Four environmental groups have suffered a final blow in their Burr Trail suit: The government doesn't have to pay the groups' legal bills, even though they won on a substantial issue.

The Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club's Utah Chapter, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and the National Parks and Conservation Association sued to halt Garfield County's road work on the 66-mile route, which stretches from Boulder, Garfield County, and Bullfrog, Kane County.Their 1987 federal suit failed to stop the project, although an appeals court ordered the preparation of an environmental report about the project.

The groups recently asked U.S. District Senior Judge Aldon J. Anderson to order the government to pay their lawyers' expenses and court costs. But Anderson has now ruled that the government does not need to pay.

Under the Equal Access to Justice Act, attorney fees and expenses can be awarded to the prevailing party in a suit against the government "unless the court finds that the position of the United States was substantially justified," Anderson wrote.

He ruled that while the environmentalists failed to halt the project, "they succeeded in obtaining a judgment that the proposed construction activities are subject to NEPA (the National Environmental Policy Act) and require an environmental assessment."

The Bureau of Land Management assigned people to work on the assessment to determine if construction will unnecessarily degrade wilderness study areas, he added.

So the environmentalists won on a significant issue, he said.

"The BLM took the position that a separate EIS (environmental impact statement) was unnecessary in light of the extensive studies which had been prepared previously," he wrote.

That indicated to BLM District Manager Morgan Jensen that the Burr Trail project would have no significant effect on the environment. In fact, he wrote, the director of the National Park Service had endorsed a road project that would have widened it in many places for safety sake. Park Service officials, however, have signed a statement acknowledging that a significant effect would result.

Anderson himself at one point said that the previous studies were sufficient.

"The circuit court corrected this court in those respects mentioned," he wrote. "However, nothing in the circuit court's opinion suggested that the government's position on the NEPA issue was unreasonable."

He ruled that the government position was reasonable "even though it later was held to be incorrect."

The environmentalists' court costs and attorney fees "will not be awarded because the government's position on that issue was substantially justified."