Proposed highway sparks concern over threatened tortoise

(Reed Saxon | The Associated Press) This Sept.3, 2008 file photo shows an endangered desert tortoise, which didn't move when a vehicle approached, sitting in the middle of a road in the proposed location of three BrightSource Energy solar-energy generation complexes in the eastern Mojave Desert several miles from an old mining and railroad townsite called Ivanpah, Calif. The Oakland, Calif.-based BrightSource Energy has been pushing for more than two years for permission to erect 400,000 mirrors on the site to gather the sun's energy. It could become the first project of its kind on U.S. Bureau of Land Management property, leaving a footprint for others to follow on vast stretches of public land across the West.

St. George • Southern Utah officials who want to build a highway across a picturesque national reserve say a proposed land deal would stave off major road congestion in the fast-growing area, but environmentalists worry it would hurt the threatened Mojave desert tortoise and other sensitive species.

The plans call for a “Northern Corridor” highway across the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve. Washington County officials have proposed a land swap with the federal government that would give the county public lands needed to accommodate the road, The Spectrum reported last week.

But conservation and environmental protection groups are accusing officials of a “bait-and-switch” tactic to overturn federal protections for the threatened Mojave desert tortoise and other species on the reserve. County officials call the highway a “win-win,” saying it balances demands to preserve habitat and accommodate key infrastructure.

County officials are hashing out legislation with members of Utah’s congressional delegation, with a draft bill expected to be ready for an open house meeting in St. George on Wednesday. Members of the public will have an opportunity at the meeting to weigh in before any legislation is finalized, County Commissioner Dean Cox said.

“We’ve been developing these ideas, and want the public to get an opportunity to talk to us and share their own responses,” Cox said.

The legislation would carve out about 150 acres of the existing reserve north of St. George to make way for the northern corridor, which county planners have dubbed “Washington Parkway,” and ease restrictions in the reserve for utility lines, Cox said.

At the same time, it would expand the 96-square-mile reserve by some 10 square miles by adding a swath of land generally south of Santa Clara and west of Bloomington, where tortoise populations have been surveyed, Cox said. He added the legislation would also grant a 25-year renewal of the expired Habitat Conservation Plan that allows the county to manage the reserve.

“We feel this is an amazing win-win for the residents of Washington County,” he said.