Paving Palouse — $45 million realignment of US 95 scheduled for 2015, argued by environmentalists
Environmentalists are coming together in an effort to stop the widening and realignment plans of Highway 95 between Moscow and Thorn Creek Road, near Genessee.
Tim Hatten, owner and CEO of Invertebrate Ecology, Inc., said the proposed construction would have a negative effect on the fragile environment surrounding it. Invertebrate Ecology, Inc. is a consulting firm that provides environmental site assessments, endangered species surveys and studies of area biodiversity.
“(Paradise Ridge) isn’t just one piece of prairie,” Hatten said. “It’s prairie remnants that are very important for fish and wildlife, and for hopes to restore prairie in the future.”
Hatten is also on the board of directors for the Palouse Prairie Foundation, which ultimately hopes to create a more stable—and protected—ecosystem for the many species that call the prairie home.
“The patches of prairie that are left are, for the most part, in good shape and contain a very high diversity of plants—both tree species and flowering plants,” Hatten said. “There is a diverse set of insects, deer, coyotes and game birds, all relying on (the prairie) for a place to go.”
The Idaho Transportation Department Board
decided to facilitate seven construction projects throughout the state of Idaho. One of these will realign and possibly widen U.S. Highway 95 between Thorn Creek Road and Moscow.
ITD project manager Ken Helm said the process of restoring Highway 95 began in Lewiston in 1998 and continued through 2005.
The 6.5-mile portion between Thorn Creek and Moscow is classified as a principle arterial road. According to ITD, the highway is functioning at capacity traffic levels with three curves that are not up to federal transportation safety code. According to ITD data, there have been more than 300 accidents on this stretch of highway since 2003.
“We’ve had quite a few crashes along the route, especially further north closer to Moscow,” Helm said. “There’s more traffic out there than there was 30 and 40 years ago.”
The highway was initially scheduled for construction in 2006, as reported by the Lewiston Tribune, but conflicts over the preservation of Palouse prairie habitat became an issue. That same year, the Paradise Ridge Defense Coalition challenged the ITD in court.
U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill sided with the defense coalition, and ordered ITD to perform an extensive
environmental study on how the proposed highway construction would impact the prairie.
Helm said ITD is currently preparing a Draft Environmental Impact Statement. This statement is made in accordance with the Federal Highway Association’s comments on the four proposed construction plans.
“After the DEIS is signed, we’ll move on the FEIS — a Final Environmental Impact Statement,” Helm said.
This will conclude the planned routes and ensure construction plans meet federal standards.
According to Helm, one realignment route would travel to the west to Moscow, one would create a path down the center and another would go east to Moscow. The last option, a “no-action” option, will leave the highway it it’s current state.
After the FHWA’s comments have been cleared, the DEIS will be open to public commentary for 45 days, during which time the ITD will hold a public hearing.
Helm said this hearing could be scheduled as early as this fall or winter.
After gathering information from the public—including opinions on the proposed construction plans and no-action plan — ITD will wait 12 to 18 months to receive FHWA approval on a final route.
Helm said the construction could begin as early as October of 2014, but he doesn’t expect it to begin until the summer of 2015.
Helen Yost, spokesperson for Wild Idaho Rising Tide, a climate change activist group, said the proposed construction would not only have negative effects on the road, but also open the door to larger problems for Paradise Ridge in the future.
“Paradise Ridge has the last remnants of Palouse prairie in the area,” Yost said. “And there is an endangered species there that is highly present—the giant Palouse earthworm.”
In addition to being a threat to endangered species, Yost said the construction of the highway could make for a potential threat to drivers.
“Considering highway maintenance and risk to drivers, that section of road would be at a higher elevation, meaning more ice on the road and more fog at
that elevation in the winter and spring,” Yost said.
Hatten agreed — if construction brought the highway up in elevation,
it would be a threat to fragile habitat and a larger threat to drivers in snow and
“There’s very little (prairie) left—it’s very fragmented,” Hatten said. “It’s very precious and absolutely worth conserving and restoring.”
Chloe Rambo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org