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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.

Rural counties won’t pursue controversial Book Cliffs Highway… for now

A photo of trees in Books Cliff.
Bureau of Land Management Utah
The Book Cliffs extend through eastern Utah into western Colorado. Some rural Utah counties have been fighting for years to put a highway through them.

A coalition of rural eastern Utah counties decided Thursday to no longer pursue the environmental planning process for a controversial highway through the Book Cliffs. It’s a 35-mile road that would’ve connected Vernal and Moab.

The Book Cliffs Highway, or the Eastern Utah Regional Connection Project, was first proposed in the 1980s. It was originally pitched as a way to help the fossil fuel industry’s transportation in the area. The latest iteration, which was brought up in 2021, was to help with tourism in the area.

Mike McKee, the executive director of the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition, said he was a little disappointed by the 4-3 vote by commissioners.

“I'll tell you, what I've learned about this project is never say never because it's been off and on through the years,” he told KUER Friday. “What I know today is … the Seven County Coalition board has chosen not to move forward with it.”

Some commissioners who voted to stop the highway said during the meeting they would rather focus on the Uinta Basin Railway, which is another controversial project in the area. It received approval from federal agencies at the end of 2021. The railway is meant to connect oil producers in eastern Utah to wider markets.

“This [highway] is adding just another thing, and we still don't have the railroad finished,” Carbon County Commissioner Casey Hopes said during the meeting. “I think we need to finish the railroad and keep focusing on the San Rafael Research Center and the transportation hub. I just think this dilutes what energy we do have.”

Most of the highway would be in Grand County, and leaders there have opposed the project since the start. Grand County Commissioner Trisha Hedin said it would put a strain on the emergency and road services in the county.

“I think inevitably we see the larger picture, which is [protecting] wildlife habitat and archeological resources,” she said. “We also have a very close relationship with [Grand County residents] the Elmgreens who live [on a] ranch that… would be taken via eminent domain.”

The feeling among those who have fought against the project is that as long as McKee is involved with the project, it’s not completely dead. Sam Van Wetter, an organizer in Grand County with the Rural Utah Project, said the vote was unexpected, and they’re “not treating it as a done deal.”

“We are treating this as a victory,” he said, “and we're treating it as an opportunity to have a little more time to set up some permanent protections for the Book Cliffs region.”

Lexi is KUER's Southwest Bureau reporter
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