Once again, the dreaded Book Cliffs Highway rears its fearsome head.
How many of you have ever been along this route through an area that, while wild, is not wilderness? I had the opportunity to travel the entire route from Vernal south some years ago with some members of the Grand County Council, plus I have been up and down both East and Hay canyons many times in my 17 years with the Grand County Road Department.
I will not argue with Bill Love’s astounding numbers in a recent issue of the Moab Sun News, since I am speaking strictly from my personal knowledge of the area (“Book Cliffs Transportation Study: Fact or Fantasy?,” Feb. 4-10, 2016, Moab Sun News). And besides that, I had a statistics professor who told me once that the same numbers could be used to “prove” either side of an argument if they were used correctly. So, so much for numbers.
This entire area of the Book Cliffs, not in BLM Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs), is covered with roads already and has been since about 1965. Even some of the WSAs were created artificially by ignoring historical existing roads. The discovery of natural gas in the area about the mid-1960s then led to many roads being built in the area. But just because there are roads doesn’t mean it’s not still wilderness. That’s what my boss at the time told me many years ago. It’s not unusual to see bears and mountain lions at times.
Some of the through roads have been travel routes for probably at least 1,000 years or more. Of course, a horse and travois does not equate to a paved road and all of the earth-moving involved to push it through an area.
If it was up to me and my own selfish interests, I’d prefer not to see the area opened to all the impacts that would result from a paved highway through the area, but I think such a beast is probably inevitable in the long run. This has been the dream of the Utah Department of Transportation for at least 50 years. Back in the day, to have the largest area in the lower 48 not serviced by a highway was like waving the proverbial red flag in front of a bull. And it’s hard to argue with folks from the Vernal area wanting easier access to Grand Junction and points south.
I urge everyone with an interest to take a look at the area first-hand. There are primarily gas wells all the way up and down East Canyon. And the plateau on top is just as covered with the same. Yet it was a rare trip up on top when I did not see deer by the hundreds and elk almost as often. The area is incredible with views, on a clear day, of the high Uintas and Split Mountain to the north and the La Sals and Henrys to the south.
The hardest part of any highway on the route depicted in your recent coverage of the issue would be the section from the PR Springs area to the top of East Canyon and then the first 2 or 3 miles dropping into East Canyon (“Coalition may seek state funds for Book Cliffs road study,” Jan. 7-13, 2016, Moab Sun News). There is barely room for the existing road now in places, and it’s probably no more than 30 feet wide. It will cost more for that piece than what Uintah County has spent paving its part of the road. The rest of the way wouldn’t be a walk in the park either.
Then there’s the issue of keeping the road open year-round. The snow gets deep on top especially. I think it would require an entire fleet of snow plows to keep the road open 24/7 in the winter. Maybe it could be another state highway that gets closed in the winter. Just the facilities to maintain the road would probably cost at least several million dollars. You’d have to have a fuel depot and a maintenance shed somewhere (probably Cisco). The plow trucks are incredibly expensive and as deep as the snow and the drifts get on top, you’d probably need at least several large snow blowers also. The cost of pavement maintenance would also be more than the state currently pays the counties to maintain the Class B roads, especially if the road was kept open year-round. It just goes on and on. Currently, the oil and gas companies do all the maintenance work in the wintertime, since they have to keep the wells going and turn in royalty information to the state and/ or federal governments. A highway would completely change all of that.
Dave Vaughn is a former assistant road supervisor for the Grand County Road Department.
If it was up to me and my own selfish interests, I’d prefer not to see the area opened to all the impacts that would result from a paved highway through the area, but I think such a beast is probably inevitable in the long run.