Four environmental groups are appealing a decision by the Bureau of Land Management to allow Garfield County to upgrade the Hole-in-the-Rock Road, which stretches from Escalante southeast to Lake Powell. It's not the upgrading they object to but the type of permission.
The dispute is being forwarded to the Interior Department's Board of Land Appeal.It's a bit of a rerun of the Burr Trail controversy, in which many of the same environmentalists filed suit to prevent Garfield County from upgrading that 66-mile road. The U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, Denver, is considering their appeal in that one.
In the latest dispute, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the National Parks and Conservation Association, the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society filed a protest with the Bureau of Land Management challenging the decision to give Garfield County a right of way to upgrade the Hole-in-the-Rock Road.
The road was named by Mormon pioneers who made it about a century ago. The pioneers managed to hack a passage down the steep cliff escarpment to the Colorado River, lowering their wagons to a crossing.
Garfield County Commissioner Louise Liston, Escalante, told the Deseret News that the county has been in close contact with the Bureau of Land Management on its plans for minor road work there. "They (BLM officials) did not go ahead without doing an environmental assessment first," she said.
Terri Martin, regional representative of the conservation association, said the environmentalists did not object to the county's plans for minor road work on the trail. But they are objecting to what they consider an overly broad right of way issued by the BLM.
"It is unfortunate that in response to our moderate approach the BLM has adopted an extreme position," she said.
Rodney Greeno of the wilderness alliance said an environmental assessment that the BLM prepared found a need for only modest improvements. This work could be done within a 24-foot right of way, the environmentalists contend.
"Unfortunately, the BLM now states that it wants to grant a 66-foot right of way to the county," said Lawson LeGate of the Sierra Club. Within the right of way, the county presumably could do whatever it wishes.
Mike Medberry of the Wilderness Society said the BLM in effect issued a blank check to Garfield County. The decision would "allow the county a right for major construction in the future without environmental analysis or public involvement," he said.
Medberry called for the BLM to grant a right of way only for the work that the county presently proposes and to require Garfield officials to apply for a new permit for any future road reconstruction.
Liston said Garfield County's road work plans are relatively minor. It wants to put culverts in at Ten Mile Wash, about 10 miles from Escalante, and build up the road a bit there. The county also wants to straighten out a curve and reduce the grade.
Speaking of Ten Mile Wash, Liston said, "It floods there all the time . . . . It's hazardous and it's hard to keep the road passable."
At the blind curve, cattle trucks and county road equipment, if they're heavily loaded, "can't make it all the way up to the top." If this work is done, another culvert would be needed too.
"As far as the 66-foot right of way that they would give us, that would be so we could put the culverts in," Liston said. "You cannot put culverts and proper drainage in with a narrow roadway."
Culverts stick out to the sides, and the road shoulder has to slant down to cover them, she said.
The BLM stopped work at Ten Mile Wash because of a misunderstanding about the source of rocks needed for the project, she said.