Hearing held over Northern Corridor dispute highlights federal overreach; opponents say it was 1-sided

HURRICANE — On Monday, Utah Reps. Celeste Maloy and John Curtis hosted a House Subcommittee on Federal Lands field hearing at the Rock Bowl at Sand Hollow Resort. Joining them were fellow Utah Congressman Blake Moore and a handful of witnesses called upon to testify about the perceived overreach and bad faith of federal bureaucracy in local affairs – particularly the contested Northern Corridor.

L-R: Utah Reps. Celeste Maloy and John Curtis hosted a field hearing for a House subcommittee that focused on federal overreach and the Northern Corridor, Hurricane, Utah, April 22, 2024 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

“The main message of this hearing is that the system is not working well for the people of Utah,” Maloy said. “We have a lot of public land in our state, and in order to do anything like plan roads, we have to go through federal processes. The federal processes are so broken and so onerous, that these are decades-long processes when they should be monthslong processes.”

Related to the Northern Corridor — a 4-plus mile, four-lane road proposed to be built through a portion of the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area — that process has spanned 15 years thus far.

Proponents of the roadway say the road is needed to help create a new east-west corridor in the county that will help alleviate traffic congestion as Washington County continues to grow. Opponents argue building the road will negatively impact the threatened Mojave desert tortoise and other wildlife that reside in the conservation area and overlapping Red Cliffs Desert Reserve.

Despite repeated attempts by local officials and road planners over the years to move the road forward, plans have been stalled due to federal land agencies disliking the idea of putting a road through protected land and habitat. However, in the waning days of the Trump Administration, the Department of the Interior approved a Utah Department of Transportation application for a right of way through the conservation area.

This was seen as a win by county officials after years of collaborative efforts with local arms of the Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies. This process has since been stalled due to environmental groups suing the Department of the Interior and forcing the BLM and related agencies to conduct a supplemental study to determine whether the roadway should still be allowed.

L-R: Washington County Commissioner Adam Snow and Washington County Attorney Eric Clarke attend a House subcommittee hearing on federal lands focused on federal overreach and the Northern Corridor, Hurricane, Utah, April 22, 2024 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

County officials, such as Washington County Attorney Eric Clarke, have blasted the Interior and environmental groups for exuding the county and related parties from lawsuit settlement discussions.

“Perhaps the most discouraging outcome (of) this entire (situation) is the permanent relationship damage,” Washington County Commissioner Adam Snow said during the hearing. “We will be loud in declaring to counties and states across the nation that they should not partner with the Department of the Interior. Because the federal government will turn its back on decades of cooperation to gain short-term political points.”

The root of the issue is whether Congress explicitly mandated the BLM to allow the county a right of way for the future road or was merely instructed to “consider it” in the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009. This Act created the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, which Maloy said wouldn’t have happened if not for Congress promising the road to the county.

“The county negotiated in good faith for the road,” she said. “There would be no national conservation area if there hadn’t been the negotiations for the road.”

Opponents of the Northern Corridor attending a House subcommittee field hearing on public lands in Hurricane, Utah, April 22, 2024 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

While there was no opposition testimony offered during the hearing – all Republican and Democrat members of the House Natural Resources Committee had been invited to attend the hearing, yet did not – the opposition was nonetheless present in the form of people wearing green shirts and stickers that read, “No highway thru Red Cliffs.” They made up at least half of the audience gathered for the hearing.

“Today’s hearing was one-sided, out of touch with local residents, and failed to include oral testimony or perspectives from the thousands of Washington County residents who support the better, cheaper alternatives that meet traffic needs without bulldozing a four-lane highway through Red Cliffs’ treasured recreation areas, scenic vistas, irreplaceable cultural resources, and critical wildlife habitat,” said Holly Snow Canada, executive director of Conserve Southwest Utah, a long-time opponent of the Northern Corridor.

Both Snow Canada and Kya Marienfield, a lands attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said the hearing was full of misinformation and lacked transparency due to not allowing public comment.

Hundreds of people attended a field hearing of the House Subcommittee on Federal Lands hosted by Reps. Celeste Maloy and John Curtis held in Hurricane, Utah, April 22, 2024 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

“The national conservation area was designated to protect cultural resources, recreation and, importantly, the habitat for the endangered Mojave desert tortoise,” she said, adding, “There was no mandate for a highway alignment in the public lands bill they discussed. … That wasn’t the intent of the bill.”

Marienfield said she was disappointed that no local indigenous voices, such as a Shivwits Band of Paiutes representative, were brought in to testify.

As to accusations that the hearing was spreading misinformation about the Northern Corridor and supporters’ claiming the roadway was promised to Washington County, both Curtis and Maloy disagreed with that assessment.

“People like to talk about how the language in that bill isn’t clear,” Maloy said. “What is clear is that Congress – at the same time they were contemplating a national conservation area – was talking about the road. So to say now that those two uses are incompatible is just disingenuous.”

Added Curtis: “If you listen to the testimonies today, the intent of that law is very clear.”

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2024, all rights reserved.

Free News Delivery by Email

Would you like to have the day's news stories delivered right to your inbox every evening? Enter your email below to start!