As Salt Lake City and its suburbs have sprawled across the Wasatch Front, little sleep has been lost over Great Salt Lake. So it was hardly a surprise to anyone last August when bulldozers started rolling through lakeside marshes, laying the foundation for what is probably the most disputed 14-mile stretch of highway Utah has ever seen. The road in question is the Legacy Highway, which would stretch between Salt Lake City and its northern neighbor, Farmington.


Environmental groups and Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson have long denounced the road. They argue that it would not only destroy wetlands, but would perpetuate sprawl and further degrade the Front's already murky air (HCN, 7/2/01: A maverick mayor takes on sprawl).


"Growth is the biggest threat facing the lake," says Lynn de Freitas, president of FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake. "And the Legacy Highway is symptomatic of how our state leadership manages that growth."


But Legacy's proponents, led by Republican Gov. Mike Leavitt, argue the highway would ease congestion on Interstate 15 by providing a second route to Salt Lake City's northern suburbs. Last fall, after the highway landed approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency, the Utah Department of Transportation ordered the bulldozers to roll. By mid-November, they had filled in more than eight miles of farm fields and marshes.


But on Nov. 16, work crews were stopped in their tracks. Highway opponents had filed an appeal on a lawsuit that had been shot down by a lower court, and the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver issued an injunction to give judges time to review the appeal.


Central to the court's decision, says Marc Heileson with the Sierra Club, was the highway's course through Great Salt Lake wetlands. The Clean Water Act states that the Army Corps of Engineers can only approve a project that destroys wetlands if there is no feasible alternative, says Heileson. But when the state completed its environmental impact statement on the project, officials discarded less destructive highway routes and never considered mass transit.


"You'd think if you were going through a Hemispheric Shore Bird system, you would try to have as narrow an impact as possible," says Heileson. "Our goal is that they'll go back and be forced to truly look at all the alternatives."


The stop work order, however, enraged Leavitt and state legislators. A decision on whether construction can continue isn't expected for months. Meanwhile, the state must live up to contractual obligations and pay its contractor over $100,000 a day to do nothing. In March, legislators overwhelming passed a bill allowing the state to sue environmentalists who sue to stop state projects and end up losing in court.


"It's getting to the point in this nation that we can't build any roads because of radical groups," House Majority Leader Kevin Garn told his colleagues. "That's shameful."


Leavitt, however, vetoed the bill out of constitutional concerns, and environmentalists counter that the state could have avoided the costly delay if it had simply waited until the appeals process had run its course. They accuse the Department of Transportation of pushing construction ahead in an attempt to make it harder for a judge to stop it.


"They had all of their antennae up, I assure you," says Bob Adler, a University of Utah law professor and one of the attorneys arguing for environmentalists. "They made a strategic decision to maintain project momentum."


Byron Parker, the Department of Transportation's project manager for the highway, bristles at the accusation. "We went ahead because we had approval," he says.


Whether or not the Legacy Highway is allowed to proceed, de Freitas says the situation is indicative of what conservationists are up against in their fight to protect Great Salt Lake and its wetlands. "The Governor has this tendency to say, ÔYeah, they're important,' and then continue to develop and fill them in," she says. "If we really wanted to protect wetlands, why would we give up 114 acres for a highway?"


Copyright © 2002 HCN and Tim Westby