‘This is not an opinion poll’; BLM asks public for specific, detailed comments on Northern Corridor

ST. GEORGE — The public currently has the opportunity to communicate their thoughts, worries, concerns and ideas to federal land and wildlife agencies concerning the impact of the proposed Northern Corridor. The more detailed and specific, the better, federal officials say.

At the BLM’s public scoping meeting for the Northern Corridor Project, St. George, Utah, Dec. 17, 2019 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

The Bureau of Land Management announced earlier this month that a 30-day public comment period had been opened as part of a scoping process that will become part of an environmental impact study. The comment period ends Jan. 6.

Last week the BLM hosted a public scoping meeting at the Dixie Convention Center in St. George where people had the opportunity to learn more about the proposed Northern Corridor and the process by which it could be approved or denied by federal agencies. Attendees were allowed to leave written comments at the meeting that will be be collected and applied in the study.

“This meeting is a part of scoping, where the public identifies issues, concerns, questions and alternatives for the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to consider as they they work in coming months to prepare what is called a draft environmental impact statement,” Richard Spotts, who formerly worked for the BLM, said during last weeks’ scoping meeting.

The BLM and Fish and Wildlife Service will be analyzing the various resources and uses currently found in the area the proposed roadway would go and how that roadway would impact those uses and resources if built, Spotts said.

Alignment for the proposed northern corridor approved by the Washington County Commission, Sept. 18, 2017 | Photo courtesy of Washington County, St. George News

Spotts is among those who oppose the Northern Corridor due to the impact it could have on the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve and overlapping Red Cliffs Conservation Area. These contain protected habitat for the threatened Mojave desert tortoise.

The current alignment proposed by road planners – which would connect to Interstate 15 via Washington Parkway on the east end and Red Hills Parkway on the west end – would cut across parts of the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve and overlap Red Cliffs National Conservation Area.

State and local road planners and civic officials say the corridor is needed in order to accommodate the county’s continuing growth or the road system will fail. They say the roadway was also promised to Washington County by the federal government long ago. Federal agencies have been slow to approve a right-of-way through the desert reserve because it cuts through protected tortoise habitat.

Substantive comments

Often, federal officials asks for “substantive comments” to be submitted when seeking input on proposed projects as required by the National Environmental Policy Act, also commonly known as NEPA. However, what may be considered a comment of substance by one person may not be by another.

“This is not an opinion poll,” said Ahmed Mohsen, district manager of the BLM’s Color County District. The district oversees nine Utah counties, including Washington County.

Mohsen compared the BLM to a county or city that has a zoning master plan that gets amended on occasion and goes through a public comment period concerning proposed amendments to that plan. The BLM has a land-use plan for Washington County similar to a city’s zoning plan and now Washington County and the Utah Department of Transportation are asking to have that amended so the Northern Corridor can be built.

“We’re not looking at how many people necessarily feel strongly one way or another,” Mohsen said, adding that the BLM wants to know what a commenter’s issue, concern or recommendation is, and they want details.

BLM Color Country District Manager Admed Mohsen details what does and does not count as a “substantive” public comment, according to the federal agency, St. George, Utah, Dec. 17, 2019 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

What are the issues and concerns with the proposal before the BLM? What alternatives should federal officials be considering and why? The more specific a comment is, the better, Mohsen said.

“We are looking for comments that can be translated and integrated into mitigation and conditions on the project,” Mohsen said.

An example Mohsen gave of public input adding conditions to a BLM permit is buildings having to be painted to match the landscape in order to mitigate impact to view sheds.

In addition to nonspecific comments the BLM can’t do much with, another type of comment that may not have quite the desired impact are prepared, boilerplate comments people simply add their names to and then send off. This includes prepared statements from groups whose supporters sign in bulk.

“If we get thousands of comments that say the same thing, they count as one comment because the substance of the comment can be translated into one issue,” Mohsen said.

Some public thoughts and concerns

A dirt road located between the paved portion of Washington Parkway and the border of the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve which may be used to connect the proposed Northern Corridor to I-15 via Washington Parkway if built, Washington City, Utah, Dec. 12, 2019| Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Concerns expressed by attendees on the public scoping meeting questioned whether transportation alternatives had been adequately reviewed by state and local road planners.

“My big question I came here with tonight is: Are we looking at possible transportation alternatives,” St. George resident Judith Rognli said.

Rognli called the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve and surrounding wilderness an asset for Washington County and didn’t want that lost to the Northern Corridor. Instead, she suggested alternatives involving cycling and public transit be considered along with how the county looks at future development.

Washington City resident Tom Nead said he has mixed feelings on the project. He said he understood the need to stay ahead of growth and accommodating the traffic demands that come with that, but he is also worried about the noise and pollution it could bring.

Nead lives in Green Springs, an area in Washington City by which the proposed alignment of the Northern Corridor runs at the development’s northern end. Residents in the area fear their property values and the peace and quiet they thought they were getting the with area will be drastically impacted.

“I don’t think the county or (the Utah Department of Transportation) has adequately looked at those impacts,” he said. “It’s a real concern.”

At the BLM’s public scoping meeting for the Northern Corridor Project, St. George, Utah, Dec. 17, 2019 | Photo by Mori Kessler. St. George News

On the other hand, Hurricane resident Mark Andrus said he’s all for the Northern Corridor because of how congested traffic already is at certain intersections and will continue to be if nothing is done to address the problem.

“I think they need to do it,” he said. “We need another route.”

Others at the meeting said they hadn’t studied up on the project enough yet to make an informed comment for or against it.

These and other opinions, suggestions and concerns were shared with BLM representatives in writing and in person at the scoping meeting last Tuesday.

“The people can sometimes see through a different perspective the government doesn’t have, so we always want to open up the process,” Mohsen said. “The public has some really meaningful and good comments that can be translated and integrated into the permit.”

Additional background information on the Northern Corridor project can be found here.

How to Comment

Comments may be submitted online at the BLM’s website, through email at BLM_UT_NorthernCorridor@blm.gov or by mail at Bureau of Land Management, Attn: Northern Corridor, 345 E. Riverside Drive, St. George, Utah 84790.

The public comment period ends Jan. 6.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.

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