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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

Highway Through The Book Cliffs Is Back On The Table, Despite Protests By Property Owners And Grand County

A man petting a horse with two other horses nearby.
Kate Groetzinger
Lee and Debby Elmgreen have owned the Three Canyons Ranch for over 20 years. The proposed Book Cliffs Highway would run directly through the horse pen on their property.

A proposed highway through the Book Cliffs in eastern Utah is back on the table, after it was suspended last year due to pushback from Grand County and other complications — like a lack of funding. But talk of a federal infrastructure package helped revive the project last month.

A group of rural Utah counties, called the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition, first proposed the route through the Book Cliffs in the 1980s. Today, the 35-mile road would connect Vernal to Moab.

Supporters of the highway say it would increase tourism in Uintah County by connecting attractions in northeast Utah, like Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area with the Mighty Five national parks in the south.

A photo of an elderly lady sitting at a table with an open file folder.
Kate Groetzinger
Debby Elmgreen has kept detailed records of attempts to build the Book Cliffs Highway. The Seven County Infrastructure Coalition has offered to buy her and her husband out, but they don’t want to leave.

It would also run right through Debby Elmgreen’s ranch. She and her husband were shocked to hear the coalition voted to revive the project, after tabling it in December.

“How can this be happening again only seven months later? What's the situation now that's changed?” Elmgreen said, tearing up.

The answer, according to coalition director Mike McKee, is simple: the board voted to table the project because there was no funding available last year to build the road, which the coalition estimates will cost between $200 and $400 million.

But that’s no longer the case, McKee said, because of President Joe Biden’s COVID relief and infrastructure bills.

“There may be some funding out there,” he said. “If there is, let’s put [the road] on the active project list and see where it takes us.”

The coalition voted in May to put the road back on its active projects list, which McKee said will allow it to continue a $3.2 million environmental study funded by the state legislature. Ultimately, the state of Utah would be responsible for building and maintaining the road, according to McKee.

But opposition from Grand County could still keep the project from moving forward. The county commission has voted in the past to oppose the road, which would be located entirely in its jurisdiction.

A map of book cliffs.
Screenshot courtesy of Sarah Stock
Vernal to Moab via Price is 227 miles, Vernal to Moab via Rangely is 217 miles, and Vernal to Moab through the Book Cliffs is approximately 190 miles, according to Google Maps.

Commission Chair Mary McGann said the road is a waste of money, since it would only shorten the trip between Moab and Vernal by a few minutes, and it would strain the county’s law enforcement resources.

“They've always said, we're going to get the state to maintain [the road] so it won't be Grand County's tax dollars,” McGann said. “Well, I'm a citizen of Utah. It's my tax dollars. It's our tax dollars. It's everyone's tax dollars that will be taken away, for a road that really isn't serving a lot.”

The road would also destroy elk, antelope and mule deer habitat, according to county commissioner Trisha Hedin. She hunts in the Book Cliffs each year, and she said the road would cut across the winter and summer ranges for big game in the Book Cliffs.

“When it moves down East Canyon, into their winter range in tight canyons, you can imagine what the mortality would be,” she said. “It’s a big concern.”

Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
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