By a 6-1 vote on Aug. 19, the county council approved a cooperative agreement that kick-starts the study process; Elizabeth Tubbs voted against the motion put forth by Gene Ciarus.
The planned study will examine the pros and cons of building a new highway and energy pipeline that could connect the Uintah Basin with Interstate 70. It will look at two potential routes through the region: a western corridor through Sego Canyon near Thompson Springs, and an eastern corridor through Hay and East canyons.
Grand County Council chairman Lynn Jackson reiterated that the council is not making any decisions to build a new road or energy pipeline through either corridor.
But local resident Sarah Fields said she believes the council’s vote is a major step in that direction.
“This starts what will be a very long and divisive issue for Grand County, as it was previously when the issue of the Book Cliffs road came before the county,” Fields said.
People who want to build a new road through the region are the same ones who are pushing for the study, she said.
“It’s obviously not an independent report that involves public participation,” Fields said.
Canyonlands Watershed Council Executive Director Chris Baird, a former county councilman who is running for a seat on the council again this year, noted that sportsmen’s groups value the region as one of the prime hunting areas in the entire United States.
“I just hope you know that it’s a really special place,” he said.
Baird ultimately fears that a new corridor would hasten the development of non-conventional fossil fuel projects in the area, including U.S. Oil Sands’ PR Spring project and Red Leaf Resources’ Seep Ridge Block.
“Tar sands and oil shale development is about as bad as it gets,” he said.
But Ciarus said he thinks a new Book Cliffs route would be a benefit to the community, including outdoor recreationists.
Jackson estimated that it will take about six months to complete the study, at which time it will be available for public review.
In the past, Jackson has said he believes the study will show that the Sego Canyon route is both impractical and cost-prohibitive.
An ongoing Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) study projects that it would cost $137 million to build a new highway through Hay Canyon, compared to $307 million for an improved road through Sego Canyon.
Tubbs initially supported a proposal to move forward with the latest study. But now that the separate UDOT study is largely done, she questioned whether another review is necessary.
The latest study is expected to cost about $644,700.
Although the Grand County Council did not commit any funding to the study, the Grand County Transportation Special Service District contributed $10,000 in mineral lease funding.
The rest of the project funding will come from other study participants.
Utah’s School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) has committed $300,000 over two fiscal years, while Uintah County’s transportation district chipped in another $220,000. Uintah and Duchesne counties — along with one of Duchesne County’s special service districts — have contributed lesser amounts.