Road-pavers may start working on the Burr Trail as early as December, with Tuesday night's surprise legislative appropriation of the remainder of the money for the project.
However, the road graders could once again be stalled if an environmental impact statement were ordered. That would require months more of study, and conservationists are trying to see that an EIS is required.Garfield County Commissioner Louise Liston, Escalante, said Wednesday that the construction project might take six months. Work can't begin until December 1988 or January 1989 because "it's almost impossible to work in that type of terrain without moisture in the ground," she said.
Not only will the project prove an economic boon by encouraging tourism, she said, but it will make travel safer for law enforcement officers, school teachers, and social services and health officials who need to cross Garfield County. The dirt road is dangerous in times of bad weather.
In addition, the county has paid an average of $100,000 a year for the past decade in maintenance, said Liston. This should drop sharply when the road is paved, she believes.
Legislators meeting in special session Tuesday night approved a $2 million appropriation as the last local funding for the controversial project.
Still expected is another $7.5 million that Congress once approved - but never released - to pave the sections in Capitol Reef National Park and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.
The Burr Trail issue was placed on the Legislature's call by Gov. Norm Bangerter, even though senators voted against considering it Monday evening. This time it passed, although both Republican and Democrat lawmakers said it should not be considered on such short notice, without public comment, and in light of the tax-cutting initiatives which could become law.
"This is a dirty trick," said an emotional Sen. Francis Farley, D-Salt Lake. "I don't understand how this governor and this Senate can bring such a controversial matter as paving the trail before us without any opportunity for the thousands of Utahns who oppose the paving having a chance to speak.
"This is undemocratic and unfair. Please don't do this," she said.
They did it anyway, with a bare majority approving the spending in the House and Senate. Proponents of the measure said the dirt road will be paved, the state has committed to that spending, and it might as well do it now.
Rodney Greeno, of the Southern Wilderness Alliance, said the BLM still hasn't decided if an environmental impact statement is needed for the road.
"I can't believe the Legislature would give away this kind of money when the groundwork hasn't been completed at all. We're far from a final decision on paving the trail," he said.
San Juan County Commissioner Calvin Black, a long-time proponent of road projects in southern Utah, was elated Wednesday over the Legislature's action.
"I think it's wonderful," he said. "I think it's part of the overall transportation system that many of us have planned for years. It means a great deal."
He said the Burr Trail was the most critical link in southern Utah's transportation system that was still unpaved.
"The most scenic and most direct route from southern Utah to southeastern Utah, connecting the parks in between with Lake Powell in the center, is across the Burr Trail," Black said.
The Legislature's action came only a month after the Community Impact Board earmarked $3 million for the project, said Liston. "I think that we figured if we could get the other $2 million we would have enough to pave it."
Both the board's and the Legislature's funding is to come from the same source: Utah's share of an anticipated settlement on a federal coal royalty suit, expected to between $22 million and $25 million.
When the project got money from the impact board, the paving was assured. The latest appropriation means Garfield County won't need to issue bonds to do it.
"I feel very good," Liston said Wednesday. "In fact, I told my husband last night we probably had the people who took us to court to thank for it. When we started out initially with this Burr Trail road, we had no intention of paving it."
The county had money only to bring it up to grade, hoping to later come up with enough cash to put a gravel cap over the road, she said. But she said the federal suit by environmental groups galvanized the supporters and got money flowing.
An environmental assessment on the paving project should be completed any day, she said. Once it is approved by U.S. District Senior Judge Aldon J. Anderson, the county hopes to begin the project.
Rudy Lukez, conservation chairman of the Sierra Club's Utah Chapter, said the move Tuesday night demonstrated poor leadership by legislators and the governor. He called it a "back-door" approach.
Lukez said conservationists are upset about the bill's passage. The Legislature was called into special session to weigh a settlement with depositors who lost money when thrift institutions went out of business, he said.
"While they were keeping all of Utah sitting on the edge of their seats, wondering what they were going to do with the thrifts, they turn around and start monkeying around with the Burr Trail appropriations," Lukez added. "That's a pretty irresponsible action."