State parks officials want to build a "world-class environmental learning center" on Mt. Evans as part of a proposed recreation area flanking Highway 5, the summit-topping roadway that the state touts as the highest paved road in North America. But critics say the popular Fourteener 35 miles west of Denver would be better off without either the rec area or the environmental center, which they call a waste of money and damaging to the mountain.
"This is a power grab and a money grab," says Robert Angell, a biologist who directed the University of Denver's Mt. Evans Field Station at Echo Lake during the mid-Eighties. "This would be a new revenue source for State Parks. People who work for government agencies like to see their agencies grow."
Howard Morton, chairman of the Mt. Evans chapter of the Sierra Club, agrees. The proposal calls for a corridor of perhaps 200 feet on each side of Highway 5, he points out. "It would be a fourteen-mile snake," Morton says, meant "to gain control of the visitors and take money out of their pockets." "We are talking about an entrance fee to go up the fourteen miles from Echo Lake to the summit," admits Dean Winstanley of the Colorado Division of State Parks and Outdoor Recreation. A charge of $3 per vehicle has been discussed, he says. That is the admission fee at most state parks. Revenues from an estimated traffic count of 70,000 vehicles a year would be applied to the day-to-day operation costs of the recreation area, Winstanley explains, though additional funds would also be required.
"We're already paying for the road with our gas taxes," the Sierra Club's Morton says of the state highway to the summit. "Why should we pay for it twice?"
Preliminary plans also call for a 6,000-square-foot center featuring displays on the mountain's geology, ecosystem and wildlife, according to Winstanley. There would be a classroom for students on field trips from the metro area, plus an information center. "The education focus is very important," he adds. Construction costs are estimated at $1.5 million.
"I want to emphasize this is all very conceptual," Winstanley says. "We need public input."
Some people already are outraged. "They act as if people are thirsting for environmental knowledge," says retired biologist Angell. "It just isn't true. People only want a little information on the animals and plants they might come across when they're up there. And for most people, that's limited to what they'll see from the road. You could put in some signs explaining those things and tell them all they want to know. And you won't have to rip up the environment to do it."
Antonette DeLauro, director of public affairs for State Parks, insists that officials "don't want a grandiose facility on the mountain." But where to put any kind of new facility is also a matter of debate. The most commonly discussed site is at Echo Lake, which is owned by the city of Denver. "We're considering providing land," says Neil Sperandeo, director of long-range planning for Denver Parks and Recreation. "We're open to the idea, but we've made no official commitment."
State planners could opt for a site where a U.S. Forest Service campground is now located, across the road from the privately owned Echo Lake Lodge. Clear Creek district ranger Corey Wong says the campground could easily be relocated if planners chose that site. An environment analysis would first have to be done on the impact of proposed construction. That process could take up to a year, he says.
"There's already been too much building and too much environmental damage at Echo Lake," says Angell, who worked at DU's field station at the lake for five years. "We certainly don't need one of their ugly visitors' centers there, too." Angell terms the typical facility built by the state parks division "repulsive" and "more suited to a high school."
It is what could be inside the center that most bothers Morton: souvenirs and fast food. "My greatest fear is that Mt. Evans could become another Pike's Peak," he says. "The Crest House (a summit facility destroyed in a 1979 fire) sold hot dogs and postcards and tourist stuff before it burned down and the Forest Service wouldn't let them rebuild," he notes.
Although the environmental center might include a concessions stand, says parks official Winstanley, that and other details are still up in the air. "It's all very preliminary at this stage," he says. A series of formal hearings won't start until the rec-area proposal has been finalized, he adds, and that could take months.
Forest ranger Wong says his colleagues are spread too thin with duties throughout the Arapahoe and Pike National Forests to serve all the public's needs on Mt. Evans, whose slopes fall within both forests. Under the rec-area proposal, he says, "we stand to gain in efficiency. It doesn't make sense for the city of Denver to send someone up to the summit to pick up garbage when we're going up there anyway to clean the toilets."
Inefficiencies are compounded by heavy use of the mountain in the summertime, says Jo Evans, an "outreach coordinator" for the state parks department who's been presenting the state's proposal to various groups.
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No one opposes better coordination among government agencies on the mountain, insist critics. The question is how to do it. The state's cure is worse than the disease, they say.
"Crowds aren't damaging the mountain. People respect that place," insists Morton. A bigger problem, he says, is wrongheaded improvement projects by government agencies, such as a recent paving project near a bristlecone pine grove that has accelerated erosion.
"Colorado Parks is a good agency with some very good people," Morton allows. "But every once in a while they get hooked up with a screwy idea. The last one was having the Pope at Cherry Creek State Park. That damaged the area tremendously. It will take years for the vegetation to recover. The wildlife may never come back.
"They ought to let people have the 14,000-foot experience on Mt. Evans the way they can now. Leave it as natural a setting as possible. Next thing they'll want to do is have the Pope up there.