On Monday afternoon, less than a month after unveiling a proposed paving project, the Bureau of Land Management announced its approval of Garfield County’s plan chip-seal a key stretch of the Burr Trail, the historic route winding through southern Utah canyon country.
By Wednesday, the chip seal was largely in place and a lawsuit lodged in federal court, filed by environmental groups seeking removal of the freshly pressed blanket asphalt and aggregate.
“The decision was rushed through to allow work to commence before the ink was dry and with no apparent consideration of public comments,” said Phil Hanceford, conservation director at The Wilderness Society’s BLM Action Center. “This is a disturbing way to conduct business on public lands that are owned by all Americans, especially when the BLM knew of the long-standing and contentious nature of this proposed action.”
The society joined the National Parks Conservation Association and Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance in a suit filed Wednesday in Salt Lake City’s U.S. District Court.
Garfield County long has sought to pave the Burr Trail’s entire 67-mile length from Bullfrog through Capitol Reef National Park to Boulder. About 50 miles had already been paved, with just stretches through the park and from the park boundary to Eggnog Junction remaining unpaved. It’s the 7.5 miles east of the park that was paved this week under the BLM’s expedited environmental analysis.
The suit asks the court to declare that the BLM’s action violated federal law, set aside the final environmental assessment and related decision document, and instruct the agency to remove the chip seal applied this week.
The BLM’s state office did not respond to a request for comment, but it is agency policy not to comment on litigation.
The suit criticized the environmental assessment for failing to detail the project’s “purpose and need” and neglecting to analyze alternatives to paving. The draft and final documents are virtually identical, the suit added, indicating that public comment was not considered in crafting the final assessment.
“None of this discussion complied with BLM’s duty to take a ‘hard look’ at the project’s direct, indirect and cumulative impacts,” the suit states.
While the groups objected to the BLM’s thin review, Utah officials praised the agency for working with the county to “achieve a common goal.”
“It is good for moral[e] in rural communities, it is good for relationships between agencies and the state, and it ultimately results in better management of the federal land and resources within the state of Utah,” Kathleen Clarke, Utah’s public lands policy director, wrote in the state’s official comment on the environmental review. “This project is one that has been stalled several times because of conflict between federal agencies, the local counties, and the state of Utah. It is both exciting and motivating to see the parties finally come together to do a project that has long been needed.”
County officials say pavement will create a better and safer traveling experience, and the BLM concluded the project would not have significant negative impacts. Environmentalists fear the project degrades the wilderness characteristics on surrounding lands along Mount Pennell and Waterpocket Fold.
The National Parks Conservation Association suspects the county will soon seek to pave the stretch through Capitol Reef.
“Maintaining unpaved access to the Waterpocket District is critical for the National Park Service to uphold its commitment to manage this area for its wilderness solitude and natural quiet, sense of backcountry adventure and discovery,” said Cory MacNulty, the group’s Southwest region associate director. “With more than 15 million visitors drawn to Utah national parks each year, paving these areas will surely lead to significant increases in traffic, taking away from what makes these wildlands so special.”