Is the Book Cliffs highway back on the table?
A previously denied proposal to put a highway through the Book Cliffs has returned. Wildlife conservation groups and local non-profits question the motivations for the highway, and fear it could cause habitat loss and negatively impact wildlife.
The highway has been proposed by the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition, also known as SCIC. Mike McKee is the Executive Director of SCIC, and he said they are currently working on having an environmental impact assessment done in the area, with 3.2 million dollars of funding from the Utah State Legislature, to determine viability of the highway.
“And generally what happens in an environmental impact study, is there are several, considerations or alternatives that are evaluated. And that also includes a no action. Of course, in the seven county Coalition's perspective, we're hoping that when we conclude with the environmental impact study, that that would lead to a project.”
Although the environmental impact assessment costs are covered; opponents have expressed concerns about additional costs. Deeda Seed is a Senior Public Lands Campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity.
“The concern that we're spending, you know, 2.8 million or more in Utah taxpayer dollars, to do this, paying consultants to do an environmental impact statement, for a road that is so expensive to build upwards of $400 million to build the thing to build this highway”, said Seed.
Mike McKee with SCIC, said the highway is intended for travel and tourism, connecting visitors from Northern Utah or Wyoming to the Mighty Five,
“There was a time when maybe this was looked at more for you know, Travel and Tourism and extraction. But as we see this today, this would be pretty much a travel and tourism road.”
The highway was first proposed in 1992, the proposal didn’t go through but has been brought up and turned down many times since. Sam Van Wetter, a Field Organizer for the Rural Utah Project, said the new proposal has a key change,
“In 2020 when the highway was kind of re proposed and again this year in 2021. They have shifted from the original 30 year old messaging of creating an energy and extractive resource highway and they have shifted towards calling (it) a tourism highway. It is such a thin cover for what will actually be an extractive resource highway because there are roads that already connect these places.”
Grand County has stood in opposition to the highway proposal since its inception, for a variety of reasons. Trisha Hedin is a Grand County commissioner and is concerned by the redundancy of this highway given that roadways already exist connecting Uintah and Grand Counties. She and other opponents of the highway pointed out it would only reduce driving time by around 20 minutes, and questioned if that’s worth the environmental impact as well as the effects on towns along existing roads
“What it does then is disqualifies all these outlying communities that are trying to base their economy on tourism. Helper is a perfect example. They put a ton of money into Helper, in the last probably 10 years really producing this cool little town that they're really trying to attract tourists. You're trying to bypass Helper, or you're trying to bypass Price", said Hedin.
The Book Cliffs is an area of public land spanning four-hundred-and-fifty-five-thousand acres and is one of the largest intact habitats in the lower 48 states. Deeda Seed with the Center for Biological Diversity explained her concerns,
“Putting a paved highway through the middle of this really critical wildlife habitat is a terrible idea from a species conservation standpoint, and from the standpoint of protecting against the ravages of the climate crisis.”
She said not only would construction fragment habitat, but a highway will increase wildlife-vehicle collisions
“The United States Forest Service, and other federal agencies have looked at the impacts of construction of highways and wildlife habitats. And the scientific consensus is that it's extremely harmful to the long term health of the species that exists in the area.”
The ecosystem of the Book Cliffs supports large populations of big game species including; elk, bighorn sheep, mule deer, pronghorn antelope, bear. Seed says the area also contains a variety of rare, endemic plant species. Because it is largely a desert ecosystem, it is fragile, and sensitive to disturbance.
In the proposed location, the highway would cross over an area of key habitat said Trisha Hedin
“The wildlife in the book cliffs really sit on what's called the divide, the very top, not flowing down in the Uintah Basin and not coming over the top and down into the Cisco desert. That summer range, it's where most of the food is. But it's also where, you know, a lot of elk and bison just stay up there all year long, the bison really never leave the top.”
After the environmental assessment is conducted, there will be a time for public commentary, and UPR will be following up then.