A screech of tires, a skid and a crack of metal [in July] in Four Mile Canyon, just west of Boulder, were a few of the gut-wrenching sounds that echoed through the twisty canyon. It was a nasty accident for a cyclist, one of dozens who traverse the canyon every day. Such an accident might appear to be justification for Boulder County’s current multi-million-dollar Master Plan to blast away rock faces in the canyon, put up bolts and wire mesh on the newly destabilized cliffs, pour cement along the creek beds, and widen the uphill shoulder of the road by four feet. But, in fact, this particular cyclist was in the middle of the downhill car lane and, without a motor vehicle in sight, hit a wide divot in the asphalt. No uphill shoulder would have prevented the crash, though an even road surface might have.
Four Mile Canyon was severely damaged by the 2013 flood, but because Boulder County officials have it on the docket for a multimodal “upgrade,” the road has yet to be properly repaired. The asphalt warps, cracks and alternates with dirt for long stretches. For the last two years at County meetings, residents (myself included) have been assured that teams are being assembled, workers hired to apply for grant money, hydrologists consulted, and ecological experts sent to comb the canyon and rate zones in need of restoration. Time was needed, we were told, before further repairs could be made, and a permanent road might be in place by 2017.
Now, after seeing the Master Plan and still no action, some canyon residents are calling “fraud,” as the County initially claimed that future roadwork would require significant widening in order to meet federal regulations and be eligible for grant money. They have now backpedalled, if you will, on that statement, and confessed that the road widening and requisite rock blasting fits their initiatives of providing more bike lanes throughout the County.
The sad irony is that cyclists and others who visit Four Mile Canyon come here to enjoy the winding, narrow roads with lichen-covered cliffs alongside the natural burble of the creek. The road has a history unmatched anywhere else in Boulder County for old mining settlements, including Crisman, Wall Street, Salina and Summerville, and for the history associated with the Switzerland Trail train, which snaked along the canyon wall and helped to define the current road. If you talk to people who have lived in the canyon for more than 30 years — and there are quite a few — you’ll hear how each hairpin turn has a name that dates back sometimes a century or more: Devil’s Elbow, Belle Pitch, Black Swan Mill Curve, Cuthbertson Cut and Indian Head. To dynamite these (some holes have already been drilled) would be a travesty for ecological, historical and safety reasons.
Straighter, wider roads means motorists will go faster. Since the building of the temporary road, already speeders go 20 or 30 miles above the limit. When pressed about this the Sheriff ’s office says they don’t have the manpower or resources to monitor speeders.
Yet $14.2 million will be available to carve out a non-contiguous bike lane in a mere 1.43 miles of the 10-mile canyon. Anyone with working logic would recognize that a fraction of those resources could be better spent in simply trimming the overgrown weeds along the side of the road that obscure motorists’ views, adding a shoulder wherever tenable, and keeping an eye on speeding vehicles. Environmental precedent makes me think of Joni Mitchell’s lyrics: “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”
Let me return to the accident that happened [in July]. The very next day the spot, and other dangerous zones along the road, had been highlighted with yellow spray paint by a concerned canyon resident. So, for the cost of $2.95 a local has done more for the immediate safety of cyclists in the canyon than tens of thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of road design has accomplished of late. Given the canyon community’s resilience and DIY resourcefulness after the 2010 fire and the 2013 flood, no one should be surprised that residents are ready to do what they can to make Four Mile Canyon safer without a lot of fuss or burden to taxpayers.
Everyone wants to prevent future accidents, for cyclists, motorists, pedestrians and local wildlife. Let’s let the curves of the canyon point the way to finding practical, cost-effective and less invasive solutions to preserving the beauty and history of a unique spot, amid the rapid and often short-sighted development of the county and the state.
This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.