ST. GEORGE – Local officials and wildlife managers plan to meet and get down to the nitty-gritty of how, or whether, a northern corridor could be built without harming the endangered desert tortoise.
The group will consider all options and all new technologies, including building a tunnel for a road underneath a small part of the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve.
County officials and local transportation planners have long planned on a northern route to ease traffic congestion from expected population growth in Southern Utah.
However, wildlife biologists and others have said building it through the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve would harm the tortoise the reserve was created to protect.
But after years of sometimes contentious wrangling, a group of interested parties will sit down and try to hammer out their differences.
“There’s no question in the mind of the County Commission and all of the mayors and city councils – in essence the elected officials of the cities – that this northern corridor is going to be an essential part of the transportation network for this region of the state,” Ivins Mayor Chris Hart said at the June 28 Habitat Conservation Advisory Committee meeting.
“The way that we are broken up, you don’t have the luxury of just moving down the road or down the hillside a little bit,” Hart said. “There aren’t a lot of ways to do this.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s stated position has been that it doesn’t see how the impacts to the desert tortoise could be adequately avoided, minimized or mitigated, advisory committee member Larry Crist said.
“Now, I don’t think there’s been a full discussion on that yet in terms of not all options have been put on the table,” Crist said. “We’re open to further discussion on this … we’re willing to sit down and discuss it.”
The proposal to put a road across the reserve raises several issues for biologists tasked with protecting the tortoise. One big issue is fragmentation of the reserve which could cause genetic problems in the tortoise population. Roads also bring in invasive species and an associated wildfire risk, Crist said.
“It’s going to be a difficult conversation. I won’t pretend that it will be easy, I’m being honest here.”
“I think if we took a look at some of the innovative solutions, it might be possible. I won’t guarantee that, but we are open to that discussion just as we’ve always been,” Crist said.
From the perspective of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the question is not “how can we put a highway in the least impactful way?” Crist said. It’s whether it would be possible to adequately mitigate a highway in the reserve.
The reserve itself is mitigation for other tortoise habitat lost to development; a deal struck by the Habitat Conservation Plan 20 years ago.
“I’d just like to get everything out on the table and have everybody take an honest look at it and determine what the best possible option might be,” Hart said, “and then, see where that might go.”
While the northern route is not needed anytime soon, options are dwindling.
“I think your mitigation options are disappearing as you speak, and so you would want to be working on this now,” Crist said.
Crist suggested putting together a team of people to look at ways of building highways that would not be impactful to the tortoise and identify areas that might need more research.
“On the one extreme, you have the tunnel idea. That works pretty well (for the tortoise),” Crist said.
Other options include alternate routes that don’t traverse prime tortoise habitat and new technology that might minimize habitat damage if a road were to be built through the reserve.
And while committee members at first joked at the mention of building a tunnel, after some discussion it was decided that all possibilities must be looked at. New technology and advances in tunnel building technology might make the option a viable one in the future.
Washington County Commissioner Alan Gardner said he is not aware of any other similar effort to sit down and try to problem-solve.
“We’re sitting on several hundred feet of sandstone through (the reserve). Going through that might be the easiest answer,” Gardner said, laughing. “It could be a lot straighter shot.”
There have been presentations from all sides of the issue, but having a group of all interested parties sit down and work together has not been done, biologist and Habitat Conservation Technical Committee member Nathan Brown said.
“An actual collaborative multi-stakeholder group hasn’t been put together,” Brown said.
“It’s been more in the nature of taking potshots at each other,” Crist quipped.
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