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February 12, 2010

New Competition Sets Out to Protect Wildlife Through Design
Vail Pass in Colorado is identified as first target for solutions.
By Allen Best

Wildlife overpasses have been both effective and expensive. Five such overpasses span the TransCanada Highway as it slices through Banff National Park, and five more can be found at various locations in the United States. They allow bears, wolves, and other wildlife to move in traditional ways without risk of being squashed by cars and trucks. Cost, however, has precluded their broader deployment. Pushed by inflating concrete and steel prices, Banff’s newest overpasses came in at $11 million each.

Can form, function, and finances better be served with new methods, materials, and mind-sets? That’s the essential question posed by the North American Wildlife Crossing Structure Design Competition. The competition seeks proposals from interdisciplinary teams of landscape architects, biologists, engineers, and others using a specified site along Interstate 70 near the Colorado resort of Vail. Organizers hope that Colorado transportation officials adopt the winning design, but they hope even more for new solutions for use across North America to a familiar problem.

Interstate 70 is both beautiful and deadly. Wildlife biologists call it the “Berlin Wall to Wildlife.” The first confirmed wolf in Colorado since 1943 was promptly smacked on the highway after it trotted in from Yellowstone in 2004. Five reintroduced Canada lynx have been killed, including two near the competition site west of Vail Pass.

The site is at about 10,000 feet in elevation in a forested area but with a steep falloff on one side. Squeezed into the valley wall are four lanes, with potential for two more, and a bicycle path. Bear, mountain lion, and lynx frequent the area, as do occasional deer and elk.

Pedro Campos, ASLA, the senior landscape architect with Vail Architectural Group, a multidisciplinary team, is assembling a team. “I can’t think of anything more dramatic than a major transcontinental highway with a major migratory route,” he says. Campos, who pedals a bicycle across the pass several times a year, sees minimizing of weight as a key challenge. “We know what it can be like during big snow years,” he says. Better if no heavy soil and rocks are needed. To that end, he is tinkering with artificial substances. As well, he notes challenges of suppressing noise and lights in creating a structure that wildlife will use. “If it doesn’t work for wildlife, [it’s] a failure,” he says.

I-70 across Vail Pass was completed in 1978, after aesthetics had entered the calculus of highway construction. The highway work was broadly recognized even then for the design that deceptively seems to have been spooned onto the landscape. The lesson, says Kristofer Johnson, an associate with Design Workshop in Aspen, Colorado, is the “very aesthetic balance that can be struck between the native landscape and engineered solutions.” Teams entering the competition, he says, will have to match that already high bar.

Competition organizers also hope to see ideas for temporary overpasses, such as might be useful as changing climates provoke shifts in wildlife movements.

But cost remains the core challenge. “Standard bridge design just seems overkill” for wildlife purposes, says Nina-Marie Lister, a professor of ecology and planning in Toronto who is advising the competition. She is hopeful. “When a diverse group of experts put their heads together, the potential for cost-effective, ecologically  viable, and beautiful designs is boundless.”

Entry rules will be available later this spring at Finalists will be picked by June. Organizers hope for 100 entries from around the globe.


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