Growing up in the 1950s on the outskirts of what was then east Aurora, Robert Michael Pyle discovered a child's paradise a short walk from his home: a wide ditch brimming with muddy water, its banks covered with thick weeds and stately cottonwoods that sheltered magpies and butterflies. As a result of that encounter, he later wrote, the High Line Canal became "my imaginary wilderness, escape hatch...lover's lane, research site, and holy ground of solace."
Although he now lives in Washington state, Pyle still makes pilgrimages to his favorite ditch whenever he can. "It made me what I am," he declares.
At 49, Pyle is an acclaimed naturalist and award-winning author, with a doctorate in ecology from Yale. He's also the unofficial Thoreau of the High Line Canal; his 1993 book, The Thunder Tree: Lessons From an Urban Wildland, offers a series of meditations on how his experiences with the much-abused waterway managed to spark his interest in nature even in the midst of soulless suburbia.
Pyle figures his debt to the old ditch can never be repaid, but he's trying. That's why he's lent his name and considerable knowledge of the canal's ecosystem to a decidedly local fight against a proposed road that would cut through what Pyle calls a "particularly lush and handsome part" of the High Line in the Littleton area.
"What they're trying to do out there," says Pyle, speaking from a pay phone in a small town in Oregon, where he's tracking the migration of monarch butterflies, "is an act of public vandalism on a grand scale."
Local and county officials are seeking to build a north-south interchange that would link County Line Road to C-470, halfway between Broadway and Santa Fe Drive. Opponents don't object to the southern section of the road, which would provide additional freeway access to burgeoning Highlands Ranch, but the County Line-470 link would require moving a 700-foot section of the current High Line recreational trail and realigning a stretch of the canal. That, they say, would disrupt area wetlands and pose traffic hazards for the many bicyclists, joggers and horseback riders who populate the trail.
The project has been on the drawing board since the early 1980s, but organized opposition has surfaced only in recent weeks, as neighbors learned about the road and began to solicit signatures for petitions. Critics contend that the proposal was never well-publicized.
"Most of the people who'd be affected by it weren't even here when they dreamed this up," says Robert Prater, an avid cyclist who moved from Ohio to a brand-new housing complex near the site six months ago. "I was out getting signatures on the trail, and uniformly, none of the people had heard about it."
Prater, who is disabled from a bicycling accident, considers the safety issue to be a major concern; current plans would require trail users to cross the four-lane road at a stoplight rather than by way of an underpass. "I'm kind of sensitive about that," he says. "Bicycling is my therapy, but I don't know if I want to brave that kind of traffic. And a lot of children use the trail, too."
Prater argues that the northern spur of the interchange, which would dead-end at McLellan Reservoir, would do little to relieve traffic congestion on County Line Road but would encourage further development--and destroy the historic charm of the area. Pyle agrees; he takes exception to the project's environmental assessment, which found that the road would have no significant impact. Tearing out mature cottonwoods and rechanneling the canal through a concrete culvert would have a substantial impact on vegetation, wildlife and the canal itself, he contends.
"You'd be trading one of the prettiest stretches of the canal for a raw, dusty, noisy, concrete site," Pyle says.
The road, which would straddle the border of Douglas and Arapahoe counties, has the backing of a number of local and state agencies. Littleton officials regard the County Line link as an essential component of long-term traffic planning for the area. Much of the land around the site is owned by the City of Englewood, which is keen on developing it. The Highlands Ranch Metro District is financing the $9 million project and expects to break ground before the end of the year.
Jeff Case, assistant general manager of the HRMD, says the current design is the result of extensive planning dating back to the original mapping for C-470. He points out that the canal crosses other major intersections in the course of its 71-mile journey from the foothills through the Denver suburbs; the "maintenance and vandalism issues" associated with underpasses indicated that an at-grade trail crossing of the road would be preferable, he says. And while the realignment will involve some tree removal, "we're looking to preserve as many trees as possible," Case says. "We're trying not to change the character of the canal."
To Pyle, the situation is rife with irony. Back when it was a working ranch, Highlands Ranch was one of the major users of water from the canal, which was built more than a century ago by private speculators. As the urban area grew up around it, the High Line became an accidental wilderness, a last remnant of countryside for suburban kids like Pyle--who, in the 1960s, began to crusade for its preservation.
But preservation has been a mixed blessing, at best. The creation of recreational trails became a selling point for even more suburban development along the canal; in some stretches, what Pyle calls "enthusiastic grooming" of the trails has damaged mature vegetation along the canal's banks. Since 1960, as Aurora expanded from a city of 40,000 to one of more than a quarter-million, 40 percent of the butterfly species Pyle has studied along the canal have declined greatly in number or have simply disappeared; as he notes in The Thunder Tree, that's a greater rate of loss than that of Los Angeles or San Francisco.
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"Every time I come back to Denver, I see parts of the canal that have been further degraded," Pyle says. "It seems ironical to me that folks move to those kinds of places and then want to get rid of the cottonwoods because of the seeds or get rid of coyotes because they eat their cats. If you move into that kind of place, you acquire a responsibility to help protect the values that drew you there.
"But what excites me now is the sheer number and variety of people using the canal--not just the bicyclists and joggers. I see a lot of people out walking, young people just nosing around. And biological diversity still present in proximity to human dwellings--that's a rare thing."
Yet every new road or housing project brings with it the threat of what Pyle calls "the extinction of experience"--a kind of alienation from nature that occurs when children don't have even a decent ditch in which to encounter an ungroomed, untamed, living world.
"The extinction of experience takes place in bits and pieces," Pyle explains. "It doesn't occur only in inner cities or jampacked suburbs. It also takes place in affluent areas like Highlands Ranch. If, on a piecemeal basis, we continue to chip away at the natural heritage in this manner, then we dismantle diversity--and each neighborhood experiences its own extinction of experience.