NORWOOD — Montezuma County commissioners are lobbying the federal government to pave their way north towards this tiny mountain town using Forest Road 526, more commonly known as the Dolores-Norwood road.
But in late January, the recently publicized plan sparked disagreement between Norwood locals fearing increased development and traffic, and others who are eager for the economic boost and convenience a new route may bring.
The graveled, washboarded section proposed for paving begins 10 miles from Dolores and ends roughly 50 miles later at Norwood, a quaint bedroom community of the ritzy Telluride area.
Along the way the popular “locals” road weaves through the rolling remote foothills of the San Juan and Uncompahgre national forests, forever in the shadow of Lone Cone Peak, a 12,600-foot landmark in the region.
The road is used primarily by hunters, recreationists and residents to access the backcountry, mostly during the summer and fall.
It also provides the main access to private land surrounding Groundhog and Miramonte reservoirs as it passes through Montezuma, Dolores and San Miguel counties. The route is not maintained in the winter months, nor is it ever closed. During dry winters, the lower-elevation terrain can be passable by four-wheel-drive vehicles.
Citing improved access onto public lands for recreation, hunting, logging, ranching, fire control and energy development, Montezuma County Commissioner Dewayne Findley informed Norwood citizens of the paving goal and urged their support.
“I see it as an alternative route between our two communities, one that is more direct than Highway 145 or going around through Disappointment Valley,” Findley told an audience of about 27. Going to Norwood from Dolores via 145 is 92 miles; using the Disappointment Valley route is 100 miles.
The U.S. Department of Transportation has funding for such paving projects, he said, but the road must be designated as a “forest highway” with the Federal Highway Administration before money can become available.
San Miguel County’s portion has retained a federal forest highway designation, according to Art Goodtimes, San Miguel County commissioner.
Dolores and Montezuma counties lost their highway designation in the 1960s in a tradeoff for a paved route from Highway 666/491 to oil fields near Aneth, Utah.
The Montezuma County commissioners believe a federal designation is the most realistic solution to improve the road. However, obtaining that status depends on community support in the form of letters from all counties, towns, and land agencies affected.
“(The FHA) has made it clear they won’t go forward with paving projects without community buy-in,” Findley said. “We saw that with the West Fork.”
As a federal highway, the West Fork road gained funding and was paved bit by bit for 12 miles over many years up to Fish Creek. The plan was to connect Highway 145 with Dunton, now a private hot-springs resort on the West Fork.
But resident outcry over the paved road threatening the rural atmosphere of the remote, pristine valley quashed the project and the feds pulled out eight miles short of Dunton.
“In order to be taken seriously, we want to avoid a firestorm from the local community,” Findley said.
But it’s apparent that the Dolores- Norwood paving proposal is driving full-bore into the same storm of controversy.
One Norwood business owner, Cheryl Grafmyer of High Country Motorsports, said she was against the paving because it inevitably spurs sudden development.
“I’m not willing to ask people to give up quality of life in a rural area just so my business can survive. We like our remoteness; we are not scared of our lack of emergency services. It makes us unique.”
Findley emphasized that supporting the federal highway designation for Montezuma County does not guarantee a new road will be built. “It just puts us in line for funding down the road so we have that option,” he said. “It could be 10 years (before funding is a possible) but it still goes back to local control to decide if they want their section paved or not.”
That triggered skepticism among the crowd. “I firmly believe that once a road begins to get paved, it ends up all the way paved,” said Jim Boyd.
Said another man, “What about traffic control? Already that road sees a lot of speeders. Will there be restrictions on truck traffic? Paving it will just bring more.”
Findley said the road would have the normal restrictions any highway has for truck weights, but he didn’t believe it would be used by truckers heading north.
Already the route is partly paved.
From Dolores, the road was paved for eight miles to the House Creek turnoff as part of the McPhee Reservoir project.
In a cost-share with the Forest Service, Montezuma County recently chip-sealed it another three miles to provide better truck access to the Sweetner Gas Compression Station.
The county plans to chip-seal the remaining three miles to the Dolores County line. Chip-sealing with oil is the poor man’s pavement. Chip-seal requires minimal maintenance but only lasts for up to 10 years, and costs $100,000 per mile.
Asphalt lasts 20 years or longer, is more durable, but costs at least $200,000 per mile. Supporters of paving the road point to the longterm savings for counties on road maintenance . Gravel roads need constant blading, require dust abatement with magnesium chloride, and have constant drainage problems that require repair.
Counties would not have to pay to build the road, Findley said, but would be responsible for maintenance. According to one official estimate, paving the remaining 50 miles of the Dolores-Norwood road would cost the federal government $10 million.
Art Goodtimes, a San Miguel County commissioner and member of the Green Party, grudgingly supports Montezuma and Dolores counties’ request for the designation. The other two commissioners are undecided.
“Personally, I don’t want the road paved,” Goodtimes said. “I live there and the traffic is already bad. But as a representative of all of you, I feel it is in our best interests to get into the (funding) hopper. In 10 or 20 years if the funding ever comes, it will be our choice of what we want to happen and when.”
Better access to Norwood from the south could improve the town’s struggling economy. “Norwood has to decide. Do we want to grow independent?
Or stay being a bedroom community of Telluride?” Goodtimes said.
“If you build it, they will come,” Findley said. “People are not finding you now; maybe you will see an increase in business. Dolores is having the same trouble as Norwood.”
A show of hands revealed nine for the proposal, five against. The rest were undecided.
“I’ve got mixed feelings,” Boyd said after the meeting. “That is a major elk corridor; there are (rare) Gunnison sage grouse there [See Page 6]. A paved road increases wildlife deaths from traffic. Sometimes it is good to say no to a convenience that is just going to speed development.”
Be careful what you wish for was another sentiment voiced at the meeting.
“I’m a newcomer from Arizona, and there our town jumped from 350 people to 5,000 in 12 years,” said Frank Marciante. “That is why we moved here. It is mind-boggling how fast it can happen and with it comes crime, congestion, everything you move to get away from.”
For the past three years, the Montezuma County commissioners have been attending annual federal transportation meetings urging the highway designation for FR 526. Securing highway funds on the Western Slope is tough, because most tax dollars are spent on the populous Front Range.
“They wanted to kick us out of those meetings, but our approach is that we are not going to go away,” Findley said.
The Norwood Chamber of Commerce said they would poll their businesses and decide if a letter of support for the project is warranted.
Reportedly favoring the designation are the San Juan and Uncompahgre national forests, Colorado State Parks, Dolores County, the Division of Wildlife and the majority of private landowners along the road.