The federal government has released funds to build a new controversial airport near Lake Powell, which environmental groups have tried to block in court.
The U.S. Department of Transportation announced Friday through the office of Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah, that it is releasing $2.04 million for the first phase of the proposed Cal Black Memorial Airport near Hall's Crossing to be built by San Juan County.State officials have said they hope the full-service airport will lure more tourists to the Utah side of the lake - instead of Arizona - and enhance air traffic safety in the area.
But the environmental groups have charged that the facility is not needed, that its construction would harm sensitive habitat and that it would attract a large number of aircraft over otherwise quiet recreation and wilderness areas.
Various groups have battled over the airport for seven years - which even resulted in a visit to the site last year by Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr. for lobbying by Utah officials.
The original proposal called for lengthening and paving an existing dirt runway within the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, but the National Park Service voiced objections.
The current proposal is for an entirely new airport off the recreation area on land that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is allowing San Juan County to use. It is roughly five miles from the lake, said San Juan County Commission Chairman Ty Lewis.
The funding is for the first phase of design and construction including runways, access roads, lighting and fences, according to the Department of Transportation.
"We hope it will bring more tourists," Lewis said. "It should improve safety too because the airports around here are inadequate. The only real base for fixed-wing aircraft is in Page (Ariz.), and the lake is 180 miles long. This will not only provide access for more people, but improve safety."
The airport was originally to be named the Hall's Crossing Airport. But the San Juan County Commission recently voted to name it in honor of longtime Commissioner Cal Black, who recently died of cancer.
Three environmental groups - the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Sierra Club and the National Parks and Conservation Association - filed suits in October in federal courts in Salt Lake City, Denver and Washington to block the airport.
Brant Calkin, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said about the release of funds, "We're disappointed. And given nature of needs in other parts of the country, it's hard to justify this race to throw away money in the desert."