[Courtesy photo]

Calling it a “priority project,” six eastern Utah counties are seeking funds for an Environmental Impact Statement on a proposal to extend Seep Ridge Road through the remote Book Cliffs area northeast of Moab.

Otherwise known as the Book Cliffs Highway, the proposed roadway would connect Grand and Uintah counties. The proposal has long been controversial in Grand County, and contributed to the overturn of two county governments.

Following a public hearing in Price on Friday, April 1, board members from the Six County Infrastructure Coalition (SCIC) voted unanimously to request a $1 million grant from Utah’s Permanent Community Impact Fund Board (CIB) to complete an EIS on the proposed roadway.

Uintah County Commissioner Mike McKee told the Moab Sun News that the proposed roadway has strong regional significance for transportation and commerce, and that it will connect communities and boost local economies.

“We have an opportunity to greatly enhance recreation in eastern Utah,” McKee said. “The connection between the Mighty 5 (national) parks, Grand County, Dinosaur National Monument … and Yellowstone cannot be overstated.”

But critics, including Grand County Council member Chris Baird, charge that the road project, with an estimated cost of $100 million to $200 million, amounts to a subsidy for a dying fossil fuel industry, including a nearby oil sands strip mine operation. They fear that it will also fragment important wildlife habitat and compromise wilderness values in adjacent wilderness study areas.

“The expenditure of public money on infrastructure for oil shale and tar sands shows that the SCIC has no pragmatic business sense,” Baird said. “Private companies have been pulling the plug on these projects and the SCIC and CIB are betting millions of dollars of public money on them.”

Baird said that studies showing an economic return on the estimated $100 to $200 million construction costs are “a total sham, based on assumptions, built on assumptions.”

Baird came into office on a wave of voter dissatisfaction with the previous council’s support for the Book Cliffs Highway, and for its participation in what was then a Seven County Infrastructure Coalition.

Grand County withdrew from the coalition in January 2015.

Grand County Council member Lynn Jackson said that the decision to withdraw from the coalition was, in his opinion, based on “ideological, short-sighted and spiteful reasons,” which has unfortunately resulted in Grand County being left out of the discussion.

Jackson said that although 55 percent of the voters in Grand County are opposed to the road, 45 percent support it, as do many other groups and people in the state.

“A connecting route between the Uintah Basin and southeastern Utah has had interest ever since the settlement of Utah,” Jackson said. “I think there will always continue to be sectors of the region that support this road. Our refusal to participate in the 6CIC did not stop the interest, it just took us away from the table, and removed a valuable veto authority our county would have had for activity with this particular group.”

Jackson added that the recently completed transportation corridor study indicated considerable economic benefit to recreation and general commerce sectors of the region’s economy.

“It actually didn’t attribute a significant complement from hydrocarbon development,” he said.

The estimated cost for the EIS is $4 million. The 6CIC initially made a request to the Utah State Legislature for $1.5 million to start the process, but the state did not award funding, and the coalition is now turning to the CIB.

The CIB provides loans or grants to state agencies and subdivisions of the state which are socially or economically impacted by mineral resource development on federal lands. The funding comes from mineral lease royalties that the federal government returns to the state.

Funding is used to develop or enhance local infrastructure, and has contributed to the funding of projects such as libraries, recreation and senior centers, and community sports arenas.

CIB funds have recently come under legal scrutiny for their allocation toward the construction of a coal port in Oakland, California, as well as for an earlier 6CIC proposal to construct a railroad between Vernal and Price to transport oil and gas.

McKee said that funding for the Seep Ridge Road EIS falls within the scope of state and federal guidelines for mineral lease funds.

“Planning, road construction, water, sewer and community projects have all been deemed to be an appropriate use of these funds,” McKee said.

McKee said that ways have been shown to reduce the overall cost of the project, and that it would likely be built through a combination of state and federal funds.

But, McKee said, it is important to remember that an EIS always contains a “no action” alternative and that there is no guarantee that the road will be built.

Former Grand County Assistant Road Supervisor Dave Vaughn said that although he has mixed feelings about the proposed road, it’s construction is likely inevitable.

“It’s always been a thorn in (the Utah Department of Transportation’s) side,” Vaughn said. “It’s the largest area in the lower 48 not served by a highway and that’s like waving a red flag in front of the proverbial bull.”

Vaughn said it was always guaranteed that he would see wildlife on top, including deer, elk and buffalo, and he noted the presence of numerous archaeological sites in the upper reaches of Hay and East canyons.

Local resident and lifelong hunter Trisha Hedin said that the Book Cliffs are one of the premier big game units in Utah, and that the effects of large highways on big game, especially elk, can be detrimental.

Hedin served as past Canyonlands Chapter chair of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, as well as on the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources’ Southeastern Regional Advisory Committee.

“This highway would result in direct habitat loss, fragmentation, displacement of animals and possible highway mortality,” she said.

Hedin also questioned the viability of building a road in the steep and narrow heads of either canyon with their perennial streams.

“The maintenance of this road for the citizens of Grand County would be extensive,” she said.

Vaughn concurred, and said they would likely spend as much on the upper two to three miles of the road as they had on the whole 45 miles up to the Grand County line.

But, he said, building the road has advantages for the people in Vernal, including shortened driving times and increased tourism, and that it is hard to argue against that.

“People always want to see what’s up there when you build a new road,” he said.

Move comes after legislature rejected similar request

It’s always been a thorn in (the Utah Department of Transportation’s) side … It’s the largest area in the lower 48 not served by a highway and that’s like waving a red flag in front of the proverbial bull.