UDOT highway proposal would pave over Utah Lake wetlands
LEHI - Conservation biologist Ryan Barker tramps around the edge of frozen Utah Lake as a white-faced ibis flies over him. A few minutes earlier, a hawk hovers over the grassland looking for lunch. Tracks in the snow show the passing of muskrats and raccoons. Bald eagles, deer, geese, ducks, beavers and marmots make themselves at home here, and sandhill cranes nest nearby.
For five years, Barker has been working to restore 26 acres of federally protected marshlands where Spring Creek empties into the lake, tearing out non-native grasses, Russian olives and tamarisks. The stream, which soon will resume its naturally sinuous wandering instead of flowing through a cut channel, already is running clearer.
But all of his work may be buried under a 350-foot-wide, six-lane freeway.
Barely a year after settling the Legacy Parkway legal debacle, in which it spent millions defending a plan to encroach on Great Salt Lake wetlands, the Utah Department of Transportation is proposing to build the southern reach of the Mountain View Corridor along the fringes of the state's largest freshwater lake.
And Barker cannot figure out why it's happening again.
"We just never learn," said the 29-year-old biologist. "It would seem that the old mentality still exists that wetlands are of little importance to society and the environment."
The proposed highway would stretch along the west side of Salt Lake County and through the northwest corner of Utah County.
UDOT has proffered four options to connect the corridor with Interstate 15 in Utah County, with two of those alignments - Lehi's 1500 South and 1900 South - cutting into wetlands. The others include a freeway farther north that would end near Camp Williams at 2100 North, and development of major east-west "regional arterials" that would link Eagle Mountain and Saratoga Springs with I-15.
The southern-freeway plan runs into trouble where it turns east through Lehi. That's where a growing coalition of residents, developers, hunters and environmental advocates called Citizens Organized for Smarter Transportation vows to fight UDOT.
Both the southern routes would punch through David Clock's Spring Creek Ranch, a 400-home development in southeast Lehi, which promises its residents they will live in a natural, clean environment brimming with wildlife.
Barker works for Clock, who has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to restore wetlands. The freeway would be a catastrophe, Clock said.
"The 1500 South alignment destroys a bunch of houses in my development," he said. "And 1900 South has the potential for going right through the middle of the stream, taking out some houses and having a huge impact on the wetland."
Clock sees a groundswell of opposition. "I get calls every day on this. The power of the people is about to emerge," he said.
That clout would seek to ensure UDOT heeds environmental law and includes mass transit in its freeway planning, said Marc Heileson, regional spokesman for the Sierra Club.
"The [federal] Clean Water Act is very clear. You have to avoid wetlands first," he said. "Right now, they [UDOT] are choosing the most-damaging [roadway] in the most-damaging location, with not a single transit option."
The Sierra Club was the lead among several conservation and civic organizations - along with Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson - that sued to stop Legacy's march. In November 2001, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals halted work on the 14-mile highway, ruling UDOT had failed to conduct a proper environmental review and consider all potential alignments.
Just two months later, the Mountainland Association of Governments completed its long-range plan, which included the southern-freeway alignment. That plan had been under consideration for several years before the Legacy legal tussle erupted. And, in 2003, UDOT began serious planning for the new freeway in Utah County, said Teri Newell, UDOT's Mountain View Corridor project manager.
Mountain View - part of the original idea to build a Legacy Highway from Brigham City to Nephi - was planned in a time of flux, Newell said. But with the project's draft Environmental Impact Statement not due until this fall, UDOT pledges to be flexible and keep the public informed.
"Our goal is to try to get as much information as we can in the early part of the process," Newell said, "so we can make this the best project it can be."
Newell said a Jan. 29 meeting will bring together the affected cities, the Environmental Protection Agency, Army Corps of Engineers, Fish and Wildlife Service and the Sierra Club. The groups have huddled before, she said, and will keep gathering to air their concerns.
Heileson said the Sierra Club will make the southern freeway one of its primary battles, working to advance more transit planning and pushing to develop the east-west arterials before deciding whether the new highway is really needed to serve the growing cities.
But Newell said managing regional growth isn't UDOT's responsibility. "That's the community's job," she said.
And not everyone in the area is worried about wetlands.
Lehi Mayor Howard Johnson is lobbying for the 1900 South alignment because anything farther north would tear up too many homes.
"It's a little disingenuous for the environmentalists to come in this late," Johnson said. "As a human, I'm a mite offended that the grasshoppers and the mosquitoes carry as much weight as I do."
American Fork Mayor Heber Thompson also supports protecting homes at the risk of slicing into wetlands.
This all confounds Barker, who grew up in a house on Utah Lake's northern edge and still lives in Lehi.
Having a highway destroy the past five years of his work is one thing, but it seems implausible to Barker to threaten, all for the sake of a road, hundreds of deer, fish, ducks, beavers and geese - and that white-faced ibis overhead.