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A freeway runs through us

Allen Best

That numerical inversion was the recipe for political dialogue during much of the 20th century. The Eastern Slope wanted more water, and the Western Slope resisted. The Western Slope wanted more road money, and the Eastern Slope resisted.

But now, in the first political redistricting of the 21st century, the power of the Continental Divide has receded. Even more important in understanding Colorado economically and politically is Interstate 70, a highway built expressly to dismantle geography.

The most prominent casualty of this reordering is the congressional seat now held by Scott McInnis of Grand Junction. By itself, the Western Slope never had the population to exclusively warrant representation in Washington. In the 1960s, the “Western Slope” district had to sprawl along the South Platte River to Nebraska to get the numbers to work. More recently it lapped across the Continental Divide to take in the San Luis Valley, the upper Arkansas River, and Pueblo.

But come January, the Western Slope will be fragmented. McInnis’s district will take in more of Southern Colorado, but he will lose Grand, Eagle, and Summit counties – the latter two counties bisected by I-70. As geography, the Western Slope is ceasing to define a community of interest.

Who gets these headwaters counties? Assuming his re-election, Mark Udall of Boulder. That gives Udall representation of Boulder and Broomfield on one side of the Great Divide, and Breckenridge and Basalt on the other, communities deep in thought on one side, and those hard at play on the other.

Another way to look at this redistricting is that the I-70 corridor is being attached to metropolitan Denver. These water-rich resort counties have become essentially suburbs of metro Denver – “exurban,” to use the phrase favored by some geographers. This political redistricting recognizes that relationship.

This idea of being a suburb of Denver goes down hard in mountain precincts – or at least it used to. When I moved to this headwaters region 25 years ago I understood that three names could be taken in vain in even polite company. The Denver Water Board was one of them. Living in mountain towns was hard.

But living in these mountain valleys has become progressively easier, if more expensive. There isn’t much mud season left, because there isn’t much mud. Everything has been gussied up, paved over and bricked up.

And, with I-70 at hand, the attraction of many of these places for even full-time residents is the proximity of Denver and its phalanx of professional sports teams, shopping, or even lectures. On the flip side, metro Denver residents comprise the largest percentage of real estate purchasers. And real estate is, after all, the economic foundation of these mountain valleys.

Given the foregoing, is it really any surprise that Breckenridge and Basalt from the Western Slope might more comfortably fit with Boulder and Broomfield than with Meeker or Mancos? The I-70 corridor has created a quasi-urban corridor, and in this economy party distinctions blur. A Resort Republican tilts more toward liberalism than a Ranch Democrat. I suspect that McInnis wishes he had been able to shed Aspen to Udall.

Did builders of I-70 foresee all these consequences? If not legislative redistricting, clearly they understood the power of highways to transform. Even in the 1930s, Western Slope organizations argued loudly for a tunnel to dismantle the Continental Divide. Among their spokesmen was “Big Ed” Johnson.

Having spent much his younger years grubbing a hard living from the sagebrush country west of Craig, Johnson focused on transportation during his unrivaled tenure as governor and U.S. senator. It’s fitting that the east-bound bore of the Eisenhower Tunnel Complex is named after Johnson, for it allows us to go from the Western Slope to Denver, shadowing his movement in life.

Historian Duane Vandebusche some years ago wrote a book called “The Western Slope: A Land Apart.” But given how I-70 has transformed a portion of the Western Slope, perhaps a reissue of the book should be retitled: “The Western Slope: A Land Fragmented.” The Continental Divide still defines where the snow falls, but I-70 and other highways define where we live and spend money.

On Saturday, Aug. 10, Allen Best will conduct a one-day seminar called called “Four Lanes into the Wilderness: The Making of I-70.” Cost is $50. To register, call the Gore Range Natural Science School at 827-9725.


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