Road crews may begin paving nearly all of the Burr Trail next spring, say project backers, gleeful about getting a $3 million grant from the State Community Impact Board to do the job.

Meanwhile, environmentalists who have fought against the route's paving for several years, wonder if this is nearly the end of the trail. They say by securing the grant, the county now has all it needs to pave the route.The entire paving project is expected to cost $7.8 million, not counting 16 miles that cross Park Service land. Paving that distance, a project Congress will be asked to fund, should cost nearly as much again.

"We're elated that we were successful and convinced the board to improve it (the trail)," said Garfield County Commissioner Tom Hatch. "It's been a long battle."

He said he thinks the trail proj-ect has the support of the state's people. Hatch estimated that the earliest work can begin is the spring of 1989.

"Recreation development is not the job of paving roads in beautiful country but in making people more receptive to seeing beautiful country as it already is," responded Mike Medberry, Utah representative for The Wilderness Society. He and other environment-alists were disappointed by the action.

A Garfield County delegation approached the Community Impact Board Thursday requesting a $5 million no-interest loan that would let the county pave 60 miles of the 66-mile route.

The trail runs from Boulder, Garfield County, to a highway near Bullfrog, Kane County. The 16 miles across Capitol Reef National Park and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area isn't part of the county's paving project.

"Clearly this board has felt over the years - at least five years - that this project has high priority," said board chairman Alice Shearer.

Shearer started discussion of the proposal by pointing out that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ted Wilson is reported to have said he has no objection to putting a little asphalt on the Burr Trail, and that Gov. Norm Bangerter supports the project.

So without partisan politics intruding in the debate, she said, "the question is how we're going to do it."

The money will come from an escrow account into which coal companies have been paying royalties pending resolution of a dispute with the federal government. The state has heard reports that the dispute is near settlement, and that under terms of the agreement Utah will get $25 million.

The Impact Board gets a third of state mineral revenues, so it can expect to claim a little more than $8 million of the fund. Shearer thinks the money may be available this fall.

If the windfall payment doesn't come through, then the Garfield grant is off.

Hatch said the controversy between project backers and environmentalists has actually helped Garfield County. The publicity "is something we wouldn't have been able to go out and buy with a million-dollar ad campaign.

Creamer said a great deal of tourist traffic moves between Los Angeles and Denver, and that paving the trail would open southeastern Utah to them, keeping them in the area at least another day.

If the lesser-visited parks of southeastern Utah, such as Arches and Canyonlands, can just double their visitors with the paving project, backers think they will have paid for the project many times over.

Medberry warned, however, that the project could remain "tied up for a long time" in court. A hearing to determine the status of the suit filed by environmentalists is set for Sept. 6 in U.S. District Court.

When the road is paved, Medberry said, "it will cut off as many towns from tourism as it will add." He said "relief money" would be better spent in improving restaurants, motels and other facilities tourists need in towns.

Board Member Samuel Taylor, a state transportation commissioner from Moab, said that in 1974, when he was first transportation commissioner, he was host for a hearing in which environmentalists supported improving the Burr Trail as an alternative to creating a road from what is now named Big Water to Bullfrog. That they now oppose the Burr project offends him tremendously, he said.

The road discussed in 1974 wasn't built because it was too expensive.

In the 1940s, when dirt roads led to most of then-Arches National Monument, only 10,000-12,000 visited a year, he said. When the road was paved, within two years visits were more than 100,000 annually.

Lawson LeGate of the Sierra Club's Public Lands Office in Salt Lake City said, "I keep hearing references to previous positions . . . Somebody finds it objectionable that people would change their minds. "I find it commendable that people would come to their senses."

He related an experience in which tourists asked him how to find the Burr Trial, because the scenic dirt road would be a different experience. Visitors don't want to drive 200 miles out of their way to travel on a paved road, he said.

Creamer told the board that Sens. Orrin Hatch and Jake Garn, R-Utah, and Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, say that if state and county funding is available they believe "they'll be able to work out a deal" in Congress.

In it, an additional $7.5 million would be appropriated by the national government to pave the remaining 16 miles. The cost is high because of the difficulty of paving the switchbacks section through Capitol Reef.

The Garfield people will ask the Legislature for the additional $2 million, but can still do the paving without it, by selling bonds.

"With the $3 million, I know I've got the job done," Creamer said. "This will cover it."