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Environmental group in Utah files suit to stop road paving

Published September 28, 2012 11:17 pm

Environment • Work underway in Uintah County but SUWA wants it stopped.
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An environmental group is making a last ditch effort to stop paving of a remote road in Uintah County that leads to what's described as "one of the best hunting destinations in North America."

U.S. District Court Judge David Nuffer will consider the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance's request for an injunction to stop long-contested improvements to Seep Ridge Road on Wednesday. SUWA argues in a newly filed complaint that the Bureau of Land Management's "placed blinders on itself" during review of the project and did not comply with the National Environmental Policy Act.

SUWA wants the judge to reverse the BLM's approval of the project and require it to redo its environmental assessment to fully consider the impact of paving a 44.5-mile section of graveled road that lies just south of Ouray and the Uintah County boundary line. The Seep Ridge Road, which lies just north of the Book Cliffs in Grand County, passes through numerous oil and gas drilling sites.

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.


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