gilpin, with a few sections winding through Boulder County. After a 1990 injury and lawsuit at Needles Eye Tunnel, located in the Boulder County portion of the road, officials there sealed off the tunnel and halted vehicular traffic from traveling its extent. When the counties came together to negotiate forming the James Peak Wilderness and Protection area, Grand County commissioners agreed to contribute 16,000 acres and Gilpin commissioners agreed to contribute 9,389 acres with the understanding that Rollins Pass Road, called Corona Pass locally, would be set aside, repaired and re-opened to vehicular traffic. Only 189 acres in Boulder County went to the wilderness.
Despite numerous efforts from history buffs and officials in Grand and Gilipin counties, Boulder County has done little to re-open its portion of the road. Now, Grand County commissioners are reaching out to officials on the federal level instead.
wilderness Act Bargain
“The feds, (Sen.) Mark Udall’s office and the Department of Interior haven’t kept up their end of the bargain, which was if they get the wilderness area, we get the road open,” Grand County Commissioner Merrit Linke said. “Any time future wilderness areas are considered, people aren’t going to buy it. They’ll say, ‘you didn’t keep up your end of the bargain in Grand County, so why should we trust you?’”
Sen. Udall introduced the bill for the James Peak Wilderness Protection Act when he served in the House of Representatives in 2001. Grand County officials repeatedly expressed their opposition, but ultimately gave their reluctant support when Rollins Pass was set aside. The James Peak Wilderness and Protection Act of 2002 also mandates the Secretary of the Interior to “provide technical assistance and otherwise cooperate” should “one or more” of Grand, Gilpin and Boulder counties wish to repair and re-open the road to two-wheel drive traffic.
“The Secretary of Interior is supposed to assist us in re-opening the road,” Linke said. “Boulder County is correct in that it doesn’t obligate them to help open it, but it doesn’t authorize them to close it, either.”
But at the federal level, Grand County commissioners’ efforts may be paying off.
Commissioner James Newberry has reached out to representatives at Sen. Udall’s office, and will meet with them at the end of the month to discuss the road blockade. According to Newberry, the conversation will be with representatives from the three counties and Udall’s office, and will look to find solutions on how to move forward. Newberry said he hopes for the meeting to take place by the end of the month.
“There are pretty sound disagreements we have right now with Boulder, and we don’t know what position the Udall camp is going to take on that,” he said. “We’re very interested in getting this conversation going.”
According to Mike Saccone with Sen. Udall’s office, the plan is to have a series of meetings on the issue, although he noted it was too early to provide any details.
“Sen. Udall has monitored this situation for years,” Saccone said.
Grand and Gilpin county commissioners are also exploring new strategies to get around Boulder’s political obstruction. Specifically, they’re trying to get the U.S. Forest Service to take ownership of Rollins Pass Road.
“We’re trying to understand who owns the right-of-way on the road, who’s jurisdiction it’s under, and in Grand County, it is a Forest Service road,” Newberry said. “They have all the rights on that road ... so we don’t understand how a county can then shut the road down.”
Commissioners Linke and Newberry said they might also try to solicit help from Gov. John Hickenlooper’s office and the Department of Local Affairs if it can help them gain momentum on the issue, although the governor has not taken a position on the road. Still, reaching out to federal and state officials now seems a more assured path toward reconciliation than trying to work across counties.
At a crossroads
Most recently, Grand and Gilpin commissioners sent a letter addressing Boulder officials’ concerns over liability, environmental preservation and maintenance costs. They then traveled to Boulder County last February, speaking to Boulder commissioners during a public hearing about the need of re-opening the pass. A week later, they sent a letter to Boulder commissioners asking for a response. “Grand County remains optimistic with regard to you joining in with us and Gilpin County in the re-opening of Rollins Pass Road,” the letter said. “What is your official position on re-opening Rollins Pass? If you do not have a position now, when?”
To date, neither Grand nor Gilpin counties have received a response.
“Zero. Nothing,” Linke said. “They absolutely didn’t respond to our letter, they didn’t respond to our potential solutions, we’ve heard nothing.”
Sky-Hi attempted to contact Boulder County’s commissioners to find out why they haven’t communicated with officials in Grand or Gilpin counties.
“They do not have a position at this point and have not responded to the letter from Grand County Commissioners yet, as no formal discussion has taken place,” said Gabi Boerkircher, a representative with the Boulder County Commissioners’ Office.
With new strategies in mind and piqued interest on the federal level, Grand County commissioners said they’re now feeling optimistic.
“I think that we are further along than we ever have been, we’re finally getting through the issues,” Newberry said. “We’re trying to open a historic route, and in our mind, there’s a lot of benefit to having something like that in our county. Hopefully we can get everyone on the same page and push this forward, just like the legislation said it’s supposed to do.”
Leia Larsen can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19603.