ST. GEORGE – Local conservationists are questioning the wisdom and advisability of a bill proposed in the U.S. House that would grant a right-of-way for a controversial northern corridor route through land set aside for the protected desert tortoise and other species.
The “Washington County, Utah, Public Lands Management Implementation Act,” or H.R. 2423, was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives May 16 by Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah; it was referred to the House Committee on Natural Resources the same day.
On May 23, the House Committee on Natural Resources’ Subcommittee on Federal Lands held a hearing on the issue at which Washington County Commissioner Victor Iverson testified.
Washington County commissioners and other local leaders believe the northern corridor was promised in the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009.
County officials were frustrated when the Bureau of Land Management’s resource management plan for the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area did not allow for a northern corridor through the reserve and have vowed to fight the matter.
“Washington County has embraced a comprehensive plan to pursue all useful avenues of redress including administrative, legislative, and the courts, if necessary,” Washington County Commissioner Dean Cox said in an earlier interview.
However, Paul Van Dam, a member of the Conserve Southwest Utah advisory board, said the proposed northern corridor was specifically excluded from the Land Management Act. Van Dam made the comments May 17 in a letter to Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., who chairs the House Federal Lands Subcommittee.
Biologists have concerns about any road which would bisect the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve and divide the tortoise population, Van Dam said, quoting meeting minutes from Habitat Conservation Plan meetings in 2006, when the lands bill and the possible inclusion of a northern corridor was being discussed.
Ultimately, the habitat committee supported the possibility of a transportation route north of the reserve on Forest Service land along or near Danish Ranch Road – but not through the reserve.
Van Dam quoted former Utah Sen. Bob Bennett from a U.S. Senate hearing on April 22, 2008, during which the lands bill was being discussed:
Congressman (Jim) Matheson and I have made significant changes to the previous proposal. We have permanently protected large amounts of biologically significant public land in Washington County, including additional wilderness and a new national conservation area.
We have removed the corridor designations for the Lake Powell Pipeline Corridor and the Northern Corridor that bisected the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve.
In addition, Van Dam said, county, city, BLM, wildlife, transportation and other local and state officials have been meeting recently to look at all options available for solving the county’s transportation problems including the proposed northern corridor.
“It seems clear to me … that this bill by Congressman Stewart is getting ahead of what’s actually being done in his own county,” Van Dam said.
“To have this backdoor legislative approach occurring at the same time as ongoing meetings where route discussions are occurring undercuts the entire process,” he said.
Van Dam is a lifelong Utah resident, a former Salt Lake County District Attorney and Utah Attorney General who now lives in Ivins.
Conserve Southwest Utah is encouraging its members and other interested parties to contact lawmakers by Friday to stop the bill in subcommittee and discourage lawmakers from sending the bill to the full House for a vote.
“HR 2423 undermines the legislative provisions in public law 111-11, also known as the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 (Lands Bill), which established the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area (NCA) to protect tortoise habitat and sensitive ecosystem in Washington County, Utah,” the group states.
“The proposed bill designates a four-lane highway through the NCA, circumventing all environmental and federal regulations protecting this area, subverting Congress’ basic intent stated in the 2009 Lands Bill.”
For more information about the campaign against Stewart’s bill, see Conserve Southwest Utah’s Facebook page.
Ed. note: Corrected Paul Van Dam’s relationship to Conserve Southwest Utah.
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