Letter to the Editor: The pattern of northern corridor shenanigans continues

Stock image, St. George News

OPINION — Washington County, Utah Department of Transportation and other public officials are continuing their pattern of questionable shenanigans relating to the increasingly controversial “Northern Corridor.”

This is the proposed highway through the existing Red Cliffs Desert Reserve and BLM Red Cliffs National Conservation Area that would destroy and fragment critical habitat for threatened Mojave desert tortoises and other supposedly protected wildlife.

To comply with the federal Endangered Species Act, the RCDR was established under the agreed upon Washington County Habitat Conservation Plan in 1996. Then and now, this HCP reflects a solemn compromise where tortoise habitat could be destroyed in other county locations for human developments so long as the RCDR habitat remained fully protected. The Red Cliffs NCA was established by Congress in statute in 2009 to protect tortoises and other natural and cultural resources.

Last year, the county and other northern corridor proponents sponsored congressional legislation by Sen. Lee and Congressman Stewart that would have forced construction of the northern corridor, abrogated the HCP compromise, undermined resource protection in the RCDR and NCA, and largely circumvented the existing public processes for evaluating the environmental effects of proposed actions and providing for meaningful public notice and involvement.

Fortunately, that legislation languished in Congress, and the mid-term election outcome changed the political landscape to make such blatant anti-conservation legislation even less likely to succeed.

The county recently contracted with consultants to begin the normal National Environmental Policy Act analysis and public involvement process. This process will evaluate the current proposed northern corridor alignment through the RCDR and NCA, and it should also fairly evaluate feasible alternatives, including those outside of the RCDR and NCA. In addition, it will evaluate proposed revisions to the HCP and relevant BLM plans and alternatives to those revisions as well.

The NEPA process is anticipated to formally begin in late August with initiation of a “scoping” comment period. This is when the public can express their concerns and raise possible issues, alternatives and mitigation measures. This public input will then be used in the process of preparing a Draft Environmental Impact Statement that will be released for another round of public comment next year.

There are rumors that Sen. Lee may reintroduce his northern corridor legislation from last year. If that is true, it would demonstrate incredible hypocrisy by the county and other northern corridor proponents. On one hand, they would be using public funds to initiate the NEPA process and have their proposals objectively evaluated in the public light. On the other hand, at the same time, they would be trying to slip through congressional legislation in a dark, back-room deal that would largely undermine and circumvent the NEPA process and shut out the public.

The county and other northern corridor proponents are misleading the public when they say that their proposed “Zone 6” area would be protected and thereby serve as effective mitigation for the corridor’s adverse impacts.  They are making this protection contingent on corridor approval. However, this protection would largely be an illusion.

Much of this Zone 6 property is already BLM land, and much of that land is already designated for protection as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern. Most of the remaining land in Zone 6 is SITLA, or Utah state land. The SITLA land would only be protected as long as SITLA officials allow it to be.

SITLA could rescind this protection at any time and sell or rent the land for development. So if the Zone 6 land is either already protected or it can be developed in the future, how does that mitigate for the tangible loss of high quality tortoise habitat by the northern corridor in the RCDR and NCA?  It does not.

If actual protection for Zone 6 is desired, then it would be demonstrated by SITLA and BLM developing a proposed land exchange where BLM lands of low conservation value would be traded for the Zone 6 SITLA lands. That would consolidate BLM ownership in Zone 6, allow expansion of the existing ACEC, and BLM would be required by the ESA and HCP to ensure permanent habitat protection. In short, no one should be fooled or misled by the current county proposal that alleges Zone 6 as adequate northern corridor mitigation.

Speaking of misleading the public, the county seems to be attempting to “rebrand” the controversial northern corridor as the more unknown and benign “Washington Parkway.” At a recent county meeting, their consultant kept referencing the northern corridor as the “Washington Parkway.” Actually, there is already a Washington Parkway and a UDOT proposal to extend it as a new four-lane highway up into the Green Springs area next to the conservation lands.

UDOT is attempting to circumvent any meaningful NEPA analysis of this proposed Washington Parkway extension by using something called a “categorical exclusion.” These are normally only used for minor projects that at most pose only nominal environmental effects.

In this case, UDOT has not evaluated alternatives, has not considered cumulative adverse impacts, and has acknowledged that existing uses have already destroyed several acres of tortoise critical habitat. More ominously, the terminus of this proposed extension is directly aligned with the proposed northern corridor alignment. This is clearly no coincidence.

It is an attempt to bootstrap the northern corridor and impermissibly divide what should otherwise be a combined and comprehensive NEPA analysis. Indeed, the concept paper for the extension says that it would provide a “vital east-west corridor connection” from Washington City to St. George, Santa Clara, and Ivins. This is an overt admission that the extension and northern corridor are being planned as a connected highway.

I wonder if those who purchased homes in the Green Springs area relying upon its relative solitude and proximity to open conservation lands know that their leaders are hoping to construct a major east-west highway through their neighborhood.

UDOT is likely being pressured to move rapidly forward to construct this extension so it would be a fait accompli even before the northern corridor DEIS becomes available next year. This is another attempt to circumvent normal NEPA processes, create bias toward a desired result and potentially waste public dollars.

The sad reality is that the pattern of northern corridor related shenanigans continues, and our “leaders” need to be held much more accountable by their taxpaying constituents. If you care about the RCDR and NCA, and believe that laws like the ESA and NEPA should be faithfully followed, please get involved. The only hope to change the sorry status quo is through greater public pressure.

Submitted by RICHARD SPOTTS, St. George

Letters to the Editor are not the product of St. George News, its editors, staff or news contributors. The matters stated and opinions given are the responsibility of the person submitting them. They do not reflect the product or opinion of St. George News and are given only light edit for technical style and formatting.

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Letters to the Editor are not the product of St. George News, its editors, staff or news contributors. The matters stated and opinions given are the responsibility of the person submitting them. They do not reflect the product or opinion of St. George News and are given only light edit for technical style and formatting.

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