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Sorry, environmentalists, that pavement can stay on Utah’s scenic Burr Trail

Judge tosses out lawsuit seeking to remove upgrades to a 7.5-mile stretch of the scenic byway.

Garfield County chip-sealed this 7.50-mile stretch of the Burr Trail within days of getting the BLM's approval.

An environmental lawsuit seeking to unpave parts of southern Utah’s famed Burr Trail has hit a dead end after a federal judge concluded the Bureau of Land Management conducted an adequate review of the project that some fear is increasing vehicle traffic through remote and scenic backcountry.

In 2019, Garfield County officials chip-sealed a 7.5-mile segment east of Capitol Reef National Park within hours of getting a green light from the BLM.

A suit filed by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and two other groups alleged the federal agency ran roughshod over the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, in its haste to approve the project. The groups complained the agency’s environmental assessment failed to address a paved road’s impact to adjacent protected lands, including the Mount Pennell Wilderness Study Area.

U.S. District Judge David Barlow disagreed.

“Though the assessment was not extensive, neither was the project,” the judge wrote in his March 31 order. “On this record, this satisfies the ‘hard look’ requirement under NEPA.”

(Photo courtesy of Ray Bloxham, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance) Garfield County chip-sealed one of the last unpaved stretch of the 66-mile Burr Trail on BLM land, pictured here on April 30, 2019. This photo is looking north from the freshly chip-sealed portion of the road north into Capitol Reef National Park, where the road remains unpaved on the far side of the cattle guard.

Garfield County long had sought to pave this section, but it failed to gain much traction with the Obama administration. That changed with the 2016 arrival of Donald Trump in the White House, ushering in an era of greater deference to rural counties in the administration of the West’s public lands.

Garfield County argued paving would reduce noise and dust associated with traffic, and was “reasonable and necessary” to meet the public’s traveling needs. In its 2018 application to the BLM, the county said growing traffic and interest in public lands, along with prolonged drought, were increasing the county road maintenance burden.

“The improved gravel surface has experienced washboarding and creates comfort and safety issues for the traveling public,” officials wrote. “Additionally, gravel and water sources in the area are becoming increasingly difficult to obtain. Consequently, this section of the road needs to be brought to the same standard as the other 50 miles that have already been surfaced.”

Upgrades to the formerly rugged Burr Trail have been a source of contention for decades, with the county pushing to put down gravel, then pave its entire 66 miles over the objections of environmentalists. The road winds along redrock desert from near Bullfrog Marina at Lake Powell, through Capitol Reef and lands stripped from Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, to Boulder.

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