OPINION — As the public lands program manager for Conserve Southwest Utah, I work to create opportunities for people to have a voice (and hands and feet!) in the movement to protect and restore public lands for present and future generations. This includes responding to the two largest and most controversial infrastructure projects in Washington County history – the Lake Powell Pipeline and the Northern Corridor Highway.
Request for an extended comment period on the complicated highway project was denied, and people had only one month to consider the environmental and socioeconomic damage associated with both the Northern Corridor Highway and the Lake Powell Pipeline. Despite this calculated effort by the Trump administration to prevent public participation during the busy holiday season, over 18,000 Americans commented on the Northern Corridor Highway and 1,100 on the Lake Powell Pipeline.
That is how, this holiday season, I was gifted with the chance to read hundreds of letters that advocated for the Community Transportation Alternative (routes outside the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve / National Conservation Area that could reduce traffic congestion) and shared the nourishing connection Utahns have with their public lands.
I learned that the Red Cliffs NCA is a place where veterans find relief from PTSD; where youth unplug from virtual distractions; where artists find solitude and inspiration; where mothers take their children to play and learn; where equestrians experience tranquility in designated wilderness; where trail-runners find thrill and challenge; and where small business owners find themselves grounded in a larger-than-human community.
Holly and Spenser Snow Canada, owners of Superbloom Coffee Roasters LLC wrote that their business is inspired by the intrinsic values of desert living: “Patience. Gratitude. Conservation. If we move quickly with road construction and treat land as if it’s an infinite resource, we won’t have the calm, quiet solitude that can only be found in the desert. The next generation of small business owners will no longer dream big and aim for the stars—because they won’t be able to see them.”
If granted, Washington County’s request for a right-of-way for the Northern Corridor would trigger three major plan amendments that would weaken protections for world-class scenery, recreation, and threatened and endangered species in southwest Utah.
Rushed environmental reviews in Washington County ride the wave of Trump Executive Orders aiming to fast track infrastructure development on public lands, shorten environmental review, limit public engagement and gut bedrock laws like the National Environmental Policy Act.
For more than a decade, St. George has been one of the fastest-growing metro areas in the nation, welcoming new residents and businesses with open arms. The University of Utah Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute projects that Washington County’s current population of 187,000 will grow to over half a million by 2065. It’s up to us to navigate these growing pains with creativity and imagination. Preparing for growth and protecting our stunning public lands are not in conflict. First we must acknowledge, as Washington County’s Greater Zion Tourism Office does, that public lands are the backbone of our economy and sustain our high quality of life.
Creative solutions that implement Vision Dixie Smart Growth principles – less sprawl, robust active and public transit, focusing growth in walkable, mixed-use centers – can reduce traffic congestion and protect the public lands that nourish our economy and our lives. Please join Conserve Southwest Utah in advocating for protection of the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area during the next public comment period on the Northern Corridor Highway slated to begin in June. How do you imagine your future, Washington County?
Submitted by SARAH THOMAS, Conserve Southwest Utah.
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