Cell towers disguised as trees will be erected soon in Glenwood Canyon. It’s a project years in the making. One Forest Service employee has been with the project since day one. Donna Graham’s focus has been to make the towers and their infrastructure mesh with the scenery.
"We wanted to have whatever was constructed here to be something that blended in," Graham says.
Graham is the Landscape Architect for the White River National Forest. The most visited recreation forest in the country. The cell tower project is one of many she’s worked on over the past three decades. As part of our Work the Valley series, Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen profiled Graham and talked to her about one of her first projects.
"Most highway projects don’t have the challenges that this Canyon had," says Graham.
Graham started work in Glenwood Canyon in the early 1990’s, right when construction on Interstate 70 was wrapping up. About $500 million replaced an old road from pioneering times with a four-lane, winding highway. Graham says the terrain made the project difficult.
"It’s a very narrow canyon with steep rock walls, with the Colorado River going through the middle, the railroad on one side."
The project put more than 500 highway employees to work, installing new retaining walls, constructing bridges and tunnels and, working to keep the fragile canyon environment intact. That’s where Graham came in.
"I would be assigned to work with the contractors and I would be working with them on anything from rebuilding talus slopes all the way down to the edge of the highway, to rock-cuts, and on the rock-cuts we did rock staining," Graham says.
We’ll get to the rock staining in a minute. But first, Graham’s work in natural spaces isn’t limited to Glenwood Canyon. She’s done work on McClure pass and at ski resorts that run through the White River. She calls her work “scenery management” and describes it this way.
"To look at a project that’s being proposed and look at the setting that the project is going to be in when it’s built and to look at all the different elements of the surroundings."
Then she comes up with a design that will minimize impacts to the scenery. She works all over the Forest, from Dillon to Aspen and Meeker.
"There’s a variety of different projects that I work on, we have anything from power line projects, forest health projects, gas projects, recreations projects," she says.
Now, back to staining rocks in Glenwood Canyon. It’s work she did two decades ago to keep the area looking natural.
A short drive through the 12 mile Canyon takes us to several spots along the road where Graham can see her work.
"There’s some rock stain here, in these sections, this was all rock cut," she points out.
Rock cut refers to how the rock walls were split in order to lay down the highway. In order to mask the cuts, Graham and her team used a special stain to make the rocks look weathered.
"I can tell there’s a little bit different texture in the rock and also just the coloring is a little bit different, but most people would not be able to tell it," she says.
The idea, says Graham, was to make the rocks and the highway look like they belonged. She also helped plant 150-thousand plants in the Canyon after construction uprooted vegetation.
The work was part of a larger effort by the Forest Service, the Colorado Department of Transportation, and a slew of designers, project managers and engineers to keep the area looking wild. The efforts won awards and were seen as innovative.
For Graham, the project jump-started a long career that continues to be rewarding.
"It’s a very satisfying feeling to know that I’ve been involved in a project, in my case, many projects on the forest, where I’ve made an impact."
Graham has collected newspaper clippings over the years featuring the Canyon. It’s a reminder to her of where she got her start.