[Vision2020] U.S. 95 rerouting plan near Moscow triggers opposition

Moscow Cares moscowcares at moscow.com
Tue Jan 6 05:10:04 PST 2015

Courtesy of today's (January 6, 2015) Spokesman-Review.

U.S. 95 rerouting plan near Moscow triggers opposition
Hundreds of species of flowering plants grow on Paradise Ridge south of Moscow, Idaho, a long, narrow rise that contains some of the best remnants of the native grasslands that once blanketed the Palouse Prairie.

The ridge is home to about a dozen rare plant species, including the federally protected Spalding’s catchfly, and its timbered draws contain some of Latah County’s last mature ponderosa pine stands. 

But Paradise Ridge also lies along the most direct route for rebuilding 5 miles of U.S. Highway 95, according to the Idaho Transportation Department. Agency officials say the reconstruction, at a cost of about $50 million, will reduce congestion and accident rates on Idaho’s main north-south highway.

For years, conservation groups, state transportation officials and federal agencies have sparred over the preferred route for the new four-lane section of highway. A federal judge’s ruling in 2003 forced ITD to prepare an environmental impact statement on three potential routes for the U.S. 95 reconstruction, including two others farther to the west. 

Building next to Paradise Ridge remains the best alternative, agency officials said last year in the draft environmental statement. It’s the shortest, flattest route, with most potential for safety gains, and the least disruptive to existing business properties, according to the draft environmental impact statement. 

Agency officials now are working on a final document, which will be sent to the Federal Highway Administration for a legal review, said Adam Rush, an ITD spokesman. The final route could be selected this summer.

But critics, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, say they’re disappointed that the transportation department’s draft impact statement endorses the Paradise Ridge route. 

ITD could achieve its safety goals, for roughly the same cost, by moving the route to the west to spare the prairie, said Mary Ullrich, secretary for the Moscow-based Paradise Ridge Defense Coalition.

“There are a lot of concerned citizens who want a safe highway, but they don’t see the sense of invading the habitat up there if there are other safe alternatives,” she said.

Nearly all of the Palouse Prairie was plowed under for agriculture, with less than 1 percent of the original prairie habitat remaining. With about 300 acres in scattered patches, Paradise Ridge contains the best remnants of Palouse Prairie habitat. Building an adjacent highway would threaten those remaining prairie parcels through the spread of invasive weeds, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The seeds get carried by vehicles; they blow off the highway and take root, choking out native vegetation. 

Federal and state agencies have been working with private property owners on Paradise Ridge to protect native prairie plant communities, including the endangered Spalding’s catchfly. The catchfly, a member of the carnation family, gets its name from sticky hairs that trap dust and flies.

To a layperson, Paradise Ridge might not have the charismatic quality of, say, an ancient cedar grove, said Tim Hatten, a member of the Palouse Prairie Foundation.

However, “you’ve got this wonderful flowering diversity and all the animals that depend on it,” said Hatten, an adjunct professor at the University of Idaho and CEO of Invertebrate Ecology Inc. “For millions of years, the dominant habitat on the Palouse Prairie were these perennial grasslands. It makes sense that we’d want to preserve what’s left of this habitat, which was perfectly suited to the area.”

Field studies have documented 10 types of bumblebees on the Palouse Prairie, plus myriad moths and butterflies. After prairie ground is plowed, Hatten said, it takes about 100 years for the parcels to regain the ecological attributes of native grasslands. 

Rerouting the highway near Paradise Ridge would also require logging about 4 acres of mature ponderosa pine stands, which also are rare in Latah County, according to the EPA.

In addition, the transportation department’s assertion that rerouting U.S. 95 near Paradise Ridge would have little impact on local whitetail, elk and moose populations has been questioned by the EPA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. 

Wildlife collisions aren’t adequately addressed in the draft environmental impact statement, EPA officials wrote in a letter to the transportation department. 

The existing stretch of U.S. 95 had 37 wildlife-vehicle collisions for the 10-year period ending in 2011. Moving the highway closer to Paradise Ridge’s big-game habitat, and widening and straightening the road to allow faster vehicle speeds, would increase the number and severity of wildlife collisions, according to EPA officials.

“We’re not just saying, ‘Oh, poor big game,’ ” said Ullrich, of the Paradise Ridge Defense Coalition. The animal crossings are a danger for drivers as well.

Last year, two deer struck the side of Ullrich’s SUV on Paradise Ridge Road, causing $4,000 worth of damage to the vehicle.

“I was going 25 to 30 mph. … Imagine going 70 mph and hitting an elk or a moose,” she said. 

As ITD prepares a final environmental impact statement, agency officials will respond to the comments and do additional analysis, if necessary, said Rush, the ITD spokesman.

The selected route will be announced in a record of decision, expected to be out this summer, he said.




Paradise Ridge south of Moscow is home to native grasses that once defined the Palouse Prairie, experts say. The Idaho Transportation Department wants to reroute U.S. 95 through the area.



Seeya 'round town, Moscow, because . . .

"Moscow Cares"
Tom Hansen
Moscow, Idaho

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