ST. GEORGE — An effort to secure a route for the “northern corridor” through the desert tortoise habitat while also expanding the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area was given a nod from U.S. Sen. Mike Lee earlier this week.
Lee, R-Utah, introduced a Senate bill Monday that mirrors the intent of Rep. Chris Stewart’s “The Desert Tortoise Habitat Conservation Plan Expansion Act.”
Stewart’s bill, which passed the House Natural Resource Committee June 6, would establish a 4-mile long, 300-foot wide route for a northern transportation route through the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area.
Because the roadway cuts through land set aside for the protection of the endangered Mohave desert tortoise, the bill proposes to expand the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area by nearly 7,000 acres to mitigate the impact of the road.
Stewart’s bill would also allow for continuing utility development along the highway and maintaining grazing lands in the Beaver Dam National Conservation Area.
Lee’s bill would do the same.
The proposed expansion, designated as “Zone 6,” would be created in the area south of Santa Clara and west of Bloomington Hills.
The road will run for 4.3 miles, connecting to an extension of Washington Parkway in Washington City on its east end and to Red Hills Parkway in St. George on its west end.
The road is considered vital to Washington County’s future transportation infrastructure, especially because the county continues to grow.
“This bill will give Washington County officials the flexibility they need to find the proper balance between protecting an important species and managing the transportation needs of one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the country,” Lee said in an emailed statement to St. George News.
The northern corridor has been in the county’s plans for years.
County and municipal officials claim Congress promised the county a right of way for the road in legislation that passed in 2009. Opponents say Congress directed federal agencies only to evaluate the possibility of such a route.
Environmental advocacy groups oppose the northern corridor and fear it will have an adverse affect on the desert tortoise.
They also claim the proposed legislation circumvents established federal environmental review policy. It sets a bad precedent, opponents say, by allowing legislative commitments to protect the desert tortoise to be tossed aside via congressional fiat.
“This bill would lead to the breakdown of decades of compromise that was reached by conservation interests, developers, local government, the public, Congress and many others to protect important desert tortoise habitat and allow for continued growth around the National Conservation Area,” Phil Hanceford, conservation director at the Wilderness Society’s BLM Action Center, said in a statement to E&E News, a news source that covers stories related to energy and the environment.
“Backing out of these deals is bad public policy and would send a sign that some can simply not be trusted to uphold their end of the bargain,” Hanceford said.
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