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A proposal by Uintah and Grand county commissioners to build a 70-mile highway through eastern Utah's rugged and scenic Book Cliffs has local government and conservationists at odds.

Uintah County Commissioner Max Adams says a paved highway would open access to the area's tar-sand and oil-shale deposits. It would also provide a direct route between Yellowstone National Park, Dinosaur National Monument near Vernal and Arches National Park near Moab, thus helping to increase tourist traffic.The road also would be safer for large trucks, which already use existing dirt roads in the area.

"The highway's primary benefit is to provide better transportation to improve economics in the Book Cliffs," Adams said. "There are millions and millions of gallons of oil in the form of tar sands and oil shales there. We need access to them."

The extraction of oil from tar sands and oil shale is not commercially viable. But if the price of petroleum climbs high enough, Uintah County officials believe the oil from these sources could help meet America's energy needs.

Robert Wall, a Spanish Fork hunter, gathered 1,300 names on a petition opposing the road and sent it to the office of Rep. Bill Orton, D-Utah.

"Many of the people who hunt and enjoy riding out there are just trying to help the environment by keeping the Book Cliffs the way they are," Wall said. "A person can go anywhere he wants now."

The highway would cut 82 miles from current routes connecting Uintah and Grand counties. Most eastern Utah residents use Colorado Highway 131 to get from Vernal to Moab, though another route through Indian Canyon south of Duchesne is also used.

The new road would traverse an area that private conservation organizations have been purchasing as wildlife habitat. Biologists worry that increased traffic will create road kill, poaching and habitat problems.

Orton is determined to get the road, with a price tag of $50 million to $80 million, built in his district.

"It is not a question of if the road will be built, but where it will be built," said Sheldon Kinsel, Orton's administrative assistant.

The BLM is currently finishing a draft environmental-impact statement, which could ultimately decide the road's fate.