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Paving Wilderness: Peril in Utah's Book Cliffs

A View Overlooking Utah's Book CLiff RegionUtah’s Book Cliffs exist as one of the largest expanses of land in the lower 48 states without a paved highway.  The BLM, however, is considering a project that would change that. Uintah County’s Seep Ridge Road Paving Project proposes paving over an existing road, which would allow greater recreational (and other, including hunting and oil and gas exploration) access.  The proposal states that:

“the road is currently composed of dirt or native material and several segments of the existing road do not meet current federal and state road design standards for public safety. All projections indicate a continued substantial increase in light and heavy vehicle traffic on the road, primarily associated with energy development in the Book Cliffs area.” (UT-080-08-0238 section 1.2)

The existing, unpaved, road is 66 feet wide.  The proposal would increase the width of the road to 150 feet – more than twice its current size.  This new road would include sections of three-lane highway in order to facilitate slower, heavier traffic.  Aimed at creating a more ‘driver friendly’ road, the project would redesign and reconstruct the existing road to be in compliance with current federal (AASHTO Green Book) and Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) standards.  With a newer, smoother, more driver friendly surface, the speed limit would also change; increasing from the current 35 mph to 55 mph.

In all, the project would include 813 acres of land in order to carry out the proposed improvements.  While 813 acres seems insignificant in comparison with the 455,000 acres of land within the Book Cliffs area, the impacts of such a proposal are significant.  The environmental analysis states that “the impacts on these sites from the Proposed Action would be adverse” (UT-080-08-0238 section 4.3.1).

While the environmental analysis claims that effects are “likely minimal” in most cases, we must look past the immediate and the ‘measurable.’ We must remember that wilderness is “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain” (1964 Wilderness Act).  We must look to the impact that greater accessibility to this section of the Book Cliffs connotes. Does this project leave the earth untrammeled? By paving a road, are we just visitors? Or are we moving in to stay?

To pave one road seems like a small act.  But one road wounds the earth.  “To wound the earth is to wound yourself, and if others wound the earth, they are wounding you” (Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines, (New York: Viking Penguin, 1987).  We cannot afford to allow the contagion of industrialization to spread (one paved road at a time) across our wilderness.  By attempting to tame the untamed, the wild, we are, in turn, taming ourselves; for “we are a wild species…nobody ever tamed or domesticated or scientifically bred us” (Wallace Stegner, “Coda: Wilderness Letter,” 1960).  And I, for one, refuse to live in a cage.

Photo Credit: wisconsinhiker via flickr under Creative Commons License




2 comments
  1. Brad

    I think we may have missed the mark? A road being paved will allow for less dust in this area. Reducing dust in this area seems to be a critical factor in preserving native artifacts such as that found in the nearby Nine Mile Canyon. In the Strawberry area (about 100 miles away)we are fighting road dust because it affects the trout population and reproduction. Let’s make up our minds of what we really want! As one who loves the environment I would like to see it get paved. There will only be more visitors to this area in the future. Without pavement there will be a corridor that will be coated with dust! This would be neither beautiful nor conservation minded.

    My vote is that we preserve the beauty out there, but be reasonable. This area is very desolate, I have been out there many times and even purchased some property near the green river about six miles south of the Book Cliffs. Though it has some tremendous beauty, it is nothing like some of the other amazing “red rock” areas in the state. The black and white picture in this article makes it look better than it is. I hate to see our movement get so one sided that we seem to abandon reason.

    If we would have proposed this for dust reduction then our movement would be all for it. Our country needs jobs and industry right now. The local economy in this area is very depressed. It is almost like a ghost town driving down the business centers of some of these small towns. In cases where we can provide jobs to these people who are stewards to this area; and keep the environment intact, we need to be reasonable and supportive.

    I fear that if we are not reasonable with industry, we will eventually lose all of our beautiful natural treasures as our country spirals into a great depression and is overrun by all the countries who hate us and could care less about the environment.

    One concerned environmentalist.

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