Eastern Arizona Courier
ADOT cancels red squirrel bridge project
By Jon Johnson Assistant Editor Published on Wednesday, June 23, 2010 8:59 AM MSTAn Arizona Department of Transportation project to install 41 canopy tunnel bridges on Mount Graham to aid the sustainability of the endangered Mount Graham red squirrel has been canceled. ADOT Transportation Director John Halikowski released a statement Friday saying he ordered the cancellation of the project after receiving community input through a federally prescribed process. The Courier ran two articles on the project, and the majority of community members' comments were not supportive of the bridges. After the Courier's articles, a nationwide article also appeared on ABC.com. Most of the comments sent in on that article were also not supportive of the project. ADOT was set to spend about $1.25 million in federal transportation enhancement funds to build bridges and install them at various locations across State Route 366 (Swift Trail) and Forest Service Road 803. The money would have also paid for wildlife-monitoring equipment and radio tracking collars that would have been placed on squirrels by scientists from the University of Arizona. According to the ADOT news release, the department recognizes that transportation corridors affect the environment but would rather have a project to assist the Mount Graham red squirrel led by a wildlife management agency. “ADOT will not spend funds simply because they are available,” Halikowski said in a written statement Friday. “Funding for proposed projects in these restrictive, federally required enhancement programs will undergo additional review and scrutiny, which may result in some funds not being used and returned to the federal government. This issue again highlights the need for states to have more flexibility and control over the use of transportation funds. “It makes no sense that there are more than 120 specialized programs that state transportation departments are required to fund with federal highway dollars. Protec-tion of the red squirrel may be an appropriate effort – but not with transportation funding.” According to Bill Harmon, ADOT's Safford District engineer, due to the lateness in the fiscal year, the allocated funds will go back to the federal highway administration, and it is doubtful it will be able to be used for anything in the near future. Harmon said he didn't think the decision means such a project won't be discussed again at some time in the future, but it would be done by a different organization. "With ADOT's re-sources and mandates, our leadership indicated that this issue is probably better advanced by the Forest Service or Fish and Wildlife, and those kind of people that are better suited to deal with wildlife connectivity issues than we are," Harmon said. He added that he wasn't sure if the secondary project of installing an informational kiosk at the ranger station and signs throughout the mountain describing the environment, its history, animals and people will still be considered or not. Safford Mayor Chris Gibbs was pleased with Halikowski's decision but hoped the funds could be used in the area for something positive that would benefit the Gila Valley's human population. "I was concerned that we were able to come up with money for those kind of things, and yet we're still suffering from pretty high unemployment in our Valley," Gibbs said. "I didn't see that project bringing any money into the Valley (or having) any benefit to the human population."