People were whispering as they stood waiting in a line outside the Madsen Recital Hall to hear a speech about Provo Canyon.
"What's he going to talk about?" one girl asked her companion. "Issues," he answered. "Some kind of issues."Another girl recognized a friend across the room and shouted, "I didn't know you were into Redford." "I'm into Provo Canyon," her friend replied with a wry grin. "Redford's not here to be looked at, he's here to speak."
Robert Redford was at Brigham Young University Tuesday to speak, and on a subject important to him, but it's fair to say the hundreds of students who came to listen were interested in gazing at the actor, too.
But the ogling didn't last long after Redford got into his subject. He implored students to join the fight to preserve the canyon's environment, as Utah Department of Transportation workers improve U.S. 189 from the mouth of the canyon to U.S. 40 south of Heber City.
Redford has been involved in the controversy over the highway for 21 years. He said the work being done is OK, but people interested in protecting the canyon should monitor UDOT's progress "every step of the way."
"Maybe there's still a chance to save this canyon before it's too late," he told the students. "It's almost too late. I would sure get involved, because it's your future. I just can't say strongly enough how important I think it is that you get involved."
The Provo Canyon Parkway Committee, which sponsored the open forum, is organizing people to help construct a series of "pocket parks" in May along the canyon roadway.
The parks are intended to be models of what the canyon's overall environment can be like. They will feature trees and plants that will enhance the roadway's appearance.
The "pocket parks" fit in with one of the options now being considered for canyon improvement. UDOT hired the consulting firm Howard, Needles, Tammen and Bergendorf last June to prepare a supplemental environmental impact statement concerning road improvements and to make recommendations about how those improvements should be handled.
The supplemental statement was ordered by a Utah court after citizens concerned about UDOT construction in the canyon filed a 1985 lawsuit to stop the work, because they believed the transportation department was not abiding by a previous agreement to improve the two-lane road by simply adding occasional passing lanes.
Redford said that when UDOT began its construction about two years ago, it was actually building a four-lane highway. Transportation officials called it two lanes with passing lanes, but the passing lanes ran throughout the canyon.
"You could count them," he said. "It didn't take a genius to count the lanes, and it was clearly four lanes. That was going to be massive thoroughfare, basically for trucks."
That scenario is still being considered and is one of the options developed by the consulting firm. Others are maintaining the highway as it is with present repairs. An accessibility alternative would allow limited upgrading, and the two-lane highway would accommodate traffic moving 40 mph.
A multiple-use alternative, the one Redford favors, would make the canyon road four lanes, divided and landscaped. Through the narrows from River Bend to Wildwood, the northbound and southbound lanes would split, with northbound lanes following existing alignment and southbound lanes passing through two tunnels.
The state will decide which option to use after public hearings conclude in June. That is why Redford, who lives at his Provo Canyon Sundance ski resort, believes now is the time for people to get involved.
"(Provo Canyon) can be a prototype for other canyons in the Wasatch Range," he said. "One of the reasons I came (to live in) this place was the incredible beauty I found. I took it on myself to be something of a missionary for what was good about the Provo area."
Redford may have snagged some converts Tuesday.
Many of the students who overflowed onto the stage and into walkways during the actor's visit may have come to see a movie star, but a large number left their names and phone numbers at the door so they could be included on a list of volunteers to join Redford's fight.