Horse Gulch Highway talks go public

La Plata County’s discussions of a “Horse Gulch Highway” are going public. On Tuesday, La Plata County commissioners approved a letter of intent to begin negotiating plans for a bypass highway through the Horse Gulch area. However, the county also revised the letter and removed one proposed road alignment, a move that trail advocates are applauding.

The greater Horse Gulch area has always been a patchwork of private and public land, and the land known as Ewing Mesa represents the most significant private holding in the popular recreation area. Stretching high into the Gulch from the south, the nearly 1,900 acres are owned by Oakridge Energy Inc. and have long been discussed as the location for thousands of homes and a new golf course. That changed in 2008 when Oakridge shortcut the planning process and subdivided the property into 54 separate 35-acre parcels.

Ewing Mesa came to the fore Dec. 21 when La Plata County announced that it was considering adopting a “letter of intent” to accept rights-of-way from Oakridge. The dedication would enable the county to build a highway linking Grandview, Ewing Mesa and downtown Durango, but would carry significant impacts to one of Durango’s richest recreational resources.

After holding discussions with several community groups, La Plata County revised the letter of intent. The amended letter removed the proposed Horse Gulch road alignment identified in the original draft, and calls for the identification of final road alignments as part of the subsequent public process.

 “Our conversations with several community groups indicated a strong desire to look at some alternative route options for the roads being considered under the letter of intent, primarily to avoid the trails in the Horse Gulch area,” County Manager Shawn Nau said.

Commissioner Kellie Hotter has served as the board’s liaison on the project and stressed that the letter of intent is in no way a contract. “Given that the letter of intent is not binding on either party, it simply makes sense to allow for the identification of the final route alignments through the public process that will follow,” she said.

Nonetheless, the City of Durango asked commissioners delay approval of the letter until mid-February. The City has objected to the highway and says it has been excluded from negotiations. But the commissioners noted that negotiations are only beginning with the approval of the letter on Tuesday and plan to engage the City, Colorado Department of Transportation, Bureau of Land Management and other community groups.

Trails 2000 appreciated the gesture and plans to be seated at the table in coming weeks and months. “We were very pleased to learn of the County’s decision to remove Horse Gulch Road and County Road 237 from the letter of intent,” said executive director Mary Monroe. “We’ll continue to be at the table to provide feedback and work with the County, City, CDOT and the BLM on potential alignments, future alternative transportation routes and to fortify the quality and quantity of trails in the Telegraph Trail System.”

Uranium opposition gains momentum

The regional revival of uranium mining ran into a speed bump recently. A ruling handed down in federal court this month boosted an ongoing legal challenge against the Department of Energy’s uranium leasing program.

District Judge Wiley Daniel ruled that the public can have oversight of Western Colorado leases. As a result, conservation groups can now actually question DOE officials and obtain records connected to the 42-square-mile uranium leasing program.

“This is a big victory for the Dolores and San Miguel rivers and a good sign for our litigation,” said Travis Stills, of the Durango-based Energy Minerals Law Center.

A consortium of conservation groups sued the Department of Energy and Bureau of Land Management in July 2008 for approving the program without analyzing the full environmental impacts

that could come from individual uranium mining leases.

“The federal uranium-mining program has triggered a series of proposals, including the first uranium mill proposal in decades,” said Joe Neuhof of the Colorado Environmental Coalition, one of the plaintiffs. “We are pleased that this lawsuit will now move forward and provide an opportunity to require the federal government to disclose the serious impacts uranium mining will, and has, had on the people in western Colorado.”

The groups allege that uranium mining and milling resulting from the lease program will deplete Colorado River basin water and threaten to pollute streams and rivers with toxic and radioactive waste products.

“Even small amounts of some of these pollutants, like selenium, can accumulate in the food chain and cause deformities and reproductive problems for endangered fish, ducks, river otters and eagles,” said Josh Pollock of the Center for Native Ecosystems, another plaintiff.

Since approving renewal and expansion of the uranium leasing program in 2007, the Department of Energy has executed dozens of new 10-year lease agreements.

Study traces regional ozone to Asia

The deteriorating state of local air quality has a surprising new source. Pollution from Asia is partly to blame for elevated ozone levels in the western United States, according to new findings.

Scientists have wrestled with a pollution paradox for decades. Ozone levels in highly trafficked and industrial urban areas have steadily gone down, but levels are rising in seemingly pristine, rural areas. New findings from the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder point to China.

Springtime ozone levels above western North America are rising partly due to air flowing eastward from the Pacific Ocean, researchers say. These increases in ozone could make it more difficult for the United States to meet new Clean Air Act standards for ozone pollution.

“In springtime, pollution from across the hemisphere, not nearby sources, contributes to the ozone increases above western North America,” said lead author Owen R. Cooper. “When air is transported from a broad region of south and east Asia, the trend is largest.”

The study focused on springtime ozone in a slice of the atmosphere from two to five miles above the surface of western North America. The study analyzed nearly 100,000 ozone observations gathered by aircraft, balloons and other platforms.

LPEA to host renewable energy forum

La Plata Electric Association is responding to growing local interest in renewable energy generation with a series of public informational meetings. The first LPEA Renewable Generation Meeting meets on Thurs., Feb. 4, at 8 a.m.

“We have been meeting regularly with the solar installers in our area,” said Sue Maxwell, LPEA project specialist. “But we’re fielding an increasing number of calls from our members who are just beginning to investigate renewable generation and may not know where to begin. We hope these meetings will help answer their questions.”

Mark Schwantes, manager of corporate service, noted that now might be the best time to invest in renewable energy. “We expect there to be significant rebate funds available,” he said. “And they will likely be available for all types of renewable generation projects, but when the funds are gone, they’re gone. We hope to educate our members early so they can be prepared to take advantage of the rebates when they become available.”

The Feb. 4 meeting will be held at LPEA’s Bodo Park headquarters, and guest speaker Hew Hallock, southern regional representative for the Colorado Governor’s Energy Office, will be on hand. Visit to learn more.

– Will Sands