ST. GEORGE – Congress made promises to Washington County that have not been kept, Rep. Chris Stewart and Washington County Commissioner Victor Iverson told a U.S. House subcommittee Tuesday.
Stewart and Iverson testified before the Subcommittee on Federal Lands in support of a bill that directs the Department of Interior to fully implement provisions of the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, or OPLMA.
“The hearing went very well and Washington County really appreciates Congressman Chris Stewart and Rob Bishop for their courage and leadership in helping Washington county resolve the issues of injustice in regards to not getting the transportation and utilities corridors,” Iverson said.
The bill directs the Interior Department to issue any necessary rights-of-way for a proposed northern transportation route and authorize the development of utilities needed to keep up with the growing Southern Utah population.
The northern corridor route proposed by Rep. Stewart’s bill would run from Washington Parkway westward, swing north of the Green Springs area and then south to tie in with Red Hills Parkway, known informally for years as “Turtle Road.”
The route is only four miles long but would cut through some of the highest quality habitat for the threatened Mojave desert tortoise in the Red Cliffs Reserve. The reserve was created more than 20 years ago to protect the tortoise and other wildlife. See map inserted in this story.
Local officials are not happy with Bureau of Land Management resource management plans for the Red Cliffs and Beaver Dam Wash national conservation areas which were released in December 2016 and believe the plans do not honor the Omnibus Public Land Management Act.
Provisions in the final resource management plans preclude future consideration of both the northern corridor and the utility development protocols by applying layers of impossible requirements, Iverson said in his prepared testimony, even though the bill requires the BLM to consider northern corridor routes at the next planning stage – the transportation management plan.
The plans drew controversy among officials, residents and conservation groups with officials saying the plans were too restrictive. Of particular concern was the lack of a suitable northern corridor route and the restrictive utility protocols contained in the plan.
The northern corridor is needed to accommodate anticipated traffic demands, Iverson said. It is estimated that it will reduce traffic delays by an estimated 300,000 hours per year by the year 2040 and help maintain the area’s air quality, Iverson told the committee.
“Two decades ago, we proactively struck a balance between protecting the threatened Mojave desert tortoise and protecting the growth of our county by developing a habitat conservation plan,” Iverson told the committee.
In 2009, after several years of cooperative work, the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act passed Congress and was signed by President Obama, Iverson said.
“We’re proud of the fact that the county worked with environmental groups and other stakeholders to solve problems.”
The lands bill designated 16 wilderness areas totaling about 250,000 acres of wilderness within Washington County. It also designated 39 wild and scenic river segments, eight areas of critical environmental concern, or ACECs, and two large national conservation areas totaling more than 100,000 acres.
“My county gave up a lot of acres to special designation in that process. We gave it up in exchange for assurances about access for roadways and water lines and traditional uses,” Iverson told the committee. “It was hailed at the time as a new standard in resource management.”
“The promises that were made during the lands bill were not kept. I’m here today to respectfully request you to help honor the promises made to my county in that legislation,” Iverson said.
Southern Utah’s unique topography offers challenges and limitations that make transportation and utility planning difficult, Iverson said. Natural barriers include Pine Valley Mountain, the Colorado River, the Hurricane Cliffs and the Bull Valley Mountains.
“We have to make use of the feasible options we have to site utilities,” Iverson said.
Rep. Stewart also spoke to the subcommittee.
“The bill before the subcommittee addresses the most grievous omissions in the RMP and clarifies the intent of Congress,” Stewart said.
“This language reflects the compromises the county negotiated with the federal government to minimize impacts on the desert tortoise and to allow the City of St. George to grow sustainably.”
The Bureau of Land Management does not comment on proposed legislation as a matter of policy, BLM Color Country District spokesman Christian Venhuizen said previously.
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