The Road that Made Mountains: Highway Design and the Production of Landscape in Vail, Colorado

Authors: James Lindberg*, Syracuse University
Topics: Landscape, Historical Geography, United States
Keywords: highways, Colorado, environmentalism, environmental legislation, landscape design, landscape studies
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/9/2020
Start / End Time: 9:35 AM / 10:50 AM
Room: Denver, Sheraton, IM Pei Tower, Majestic Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


This paper presents a historical study of Vail Pass, a section of Interstate 70 that crosses the Continental Divide approximately 85 miles west of Denver. Constructed between 1973 and 1978, Vail Pass was designed to minimize disruptions to the natural environment and to enhance the visual experience of the landscape from the perspective of an automobile. These ecological and aesthetic considerations were partially shaped by federal environmental legislation, including the Wilderness Act of 1964 and the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970. Vail Pass thus offers a case study for analyzing how federal environmental policies played out in specific places. Based upon a study of highway planning documents and other archival materials related to the Vail Pass project, this paper illustrates the significant impacts of federal legislation on the Colorado landscape. Additionally, this paper argues that the visual elements of the highway’s design have played an important role in shaping cultural attitudes towards the Colorado high country. By engaging with literatures from both environmental history and landscape studies, I suggest that the concept of landscape remains an important category of analysis within the discipline of Geography.

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