A few weeks back, Gov. Mike Leavitt stood in the center of some of Utah's most prized wetlands to introduce a new twist to his proposed Legacy Highway - a kinder, gentler Legacy Parkway. Two young boys stood nearby fishing. Drawn to the ceremony, one walked over and asked one of those attending what it was all about.
"The new Legacy Highway," said the man."Where's it going," returned the boy.
"Right where we're standing," came the answer.
"That's a bummer," said the boy.
Out of the mouth of babes.
This is not the first time people have risen up against a proposed road. Fishermen fought against widening the road in Provo Canyon, the shelter for one of the best trout-fishing streams in Utah, the Provo River, and lost. Recently, they found they lost even more. The road was mistakenly built eight feet too close to the river.
Now there's a fight brewing over the Legacy Highway, er, Parkway. Not the highway itself, only against one of two proposed routes - Alignment C. That's the one Leavitt is insisting he gets. Alignment A is the one opponents say they would be willing to accept.
The fact is that months back, all parties at the hands-on level had agreed on Alignment A. It was perfectly acceptable. It did everything but allow for added development.
Enter the politicians.
If Leavitt gets his way, a large section of wetlands - 480 acres (yes, 480 acres, not the 165 Leavitt is reporting) of mostly prime wetlands - will be destroyed. If opponents get their way, a mere 115 acres of far less-important wetlands will be lost.
You'd think that with this much said, it would be a simple choice. We have the opponents who want to save the wetlands and still get a road that would meet the needs, and a governor who in 1996 signed an executive order to help communities protect rapidly disappearing open lands. In doing so, he said: "Part of the heritage of Utah is the patchworks of green that dot our landscapes, the pond where our children fish and ice skate, the fields where we grow our crops and learn the value of hard work, the wide open pastures where wildlife roams . . . it is our duty to protect our land so that our children and grandchildren can enjoy the beauty and traditions we have known."
Opponents are willing to compromise and accept Alignment A, the less-damaging route. But the governor and a group of local political leaders will only accept Alignment C, the most damaging route.
Members of Ducks Unlimited from the U.S. and Canada, National Wildlife Federation, Audobon Society and Nature Conservancy all say go with plan A. So do Taxpayers for Common Sense, the Sierra Club in both U.S. and Canada, and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Farmers have told the governor that urban development that always follows a new road will spell an end to farming along the Wasatch Front. And speaking on behalf of the 3 million-plus birds who make the wetlands home, the Western Hemispheric Shorebird Reserve Network says that if the wetlands go, so will the feathered residents.
The strongest voice for keeping highways off our wetlands comes from the Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency charged with protecting our wetlands for this generation and those to come.
End of story? No.
First, the Corps is being wrongly criticized for not approving Leavitt's route, when, in fact, there's nothing to approve. There is no permit, not even a request. It hasn't been submitted yet. The Corps has simply been "advising" the state as to laws as they now stand with respect to roads across wetlands, and nothing more.
And even if the Corps looked the other way and approved a permit, if and when it is submitted, the Environmental Protection Agency has overriding power and legal rights to stop it.
And even then, if the EPA were to forget about the impact, the citizens comprising the group Stop Legacy say they will sue. Having extensively researched this on legal grounds, they say with all confidence that they'll win.
End of story? No.
Leavitt counters with a new name and promised to protect a 1,600-acre preserve (which is already being protected by the Corps) and pledged that it would be a "model for ecological management," which it is as it now stands without the highway. That is, until Bill Gates decides he wants his new Microsoft plant to have a view of the sunsets on the Great Salt Lake.
The Leavitt route would take the 165 acres of wetland for the highway he talks about; all the land within the pocket east of Alignment C, about 200 acres; and the 115 acres, also east of the proposed highway, where Alignment A would go. All of this wetland would be open to development. More businesses, more people, more tax money, but less wetlands. And besides, as everyone knows, birds and fish can't vote.
To get his way, Leavitt went back to Washington D.C. and, along with strong Utah congressional support, put pressure on the national leaders of the Corps to ride on the local staff to bend.
Consider, too, that building a highway over prime wetlands is on the order of building a home on an iceberg headed south. UDOT already has a difficult enough time keeping roads built on land far more stable than this free of dips and bumps.
Something else to consider is that history - and this goes back longer than anyone living can remember - shows that the Great Salt Lake has risen higher than the top of road over Alignment C. Who, then, will be responsible for the cost of protecting the new business the political leaders what to build in the wetlands?
The Western Hemispheric Shorebird Reserve Network points out that between the Mississippi River and the West Coast, the Great Salt Lake are vital to migrating and local birds.
It has been proposed and seconded that if the Leavitt-preferred highway is built - ignoring all of the concerns - that two plaques be made. One would read, "This section of highway was made possible by Gov. Mike Leavitt," and a second would read, "The wetlands and shorebirds you don't see was made possible by Gov. Mike Leavitt."
Both as a legacy to remain in place for our children and our grandchildren to read.