No significant environmental effects are predicted if southern Utah's Burr Trail is paved, according to an environmental assessment issued by the Bureau of Land Management's Cedar City office.
The decision is one of the last needed to clear the way for Garfield County to pave remaining portions of the road on BLM land. Earlier, a section 15 miles long was approved for roadwork by U.S. District Judge Aldon J. Anderson, and work is scheduled to begin there within a few days.So far, no permission has come from the National Park Service to permit paving within Capitol Reef National Park.
"I'm just really thrilled" that BLM officials issued a finding of no significant impact, said Garfield County Commissioner Louise Liston, Escalante. But environmentalists are not thrilled.
Although BLM officials delivered 254 copies of their final assessment to the post office on Friday, by Tuesday morning they apparently had not arrived on the Wasatch Front. About a third were destined for the Wasatch Front, and more were headed out of state - and two were even sent to foreign countries.
However, the BLM office in Salt Lake City obtained a copy of the assessment through electronic mail and made it available to the Deseret News.
The Burr Trail has been Utah's top environmental battle for the past few years. Four conservation groups sued to halt Garfield County's plans to pave the road, which winds between Boulder, Garfield County, and Bullfrog, Kane County. The groups have lost in federal court, although the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the BLM to prepare an environmental assessment.
The county has now received formal permission from the BLM to proceed with its roadwork between Boulder and Capitol Reef National Park and between Capitol Reef and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.
The BLM approved the project subject to several stipulations. The county must pave the road sections adjacent to wilderness study areas with colored paving material.
The use of colored material is supposed to protect aesthetic values of the wilderness study areas.
The assessment concludes that a paved surface is preferable to gravel because paving creates less dust and would reduce maintenance activities. Also, agency officials believe it would be aesthetically more pleasing to many visitors.
Gordon Staker, manager of the BLM's Cedar City District, said the stipulations represent a careful compromise to balance Garfield County's rights and the BLM's obligation to protect wilderness study areas from unnecessary degradation.
"It provides the county more opportunity to develop their tourist industry, offers access to the beauty of this area to every citizen, and yet protects the scenic qualities that make the area so impressive," Staker said.
Mike Medberry, a Salt Lake representative of The Wilderness Society, one of the groups that filed suit, said he is surprised the BLM didn't recognize a need for a full-blown environmental impact statement.
Medberry said he is glad that colored pavement will be used. "But what's most important is protection of the region around the road.
"The Burr Trail is arguably the most beautiful drive in the country and the land around it should be protected as a park or a conservation area." That's what it needs to help tourism, Medberry said, "not six inches of pavement."
Total length: 66 miles
*2.7 miles is surfaced.
*13 miles, Boulder to the Blues (end of Long Canyon): injunction halting work may end soon.
*15 miles, the Blues to Capitol Reef: can pave.
*8.4 miles in Capitol Reef: cannot pave.
*19.2 miles, Capitol Reef to Glen Canyon Recreation Area: can pave.
*7.6 miles in Glen Canyon Recreation Area: cannot pave.