Federal officials say public comments ‘crucial to the process’ for Northern Corridor consideration

Part of a slide detailing Alternate 3, the preferred route of a right-of-way for the proposed Northern Corridor that would go through the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve. | Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — The first of two public online meetings focusing on the draft environment impact statement for the Northern Corridor transportation project and related federal amendments to the Washington County Habitat Conservation Plan took place Thursday.

Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, Southern Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of Rebecca Vail, St. George News

Over 90 people joined the online meeting hosted by representatives of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Fish and Wildlife Service to learn more about the Northern Corridor and its recently published draft environmental impact study. They also heard about the accompanying amended Washington County Habitat Conservation Plan, or HCP.

In addition to educating the public about the proposed transportation project, the meeting was also held to encourage attendees to submit formal comments during the draft impact statement’s public comment period which concludes Sept. 10.

The two federal agencies are presently analyzing a proposal from the Utah Department of Transportation to construct a four-lane highway north of St. George that may cross portions of the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve and Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, which includes habitat for the federally threatened Mojave desert tortoise.

The current roadway route that is preferred by federal agencies in the impact statement would run from behind the Green Springs communities in Washington City on its eastern side through the tortoise reserve, where it would connect to Red Hills Parkway on the western end. The preferred route is one of six alternatives listed in the draft EIS.

While the environmental impact statement focuses on the proposed roadway, the amended Habitat Conservation Plan would add the proposed “Zone 6” to the Red Cliff Desert Reserve for desert tortoise habitat if the roadway crossing the reserve is approved.

Federal officials also fielded a series of questions, some of which touched on the Turkey Farm Road Fire that has burned nearly 12,000 acres in the Red Cliffs Reserve and National Conservation Area as of Saturday evening and is 60% contained.

Turkey Farm Road Fire continues to burn throughout the night, Washington County, Utah, July 14, 2020 | Photo courtesy of Mark Bergmann, St. George News

Keith Rigtrup, field manager of the BLM’s St. George Field Office, was asked if information learned from the fire could somehow be added to the draft EIS. A similar question asked if the review of the draft EIS shouldn’t be postponed until after studies can be done to determine the impact the fire has had on desert tortoise habitat and how it may be avoided in the future.

“We are all aware of the fire that started a couple of days ago within the reserve and NCA,” Rugtrip said. “That is information we’ll consider as we move forward with the draft – that information wasn’t in there. What was in there is that this area has burned over several times in the past and that information was included in the draft EIS. So we’ll look at that information as we move forward to the final EIS – to update and evaluate our analysis as we move forward.”

Laura Romin, the acting FWS field supervisor for the Utah Ecological Service Office, added they are “tracking the fire closely” and are also leaning on information on fires had within the desert reserve in previous years that was incorporated into the draft EIS.

The last time there were major fires within the reserve was 2005 and 2006, which is estimated to have destroyed 25% of the desert habitat within the reserve at the time and is estimated to have decimated the reserve’s tortoise population by 50%.

Since then, local, state and federal agencies have worked together to create a wildfire management plan that was added to the pending amended Washington County Habitat Conservation Plan.

July 16’s online meeting or the Northern Corridor draft EIS. Story continues below video.

Other aspects of the online meeting went over the six different roadway alternatives proposed in the draft EIS.

Alternative A is a “no action” alternative that leaves the reserve as it is, while Alternatives 2, 3 and 4 are variations on a route that cuts through the reserve and NCA and connects to Washington Parkway on its east end and Red Hills Parkway on its west end.

The proposed route for the Northern Corridor as shown by the white and blue line on the upper center-lift of the map. | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Alternatives 5 and 6 are outside of the desert reserve. One turns the Red Hills Parkway into an expressway that connects to Interstate 15, while the other would turn St. George Boulevard and 100 South into one-way streets as a part of a giant loop between Bluff Street and Interstate 15.

Alternative B, the UDOT proposed right-of-way, is considered the preferred alternative for now, Rugtrip said. However, just because it is preferred, it does not mean it is the decision to go that route has been finalized.

“A preferred alternative is not the decision. This is draft EIS,” Rugtrip said, adding that the BLM and FWS will still be reviewing the data and public comments that will help make the final decision once the final EIS is published.

“The public comments that come into us at this time are crucial to the process,” he said.

Other issues the BLM and FWS are reviewing and need comment on is the proposed Zone 6 that would be added to the desert reserve. Currently, the area plays host to various recreational uses that will be greatly reduced or halted if the near-6,900 acre area is made a part of the reserve.

Among the recreational uses likely to be heavily impacted are target shooting, camping and competitive events. The approximate 48 miles of trails through the area will also be reduced to 39. Livestock grazing in the area may also be reduced or eliminated.

Mojave desert tortoise in the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, Nov 2, 2018 | Photo courtesy of the Red Cliff’s Desert Reserve, St. George News

The BLM is required to open a public comment period when it proposes to close public lands to recreational target shooting and other activities. This period is running concurrently with the Northern Corridor’s draft EIS comment period that concludes Sept. 10.

The next public online meeting for the Northern Corridor draft EIS and related items will be held Tuesday, July 21, from 5-6:30 p.m. Attendees will need to register online ahead of the meeting.

Those who use a telecommunications device for the deaf may call the Federal Relay Service at 1-800-877-8339 to leave a message or question. The FRS is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Replies are provided during normal business hours.

Questions related to the virtual public meetings can also be directed to Gloria Tibbetts, BLM Color Country District Planning and Environmental Coordinator, at 435-865-3063 or email [email protected].

The public comment period for the Northern Corridor project environmental impact statement and related items began Friday and will run through Sept. 10. Comments can be submitted through the methods featured below:

  • Standard mail: Bureau of Land Management, Attn: Northern Corridor, 345 East Riverside Drive, St. George, UT 84790. Include your name and street address. Your entire comment – including your personally identifiable information – may be made publicly available at any time. You can request your personally identifiable information be withheld from public review, but the BLM cannot guarantee that it will be able to do so.
  • Email: [email protected].

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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