The highway and the river
When the federal highway system was being planned in the 1940s, Interstate 70 was to end in Denver, as the engineers of the day were not inclined to run such a roadway over the Continental Divide and through Colorado’s high country.
By the time the east-west superhighway was completed across the state, with the opening of Glenwood Canyon in 1992, the world was a different place and the different phases in which the road was constructed tracked with the evolution of the modern environmental movement.
I had the chance to dig into the history of developing the interstate through the canyon as part of the research that went into our story published this week, “Cellphone towers in Glenwood Canyon a tall task.” The story explains the troubles that a cellphone-tower developer — with approvals to build 40-foot-tall antenna poles designed to look like pine trees — has had seeing the project to completion. That’s due, at least in part, to competitors in the industry seeking an end run around what is admittedly an expensive proposal. My background reading included a 2019 report from the architecture and planning firm Mean & Hunt, laying out in detail why Glenwood Canyon is eligible for designation as a “linear historic district” under the National Historic Preservation Act, because of the physical and cultural significance of building an interstate through the sensitive area. I wasn’t able to include all the interesting historical background in the story, but I thought I would share some of it here.
By the time the Eisenhower administration had committed the federal funds to build the interstates in the 1950s, chambers of commerce and other boosters across the high country and Western Slope prevailed upon the state’s leadership that I-70 should enter Utah. But there were many questions about the specific route, some of which took nearly another two decades to be answered.
Of particular significance, a coalition of environmentalists in the late 1960s killed a proposed alignment, known as the “Red Buffalo” route, that would have run through a pristine section of the Gore Range and Eagles Nest Primitive Area. At about the same time, the state legislature — already concerned about the potential impacts of an interstate highway through Glenwood Canyon — established a first-of-its-kind citizens advisory committee to help make the project as responsive to scenic, environmental and recreational concerns as possible. That advisory committee process, mandated by the state in relation to Glenwood Canyon, was seen as a predecessor of the National Environmental Policy Act, passed in 1969, creating new review requirements for large infrastructure projects.
Vail Pass construction commenced in 1973, incorporating design features that resulted in its being lauded as the most environmentally friendly mountain interstate to date.
Throughout the 1970s, debate around Glenwood Canyon intensified, but alternate I-70 alignments either going through the Flat Tops Wilderness or over Cottonwood Pass were nixed in favor of going through the canyon, where U.S. 6 — a two-lane highway — already existed, as did railroad tracks dating to 1887.
Hardly surprising that opposition to the project was led by Aspenites, notably Mark Skrotzki, whom Mead & Hunt notes “had many contacts and was well-positioned to organize such an advocacy group.” He enlisted the support of former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall and singer-songwriter John Denver and launched a national petition drive.
“It is impossible to put such a highway through this canyon without permanently scarring the several million-year-old unique geologic formations and further disrupting the Colorado River headwaters,” pleaded the petition. In the mid-1970s, the group staged a media event in which Denver threw rocks across the canyon waters to demonstrate how narrow it was — although it took him six tries to hit his mark, the report says.
Ultimately, the pressure from environmentally concerned citizens led engineers to propose a design, the likes of which had never been seen before, including a generous use of terraced highway decks, bridges and retaining walls, in the service of threading the roadway through the corridor while doing the least amount of damage possible. Construction kicked off in 1980 and took 12 years to complete, eventually ringing up a price tag of $490 million, making Glenwood Canyon among the most expensive roadways ever built.
Ralph Trapani, an engineer on the project, reminisced in a 1995 article in Summit magazine that all the debate and scrutiny had the effect of scrambling the typical roles of environmentalists and engineers.
“The old, hard-line highway engineers were walking around worrying about saving trees and not filling in the river, and the environmentalists were worried about costs and safety,” Trapani was quoted as saying in the article.
That legacy has earned the canyon its potential designee status on the National Register of Historic Places, which means that most changes contemplated for the corridor are supposed to go through a review overseen by historic preservation experts — which brings us to the substance of the potential issues with cellphone-tower development in the corridor in 2021.
— Curtis Wackerle, editor
By Curtis Wackerle | March 8, 2021
“Overburdening the canyon with unsightly towers and related wireless network infrastructure is in conflict with the environmental ideals that underpin the overall management and stewardship of the corridor,” says an FCC complaint letter.
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