Ravell Call, Deseret News
Chris Montague, back right, director of conservation programs for the Nature Conservancy, talks about the impact of the proposed West Davis Corridor in Davis County, Wednesday, May 22, 2013. At back left is Chris Brown, stewardship director for the Nature Conservancy.

SALT LAKE CITY — New opposition to a proposed route for the West Davis Highway has emerged, this time from a federal agency that contends the four-lane roadway would cause irreparable damage to wetlands and birds.

As the deadline approaches at midnight Friday for public comments on a draft study, the U.S. Department of Interior's Fish and Wildlife Agency noted its interest stems from ensuring the project is planned in such a way that important wildlife values of the Great Salt Lake ecosystem are preserved.

"The proposed alignments for the (West Davis Corridor) traverse and border some of the last undeveloped and unprotected habitats on the eastern shore. These areas would be impacted by the roadway and be vulnerable to future development," the agency's letter reads.

The 14-page document, dated in mid-August and signed by the agency's regional environmental officer Robert Stewart, was released by a coalition opposed to the highway.

But the decision isn't up to the Department of the Interior. It rests with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which decides what can be built near wetlands, and the Federal Highway Administration, which must sign off on the project and the route designed to connect west Davis and Weber counties.

The concerns

“We are pleased that the DOI recognizes, as we do, that the impacts of this project on birds and wildlife and the Great Salt Lake ecosystem are unacceptable,” said Steve Erickson, Utah Audubon policy advocate and a member the Shared Solution Coalition of conservation organizations and local opponents of the West Davis Freeway.

“We also assert that this project is bad for Davis County residents and an unnecessary waste of Utah taxpayers’ money. The DEIS is fatally flawed in many respects, and it's time UDOT recognize that it must go back to the drawing board and examine better options for the future for Davis County.”

The Utah Department of Transportation earlier this summer released its draft environmental impact statement on the planned highway, settling on the Glovers Lane alternative, which impacts fewer homes, historic properties and farms than a more easterly route contemplated by the agency.

But because the Glovers Lane alternative swings farther west along its 20-mile route, more wetlands — including adjacent upland in the Great Salt Lake Shoreline Preserve — would be at risk, a factor harshly rejected by the federal agency.

"The GSL ecosystem is an irreplaceable and immitigable resource due to its location within an arid region, large size and diversity of habitats for migratory birds, and the sheer number of birds, estimated at 7.2 million a year," Stewart wrote.

The agency said the environmental analysis fails to make a complete acknowledgement of the full range of impacts to wetlands and wildlife, and lacks a commitment to mitigate those impacts.

"We conclude that the construction of the (corridor), a new four-lane highway adjacent to the GSL shore would have significant, irreparable impacts to the wildlife populations that rely on those habitats, degrade the value of the habitat, and would permanently alter the composition of the wildlife community in the area, " Stewart wrote.

The agency urged UDOT and the highway administration to instead pick the Shephard Lane alternative — which would result in the condemnation of more homes — or pursue the "shared solution" offered up by a coalition opposed to the highway altogether.

That alternative, pushed by Utahns for Better Transportation, stresses the creation of boulevard communities by reconfiguring existing east-west routes to I-15 and revamping intersections to facilitate better traffic flow. UDOT has countered such work will still fail to handle congestion brought on by projected population growth.

John Gleason, UDOT spokesman, stressed the transportation agency is open to all suggestions — hence the reason for the public comment period to solicit any and all ideas.

What's next

The planning process is still more than a year away from settling on a "final route," and ultimately is the Federal Highway Administration that makes that choice.

More than 850 comments have been received during on this draft analysis and substantive suggestions will be incorporated into the final study, he said.

"We want to make sure we have an understanding of all the different alternatives and we want to make sure the people are heard," he said. "We know this is an emotional issue for many and we want to make sure we get this right."

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