Environmentalists are hoping to block a proposed airport near the shores of Lake Powell sought by Gov. Norm Bangerter and the Republican members of Utah's congressional delegation.
Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan met with Bangerter, Rep. James Hansen, Howard Nielson and Sen. Orrin Hatch at the Halls Crossing, San Juan County site on Thursday.They are seeking to replace a dirt airstrip with an airport facility to help lure tourists away from the more popular Arizona side of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.
The GOP supporters of the airport believe the project will help boost the depressed economy of southeastern Utah. Lujan, however, made no commitments to them after his tour.
That's good news to Utah environmentalists, who have opposed the airport since it was first proposed several years ago, according to Terry Martin, Rocky Mountain regional representative of the National Parks & Conservation Association.
"We are not against economic development in southern Utah. We are against privatizing our national parks for that purpose," Martin said, calling the airport proposal no more than a "pretty thinly disguised attempt" to do just that.
Bangerter and other state leaders have long wanted to swap some 60,000 acres of state land scattered throughout the recreation area for the same amount of land alongside the lake for tourism development.
Martin, along with representatives of the Wilderness Society, Sierra Club and Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, have sent a seven-page letter to Lujan detailing their concerns.
In the letter, they question the need for an airport in the immediate area and cite federal laws they believe would prohibit its construction within park boundaries.
They also note that they find it difficult to understand why the proposal is being considered at a time when Congress is attempting to protect national parks from the noise and pollution associated with aircraft overflight.
The letter states that although the airport might make access more convenient to the National Park Service and to the public, "there is no reasonable basis for concluding that it is `necessary' or even needed. . .."
The governor said Friday he is not surprised to hear that opposition has surfaced. "It's expected," Bangerter said. "It always comes when you want to do something and provide opportunity."
Airport supporters have complained that the National Park Service is dragging its feet on granting permission for construction. The Federal Aviation Administration has already included $1 million in its budget for construction.
Bangerter appeared optimistic about the chances that the airport will be built. Asked how soon, however, he could only answer, "Probably not next week."