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Denver, CO

guest commentary (Oct. 8, 2006)

Cruel irony in highway name
By Gary Wockner

You know how they cut down a forest, put in a housing development, and then call the place "Pine Forest Ranch"? Colorado might lead the nation in this kind of nature marketing -- just about every new subdivision has a name harkening back to the very thing that was killed to make it.

The good side, if there is one, is that some of these projects incorporate various kinds of conservation easement and land preservation schemes that attempt to address the loss of open space and wildlife habitat that is running rampant in Colorado. Around 80,000 acres of open land is gobbled up every year in Colorado by new houses, roads and commercial development, much of that in prime wildlife winter range that sustains our wild animals.

As a wildlife ecologist, I try not to get jaded or cynical. Colorado is changing, for better or worse, and the best we can do is try to save as much space and habitat as possible as new people pour into the state. On a personal level, I figure that if my work makes things better than they would have been otherwise, then I'm doing something good.

There's one project, though, that is testing my optimism.

You've heard of the Super Slab? It's a private toll road that's been proposed to run from Fort Collins to Pueblo as a bypass to the Denver metro area. The Slab would be a brand-new, 210-mile, 1,200-foot- wide transportation corridor with a 100-foot-wide strip of cement running down the middle of it.

By any account, this is not a nature-friendly proposition. The private toll road would open up millions of acres of eastern Colorado to growth and development, and transportation corridors are notoriously the worst enemy of wildlife.

For a fact: Billions of wild critters -- birds, deer, raccoons and snakes -- are slaughtered and smeared on America's roadways every year. Millions are already killed every year right here in Colorado, and around two dozen state citizens die every decade when their vehicles collide with large animals.

And so it was with a jaded eye that I learned about the Super Slab's latest incarnation: In a desperate attempt to soften its image, the Slab has been renamed the Prairie Falcon Parkway Express.

The parkway even has this tagline on its website: "Connecting communities. Preserving habitat. Strengthening commerce." The website goes further and says that the parkway intends "to work closely with the environmental and conservation communities, and public and private landowners, to include substantial wildlife protection and open space features into the project."

OK, let's try to forget that the parkway would require the purchase or condemnation of more than 5,000 privately owned parcels of land that are currently ranches and open space. Let's forget that it is opposed by almost every landowner and office holder in that part of the state. And let's also forget that in 2006, three bills passed the Democratic legislature and were signed into law by the Republican governor that would make the Super Slab even harder to build.

Let's just try and focus on its attempt at a new image: a super-highway toll road as "Preserving habitat"? Come on, you gotta be kidding me.

Wildlife ecologists often call Interstate 70 through the mountains the "Berlin Wall for Wildlife." Any critter in the state that must migrate from north to south has to venture across I-70, and the road's pavement bares testament to the fate of some of those critters.

I would call the future Prairie Falcon Parkway, then, Colorado's "Great Wildlife Wall of China." This 210-mile cement slab would be a 210-mile roadblock for migrating wildlife, and another 210 mile-long collision zone waiting to happen. Bird and animal blood would be smeared from the top of the Front Range to the bottom, and the ensuing growth and development would be another nail in the coffin for Colorado's great wildlife heritage.

There is a real prairie falcon, a beautiful wild flying bird whose habitat includes Colorado's eastern Plains. Should you drive on the parkway in the future, you might see the falcon -- it will be smeared across the highway, just like its image is smeared across the Super Slab's website.

Gary Wockner, PhD, ( is a writer and ecologist in Fort Collins.