ST. GEORGE, Utah (ABC4 News) — In a decision made public Thursday just days before the end of the Trump administration, the U.S. Department of the Interior gave Washington County and the Utah Department of Transportation the go-ahead to construct a controversial four-lane highway north of St. George through protected habitat for the federally threatened Mojave desert tortoise.
Dubbed the Northern Corridor, the proposed 4.5-mile highway alignment would link I-15 Exit 13 to Red Hills Parkway just west of the Pioneer Hills Trailhead through the protected Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, known locally as the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve. 25 years ago, local and federal stakeholders agreed to permanently protect the wildlife reserve, giving sanctuary to several highly sensitive species in exchange for allowing development on 300,000 acres of land outside the protected area.
Local and state officials call the project the solution to a growing traffic problem, building the foundation for the future infrastructure needed to support one of the fastest growing areas in the country where the population is expected to triple to 500,000 by 2050.
“The next steps will be designing and planning the project that will balance the sensitivity to the area as well as the needs for transportation,” Victor Iverson, chairman of the Washington County Board of Commissioners, told ABC4 News. “There’s no doubt that this is somewhat controversial, but I would ask those who have concerns with this to really take a step back and look at how long this has been in the process.”
Releasing the final environmental impact statement in November 2020, the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service co-lead the approval of the highway right-of-way and a Mojave Desert tortoise incidental take permit, which authorizes the harm or disturbance of desert tortoises in exchange for development rights. To offset the habitat lost to the proposed highway, the final decision approves the establishment of a 6,813-acre new Zone 6 within the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, as specified in the recently renewed habitat conservation plan, or HCP.
“Renewing the Habitat Conservation Plan for Mojave desert tortoises is a great win for southern Utah,” Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah said Thursday. “Washington County can now move confidently into the future with travel planning and tortoise recovery.”
But, nearly a dozen environmental groups—spearheaded by Conserve Southwest Utah—argue the highway violates several federal laws, including the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, sets a dangerous precedent, and causes irreparable damage to the local communities and environment. In December 2020, the organization along with the Red Cliffs Conservation Coalition issued a 114-page protest of the final environmental assessment.
“This decision by the Trump administration was fully expected, and Conserve Southwest Utah and coalition partners have long been prepared for next steps,” said Tom Butine, president of CSU’s board of directors, wrote in a press release. “Not only does building a highway in Red Cliffs NCA break major federal laws, but there are viable and affordable transportation alternatives outside of Red Cliffs that the Bureau’s own analyses have identified.”
Conserve Southwest Utah officials argue that Zone 6, an area popular with dirt bikers, mountain bikers, off highway vehicle users and target shooters, fails to mitigate the severe damage caused by the Northern Corridor. Butine said he is confident that conservation groups can work with the Biden administration to reverse the decision by proving several errors were made in the environmental review. Butine said the local organization preparing to fight the decision in federal court if necessary.
“This is the beginning, not the end, of the fight to protect the world class recreation, open space and Mojave desert tortoise habitat provided by the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area,” said Todd C. Tucci, a senior attorney for Advocates for the West, which is representing the Red Cliffs Conservation Coalition. “We look forward to convincing President-elect Biden — and a court, if needed — that Secretary Bernhardt’s plan to punch a four-lane highway through this desert paradise will not protect, restore and enhance these irreplaceable recreation and conservation values.”
Local leaders say they expect to wait another five to eight years before construction on the roadway would begin and funding has not yet been secured.
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