An oil field truck moves along on Seep Ridge Road last week, creating a cloud of dust as it moves.
The Bureau of Land Management has returned the Seep Ridge Road Environmental Assessment that in May 2009 was sent to the Washington, D.C., office for review.
State BLM Director Juan Palma has requested the Vernal Field Office to begin work on the Decision Record for the Seep Ridge Road environmental assessment, a BLM spokesman told the Vernal Express.
Uintah County maintains considerable interest in paving the road as an artery into the energy extraction area in the southern portion of the county.
"That's where the resources are," said commissioner Darlene Burns, in defense of paving the length of the Seep Ridge Road from Ouray to the county line.
The road is of interest to Carbon, Emery and Grand counties in that an extention of it through Grand County and to I-70 could lead to traffic by-passing the Carbon-Emery County areas to get to the basin. In addition, if a oil refinery were to be built near Green River it could be the road that trucks could haul crude from the Uintah Basin to that plant on.
The project as presently proposed would pave just over 45 miles of existing dirt road that winds through lands used for "grazing, recreation, timber, mining, oil and gas development, agriculture, wildlife habitat, and water resources."
It passes over land owned primarily by federal and state entities, although some private land abuts the project area. Seep Ridge Road terminates at the county line in the Book Cliffs where it branches into a series of smaller two-track roads that lead down from the high country.
"Over a million dollars has already been spent on the engineering and design of the project," Burns said. "But only the first 4.5 miles of road on State Institutional Trust Lands Administration land has been awarded for road upgrade."
That work has been administered by the Uintah Transportation Special Service District through CIVCO Engineering in Vernal.
Whether the whole project can be implemented as proposed won't be determined until after the document is assessed by the Vernal BLM Field Office. It is possible the project may require additional environmental assessment before continuing.
The outcome remains uncertain as details of the environmental assessment may be altered somewhat with the Decision Record.
"There is absolutely no presumption of what the final decision will be until we publish it," said Mike Stiewig, Vernal BLM Field Office manager.
The Decision Record is anticipated sometime toward the end of the year; however, "there's no set timetable for (it)to be completed," said Stiewig,
Paving the Seep Ridge Road has been the subject of controversy for years as industry operators and environmental groups have been split on the benefits of the project.
Back in the mid-1980s, road improvement was suggested as part of a failed plan for a Book Cliffs Highway, connecting Ouray to Interstate 70.
Conservationists challenge the current document as inadequate given that it does not address the original plan.
"The EA analysis is truncated as the project doesn't extend to Grand County as many of the industry operators envision," said Steve Bloch, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
SUWA contends that the Seep Ridge Road proposal is a "gateway project" to future expansion of the road through the Book Cliffs, an area largely undeveloped.
"I recognize that's not on the drawing board today, but it is the ultimate goal," said Bloch.
Currently, none of the Grand County officials or state and federal highway departments have interest in such an expansion.
Neither the BLM nor Uintah County officials will comment on the timing of the project, saying only that a Decision Record is expected by the holidays.
Comments regarding the Seep Ridge Road paving project were gathered last week during a tour of Seep Ridge Road by representatives of the county, the Vernal BLM Field Office, the governor's office, SUWA and the Vernal Express.