The BLM's Vernal Field Office approved the paving project in April 2011 and, following an appeal from SUWA, the agency's Interior Board of Land Appeals upheld that decision last month .
"This is a very important corridor," said Uintah County Commissioner Mike McKee. "This is important for recreationalists, it is important for agriculture and it is important to the energy industry and the improvements being made to this road are good for the environment."
McKee said blind spots and steep hills create hazards along the route, as do fast-moving oil field trucks that kick up dust clouds.
An approximately 20-mile section of the road was paved this summer, McKee said. About 400 workers are currently working along the road, and about 90 working in the specific section targeted in the complaint.
"In our mind, it is upsetting that [SUWA] would wait as long as they did on something where people are literally mobilized in the field," said John W. Andrews, an attorney and associate director for the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, which has holdings along the road. SITLA contributed $100,000 to the environmental assessment completed for the project. "It's purely a safety issue that needed to be addressed."
McKee said the project ends at the county line, but SUWA maintains the eventual goal is to complete the road through the Book Cliffs to I-70.
In its federal complaint, SUWA focuses on the final 19 miles of the project. It argues the BLM failed to fully analyze how paving the road would impact growth, wildlife, air quality and other issues.
The road climbs through high desert plains, reaching plateaus, forests and deep canyons, an area SUWA describes as a "sensitive, arid landscape" that includes three canyons proposed for wilderness designation. In places, the road passes through habitat used by pronghorn antelope, mule deer, elk and greater sage grouse. The area is "extremely popular" with hunters, it said.
The wildlife populations are also threatened by energy development projects in the Uinta Basin, which are likely to increase with a fully developed road, according to SUWA.
"A broad coalition of hunters and anglers, as well as business and organizations, labeled the Book Cliffs one of the ten most imperiled places to hunt and fish because of threats in this area from oil and gas development," its complaint states.
SUWA estimates the paving project will more than double the existing gravel road, with an expanded right of way. The speed limit would be 55 mph, another risk to wildlife.