ST. GEORGE – A draft management plan issued by the Bureau of Land Management-Utah for the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area has county officials frustrated and at odds with conservationists over a proposed northern transportation corridor through desert tortoise habitat.
The regional transportation authority for Washington County, Dixie Metropolitan Planning Organization, has proposed a northern corridor that would run through the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area from Interstate 15 at Washington Parkway to Red Hills Parkway east of its new intersection with state Route 18 (above Bluff Street).
County officials say they have been planning for the northern corridor for decades, but the BLM’s recently released draft management plan states a much higher impact on the Red Cliffs conservation area than MPO planners believe is accurate.
“The resource management plan actually takes three MPO documents and severely misquotes them and then makes false assumptions based on those misquotes,” Dixie MPO Director Myron Lee said. “They’re suggesting in that resource management plan that the northern corridor would impact 6,300 acres, and in fact it would only impact 50 acres of the RMP area and 150 acres total of the HCP (Habitat Conservation Plan area).”
Lee said the 150-acre impact would only occur if the road right-of-way were 300 feet wide.
“And we probably could fit it into 150 (feet),” he said. “It’s making a false assumption that we said one thing, and it’s just not accurate.”
The RMP makes a strong case for not having a northern corridor – based on false assumptions and misinterpretations of facts, Lee said. The RMP shows six proposed routes, only one of which would be viable.
“It’s very discouraging because these kind of documents have a long shelf life,” Lee said. “If we can’t get them to fix that and correct it then it’ll end up having to go to court; and I don’t think any of us would like to see that.”
The northern transportation route could be built so that tortoises could cross it safely in several places, Lee said, and there are other ways the project could help the tortoises and minimize the impact; for example, funding from the project could provide property for a satellite preserve that could be used to quarantine sick tortoises; and another project could improve water resources in the reserve.
Another Dixie MPO proposal would reroute and then reclaim the southern part of Cottonwood Road. The road runs north from St. George, bisecting the reserve, and reclaiming it would be a benefit to tortoise habitat. The northern part of the road could be rerouted to connect in with State Route 18 near Winchester Hills, Lee said.
Those are just three of 20 possibilities the Dixie MPO has proposed with funding from the road project, Lee said, money that would not otherwise be available to wildlife managers.
Local conservation advocacy group Citizens for Dixie’s Future opposes any new transportation route through the Red Cliffs Reserve.
“There are a lot of reasons it’s a bad idea, but the primary one is, this is supposed to be protected land,” Susan Crook said. Crook is the Public Lands Conservation Program Manager for Citizens for Dixie’s Future.
The proposed northern corridor would be detrimental to all the values the reserve was created to protect, Crook said, which include conserving views, scenery, habitat, recreation, scientific and cultural resources.
“We are for protecting the Red Cliffs National Conservation area and for preserving the habitat for the tortoise and balancing the use to the extent possible for recreation,” Crook said. “But, again, that’s the reason we have a conservation area and a reserve is to protect the habitat.”
The group believes building the northern corridor would cause harm to the desert tortoise habitat, and that mitigation is not possible. If the project goes forward, Crook said, the construction would cause major destruction of habitat, tortoise deaths, noise and dust.
“The mitigation for habitat loss was developing elsewhere (in the county) and setting aside the reserve,” Crook said. “How can you mitigate what has already been set aside for mitigation?”
The Habitat Conservation Plan, which was finalized in 1996, did not include any plans for a northern corridor, Crook said.
“There was no highway in that plan,” Crook said. “There was never intended to be a highway in that (plan).”
“Let’s live up to obligations that were made and that the county was a signatory to in the first place when the habitat conservation plan was created.”
Crook believes traffic engineers and transportation planners could be more creative in trying to solve transportation challenges in Southern Utah.
“If the reasons that, that road was proposed are still valid,” Crook said, “then let’s look at how those challenges could be met with a more creative approach to transportation.”
Act of Congress?
County officials are frustrated, including Washington County Commissioner Victor Iverson, who sees the northern corridor as a critical piece of the county transportation plan.
“We feel like the BLM really kind of side-stepped their responsibility in putting forward a resource management plan that doesn’t address transportation in it,” Iverson said. The northern corridor had been planned since the early 1990’s, Iverson said.
“We appreciate and understand that this is a difficult decision as far as the BLM, the local office, dealing with it,” Iverson said. “But we feel that they’ve been given the direction by the Washington County Lands Bill that was back in 2009, to give us a viable option for the northern corridor, and by not putting it into their resource management plan they’ve really kind of sidestepped the issue.”
To understand the northern corridor, you have to understand the lands bill process. One of the things the county really fought for and thought they had worked out is the guarantee of a northern corridor through the reserve, Iverson said.
Officials realize the route goes through a sensitive area, he said, but feel they can mitigate that and actually make the habitat better.
The Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 was a massive undertaking meant to resolve conflicts between wilderness and lands use, in particular, Iverson said, those points of conflict regarding wilderness and federal land use within Washington county.
The Act created the county’s two national conservation areas, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, which encompasses the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, and the Beaver Dam Wash National Conservation Area.
The 78,000 acre Beaver Dam Wash National Conservation Area was a compromise, County Commissioner Alan Gardner said, because environmental groups wanted the area to be wilderness while the BLM wanted to manage it for the desert tortoise.
“We gave up all the roads in the Beaver Dam NCA, except some routes that were specifically identified as open,” County Administrator Dean Cox said. “Everything else was closed.”
To the BLM, the northern corridor is very controversial, Iverson said, but county officials feel they were promised the corridor.
“We feel like Congress gave instructions to give us a northern corridor route,” Iverson said.
The Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 directs the Secretary of Interior to identify a northern corridor. Section 1977 of the Washington County Comprehensive Travel and Transportation Management Plan states:
In developing the travel management plan, the Secretary shall … in consultation with the appropriate Federal agencies, State, tribal and local governmental entities (including the County and St. George City, Utah), and the public, identify 1 or more alternatives for a northern transportation route in the County;
“Now, the county worked so hard. We started out with 60,000 acres of designated wilderness and ended up with 130,000 acres,” Iverson said. “We gave up a reservoir site out on the Beaver Dam, (now) we have these national conservation areas.”
Sen. Orrin Hatch proposed a bill in the U.S. Senate July 15 that is intended to clarify the matter. S. 1783 would amend the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 in Washington County.
The bill reads:
To amend the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 to clarify a provision relating to the designation of a northern transportation route in Washington County, Utah.
1. Washington county comprehensive travel and transportation plan
Section 1977(b)(2) of the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 (Public Law 111–11; 123 Stat. 1089) is amended by striking subparagraph (A) and inserting the following:
(A) ensure that the travel management plan —
(i) designates a northern transportation route in the County that follows the route depicted on the map entitled Washington Parkway; and
(ii) provides that the designation and construction of the route is not subject to additional restrictions or requirements from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service;
According to Govtrack.us, the bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources for consideration before it will come to the Senate floor for consideration.
Hatch said in an email to St. George News:
I proposed the Comprehensive Washington County Travel Management Plan because the BLM has not yet complied with a 2009 mandate requiring development of a northern transportation route. My provision could not be included in the Senate’s highway bill, where I originally proposed it, so I will continue to work with the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to help address the needs of Washington County on this matter.
County officials are disappointed the 2009 Land Management Act did not resolve the transportation corridor and other issues.
Iverson said: “We were praised nationwide; everybody was, ‘Oh, you know, Washington County is the new model of solving problems.’ All we wanted was a road to get our people across town, you know, we’re kind of feeling shafted on it.”
Cox said: “So, all of this work that we did, and the compromise we thought we achieved … has gone away. We thought it was a heck of a process, and everybody felt really, really good about it. But it didn’t bring the resolution that we all hoped that it would.”
Iverson said he feels Congress’s intent was for the county to have a northern corridor.
“It has been very much a part of the overall travel master plan for years,” Iverson said, adding that Hatch’s legislation is to give clarity to what Congress has already passed.
Iverson said he believes that if the northern route is not built, there will be traffic problems within 10-15 years.
“We’re (already) starting to see the stress on our transportation system in certain areas,” he said.
There will be a great amount of stress on St. George Boulevard without the northern corridor, Iverson said, as people try to make it across town from east and west.
As far as preservation of the tortoise is concerned, Iverson said there is disagreement between different scientists and biologists. The county has already done a study which concluded that the northern corridor could be put in with no impact and in fact actually enhance habitat for the tortoise.
“There will be opposition to it,” he said, “but there’ll also be a lot of opposition if we have a complete failure of our transportation system on the Boulevard.”
When people have to wait through four or five lights to get down St. George Boulevard, they won’t understand why, he said.
The BLM’s draft resource management plans greatly exaggerate the impact of a northern corridor, Iverson said, putting the estimate at 6,350 acres impacted, while county officials estimate the impact to be under 200 acres; and, there are already existing utility corridors in the reserve.
Plan alternatives – corridor or no corridor?
Of the alternatives, which are too extensive to summarize in this report, the BLM’s preferred option is Alternative B, which the draft states “balances resource protection with compatible public uses.” Alternative B does not include any provision for a northern corridor.
Alternative B would designate four new areas of critical environmental concern, or ACECs, and retain eight existing ACECs. It would specify special management for the 87,000-acre Bull Valley Mountains Multi-Species Management Area, to protect crucial habitat and migration corridors for mule deer, other wildlife species and diverse predators in northwestern Washington County.
Alternative D, the only alternative to mention a northern corridor, would designate a 6,350-acre utility and transportation corridor. The corridor would allow for location of new utilities through the national conservation area and for the development of Washington County’s proposed northern transportation route highway.
The stated need for the northern transportation route is to reduce projected traffic pressure on existing roads in the greater St. George metropolitan area. According to the Washington Parkway Cost Benefit Study, the highway would reduce traffic delays, reduce accidents, improve air quality and stimulate economic growth.
However, the management plan states that the cost/benefit ratios in the study were based on population projections released in 2008 by the Utah Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget, and those estimates were revised downward considerably when that office released new projections in 2012.
An in-depth description of all four alternatives is beyond the scope of this report, however the draft resource management plans are available here.
BLM draft management plans
The Bureau of Land Management Utah St. George Field Office is accepting public comments on a draft environmental impact statement, analyzing two draft resource management plans and a draft amendment to the current St. George Field Office Resource Management Plan.
The draft resource management plans can be reviewed here. The draft impact statements have four proposed alternatives, with different levels of changes to management of the areas, which include different levels of protection.
Public open houses are being held this week in St George, Hurricane and Salt Lake City in which the public may see the BLM’s plans, ask questions and make comments. Comments may also be submitted by mail or email through Oct. 15.
For details on open houses and comment period: What to expect at BLM’s open house about Red Cliffs, Beaver Dam Wash management plans
- BLM’s Draft Resource Management Plans can be reviewed here
- Omnibus Public Lands Fact Sheet
- Washington Parkway Cost Benefit Study
- Citizens for Dixie’s Future website, Public Lands Web page
- BLM seeks public comment on management plans for Red Cliffs, Beaver Dam Wash
- Public comment sought on $1.9 billion regional transportation plan
- Letter to the Editor: BLM Director Kornze counters opinion of Mining Association, ‘BLM’s epic land grab’
- Letter to the Editor: BLM’s epic land grab
- BLM tour, meetings in San Juan County; archaeology, forest fee proposals
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