Dolores-Norwood Road may get more pavement

Wednesday, March 23, 2016 7:45 PM
The “road of many names” begins as 11th Street in Dolores, becomes County Road 31, then Forest Road 526. It’s paved for the first 11 miles, and continues on to Groundhog Reservoir and eventually Norwood.

The San Juan National Forest is considering a plan to extend the pavement on the Dolores-Norwood Road for four miles to the Montezuma County line.

The estimated $1 million chip-seal project would be funded through grants applied for by the forest service and the county. If successful, funding would not be available until 2019.

The “road of many names” begins as 11th Street in Dolores, becomes County Road 31, then Forest Road 526. It is paved for the first 11 miles, and continues on to Groundhog Reservoir and eventually Norwood.

The Dolores-Norwood road is heavily used by loggers, cattle ranchers, recreationists, private property owners, construction haulers and oil and gas companies. But it has been taking a beating in recent years, especially on the gravel section beyond the pavement.

“The gravel surface portion is wearing thin, given the heavy traffic load,” said Pete Merkel, road manager for the San Juan National Forest. “The road would hold up better with a chip-and-seal surface. We’re working with the county to see if the project is feasible.”

The effort and cost necessary to maintain the gravel portion to forest standards has become cumbersome for the agency, he said.

The road is jointly maintained by the forest and the county under a Schedule A agreement.

According to the agreement, the county is responsible for blading the ditches and gravel road once per year. They also fill in cracks in the pavement, and apply one coat of magnesium chloride under a cost share with the forest.

The Forest Service is responsible for maintaining the road to their standards through blading, providing road materials, clearing brush, and maintaining signs, mile posts, culverts and guardrails.

But after complaints the past two years, the county has done more maintenance than the agreement calls for, said county road manager Rob Englehart.

“We get a lot of phone calls on it and have done more to settle the nerves of people up there,” he said, adding that he billed the forest for the extra without success.

The road’s poor condition has caused strained discussions during county commission meetings with forest officials. Budget cuts on the forest combined with increased use has stretched resources thin. Last year, the road saw an average of 1,818 vehicles per week.

“We’ve come a long way tackling the issue,” Englehart said. “Chip sealing will save both governments a lot of money and benefit the traveling public.”

Officials are also looking into whether it would be feasible to push the additional pavement for five miles so it reaches the Kinder Morgan compression station and Cottonwood Road junction. The Forest Service is looking into re-opening the nearby Beaver gravel pit to provide road material.

Ownership claimsWhere it passes through Forest Service land, the Dolores-Norwood road is owned by the U.S. Forest Service, although that is disputed by the county.

The county claims ownership under a federal statute (RS2477) that gives counties jurisdiction of government-owned roads if they can prove they were in existence before the forest was formed. The San Juan National Forest was reserved in 1905.

The county has hired historian Andrew Gulliford to help research the origins and history of the Dolores-Norwood road. San Juan National Forest officials have not objected to the county claiming ownership under RS2477, but they require the matter to go through federal court for a final decision.

The county could obtain a 99-year lease for the road under the Federal Roads and Trails Act, which would give it jurisdiction. Dolores County obtained that designation for where the road passes through their county.

But the Montezuma County commissioners have been adamant that the road is legally within county jurisdiction. Gaining officially-recognized jurisdiction through the RS2477 process is preferred, they said, because of a clause in FERTA that allows the U.S. government to cancel the lease.

“Why would we sign a revokable lease for a road that is ours?” said commissioner Keenan Ertel.

The county objects to commercial fees charged by the forest to cattle haulers, loggers, and construction companies. The fees don’t necessarily go back to the specific road for maintenance, said Derek Padilla, Dolores District Ranger, but they are used for road projects within the San Juan National Forest.