Can a delicate wildflower stop a bulldozer?

Maybe so, if it's the Maguire primrose, and the bulldozers are the machinery of Utah Department of Transportation contractors, which otherwise might drastically widen U.S. 89 through Logan Canyon.The Maguire primrose, a perennial with the scientific name Primula maguirei, is a rare, delicate plant with reddish-lavender flowers about an inch across. The flowers appear on 6-inch stems that rise above flat, spoon-shaped leaves. The plant grows only in six locations within Logan Canyon.

"This is probably one of the most beautiful plants in Utah," said Larry England, botanist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Its habitat is restricted to cool, mossy dolomite cliffs and boulders in lower Logan Canyon, within 10 miles of Logan. The primrose depends on the cool temperature and moist conditions of its small habitat.

Anyone interested in seeing what it looks like can consult the new "Endangered Species of Utah," a pamphlet distributed by various Forest Service offices. A photo of the primrose is on the cover. The plant is on the federal government's threatened species list.

Nobody would worry much about the Maguire primrose except that the Utah Department of Transportation has been proposing to "improve" U.S. 89 through Logan Canyon.

The project seems to be predicated upon the notion that people should zoom through the canyon.

A draft environmental impact statement on the highway project states that safe speed in the canyon ranges from 25 to 40 miles per hour, because of the road's physical characteristics; and that the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials' standard for a "minor arterial road," which is the classification of U.S. 89, is 50 mph.

Then, in a classic of twisted logic, the statement concludes, "The existing highway is therefore substandard."

Read that to mean a great deal of work would be required to bring the highway up to "standard."

The draft, issued last November by UDOT and the Federal Highway Administration, says: "Expert testimony provided at hearings on the proposed listing of Primula maguirei as an endangered plant species suggested that alteration of the microenvironment of Logan Canyon might adversely affect it . . .

"However, there appears to be genuine differences in professional opinion regarding whether the project constitutes a significant threat."

The differences now may be settled.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently released a recovery plan for the Maguire primrose that may prohibit extensive widening and realignment near the plant.

The Endangered Species Act is binding on other federal agencies - including the Forest Service, on whose land it is found, and the Federal Highway Administration, which would fund much of the project.

"The species is threatened by current and potential habitat destruction or adverse modification by recreational activities and highway construction."

The recovery plan says one of the actions needed to protect the plant is to "control activities which affect the habitat . . . through the Endangered Species Act and other relevant laws and regulations."

England, who is based in the F&WS office in Salt Lake City, said the agency must safeguard the primrose. It is on the threatened species list, he said, not the endangered species list, which means it faces threats but is not verging on extinction.

"If the habitat is further threatened, it will go in that direction," he warned.

The Federal Highway Administration and the Forest Service will be "required to provide for the conservation of the species through any action that they fund or authorize."

Practically, the Endangered Species Act will prevent the federal government from taking any action that might tend to damage the plant's chances.

"We're going to try to steer any activity which would disturb the habitat away from the populations of the species . . . What we're really concerned about with the primrose is manipulations of its habitat that will change the microenvironment," England said.

"That's why we don't want to see an extremely large, wide highway past its habitat."

Some of the alternatives listed in the draft statement the F&WS considers to be neutral or even beneficial to the primrose. So far, planners haven't selected the alternative they prefer.

But if a great deal of widening takes place where the primrose grows, the natural vegetation would be replaced with asphalt. The plants that helped moderate temperature and humidity would be destroyed, drying and heating the nearby region.

Imagine the sun beating on the asphalt and reflecting from the cliffs - maybe that would be change enough to bake the primrose right out of existence.

"A moderate amount of widening is certainly feasible and possible," England said. "The question is the degree."

Some minor widening and shoulder-work could be possible, "but certainly not a large road with a turnout," such as a passing lane, he said. That could be "very damaging to the species' habitat."