ST. GEORGE — After years of effort and controversy, the federal government granted Washington County the right of way to build the proposed Northern Corridor through a segment of the Red Cliffs Desert Reverse.
“We are pleased to announce a decision by the US Department of Interior to grant the Northern Corridor Right-of-Way and a Mojave Desert tortoise incidental take permit that protects private property rights in Washington County,” county officials said in a statement released Thursday.
The proposed highway, which stretches 4 miles from Washington Parkway on its east end to Red Hills Parkway on the west end, is seen as a crucial piece of transportation infrastructure by state and local officials. They have stated for years that the preexisting traffic system will “fail” if the Northern Corridor is not constructed to help relieve increased traffic that will come with a projected county population of nearly 500,000 by 2060.
“The new transportation route will enable more efficient travel and reduce congestion along I-15, St. George Blvd, Red Hills Parkway and Skyline Drive,” the statement reads.
Additional highlights of the approved roadway, mentioned in the statement, is the prevention of future air pollution by cutting traffic congestion, a faster response to parts of the reserve in case of wildfires, which has been a growing concern, and the addition of nearly 7,000 acres to the reserve that will serve as additional space for the threatened Mojave Desert tortoise.
Zone 6, which is located west of Bloomington and south of Santa Clara, already has a notable desert tortoise population, according to previous surveys conducted by desert reserve staff.
“With today’s decisions, the new plan will protect an additional 7,000 acres of occupied tortoise habitat while still meeting our community’s transportation needs in a way that benefits air quality,” Washington County Commission Chair Gil Almquist said Wednesday in a statement. “We are excited to continue our successful tortoise translocation program and fulfill our additional conservation activities for another twenty-five years.”
The approval of the right of way also comes with a 25-year renewal under the Washington County Habitat Conservation Plan, also commonly known as the “HCP.” Created in 1996, the HCP governs management of the 62,000-acre Red Cliffs Desert Reserve. The reserve also encompasses the majority of the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area that was created in 2009.
The desert reserve was created as a place the Mojave Desert tortoise could be taken and protected, as the tortoise is considered “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. In turn, this has allowed development to continue in parts of the county rather than be stymied or halted by the tortoises’ presence.
The effort to renew the HCP was conducted between multiple civic institutions and wildlife agencies on the local, state and federal level. As for the right-of-way approval for the Northern Corridor, that process, which has taken six years to complete, was handled on the federal level by the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“After many years of work, the Northern Corridor project highlights how we support growing communities by providing decisive leadership and cooperating with our partners,” Casey Hammond, principal deputy assistant secretary, said in a statement from the BLM on Wednesday. “Not only did we collaborate effectively with the local municipalities, Washington County, and the State of Utah to help address a complex and longstanding challenge, but we are making development compatible with conservation and species protection that will benefit generations to come.”
The push for approval of a right of way for the Northern Corridor has been a multiyear effort with many speed bumps along the way. Previously, federal wildlife officials were hesitant to allow a roadway through protected desert tortoise habitat. There has also been heavy opposition along the way from environmental and wildlife advocacy groups, some of which are now threatening litigation.
County officials and their supporters in Utah’s congressional delegation, such as Sen. Mike Lee and Rep. Chris Stewart, have long argued that the right of way for a Northern Corridor highway was promised to the county in the 2009 Omnibus Lands Bill. Both Lee and Stewart have also introduced congressional legislation on the Northern Corridor in recent years.
Stewart applauded the Northern Corridor’s approval in a statement issued Wednesday.
“Renewing the Habitat Conservation Plan for Mojave Desert tortoises is a great win for Southern Utah,” Stewart said. “This HCP is a model of cooperation between local, state, and federal authorities to benefit a threatened species. Clarifying the pathway for the Northern Corridor route provided for in the 2009 Omnibus is the result of years of work by a wide range of professionals. Washington County can now move confidently into the future with travel planning and tortoise recovery. I offer a huge thank you to all of the personnel at BLM and USFWS who have worked so hard on this plan.”
Utah Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney have also praised the approval and work done by those involved to achieve it.
“I applaud the Trump administration and the many state and local officials involved for their diligent efforts to finally get this across the finish line,” Lee said in a statement.
“Good things happen when local, state, and federal partners work together to both meet community needs and manage threatened species, and that is exactly what happened with the Washington County habitat conservation plan,” Romney said in the same statement.
Opponents of the Northern Corridor claim the project has been rushed through for political reasons and that the BLM and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have not followed policies outlined in the National Environmental Protection Policy Act.
The environmental advocacy group Conserve Southwest Utah is among the proposed highway’s opposition and submitted a complaint to the BLM in December outlining the group’s concerns.
Additional concerns and claims from the Northern Corridor’s opponents include the worry that building the roadway through federally protected lands sets a dangerous precedent, saying that it will cause damage to the tortoise population and local habitat and that federal funds used to buy out private in-holdings locked in the desert reserve when it was first created have been misused in connection with the roadway project.
Tom Butine, president of Conserve Southwest Utah’s board of directors, made the following statement issued by the group following the project’s approval:
This decision by the Trump Administration was fully expected, and Conserve Southwest Utah and coalition partners have long been prepared for next steps. Not only does building a highway in Red Cliffs (National Conservation Area) break major federal laws, but there are viable and affordable transportation alternatives outside of Red Cliffs that the Bureau’s own analyses have identified.
Yet the agency continues to stand behind the option that’s bad for local residents and wildlife. The Trump Administration and County officials have rushed this process forward and ignored significant public opposition every step of the way. Now it’s our turn – we will do everything we can to stop this highway from destroying this special place that is vital to our quality of life and an important draw for our local economy.
Todd C. Tucci, senior attorney for Advocates of the West, which is representing the Red Cliffs Conservation Coalition, said in the same statement that the fight against the Northern Corridor had just begun.
“We look forward to convincing President-Elect Biden—and a court, if needed—that (Interior) Secretary’s Bernhardt’s plan to punch a 4-lane highway through this desert paradise will not protect, restore and enhance these irreplaceable recreation and conservation values,” Tucci said.
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