After a decade of dead ends, environmental reviews are now underway for a controversial highway across protected desert tortoise habitat and public land outside St. George, a project Washington County officials say the feds promised them to accommodate increasing traffic in the fast-growing region.

Despite previous reservations about the proposed “Northern Corridor,” the Bureau of Land Management is now exploring whether to allow the Utah Department of Transportation to cut the four-lane divided highway through the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area (NCA) in the face of intense opposition from open-space advocates and conservationists.

The road connecting Washington City with St. George would slice up habitat set aside since 1995 for the Mojave desert tortoise, potentially setting back the threatened species' recovery.

“The tortoise may have been the original catalyst for protecting these lands over 20 years ago, but the value and benefit of Red Cliffs NCA is far reaching,” said Tom Butine, president of the nonprofit advocacy group Conserve Southwest Utah. “It adds to our quality of life and our economy. It protects cultural and historical resources like petroglyphs. It is a place that is enjoyed and explored by many.”

The 45,000-acre NCA, established by Congress in 2009, encompasses much of the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, set aside a decade earlier as part of a compromise to allow residential and commercial development on 300,000 acres inhabited by the generally beloved tortoise.

Washington County remains committed to protecting the rare reptile, according to County Commissioner Victor Iverson, who believes the road can be engineered and routed in ways to provide adequate safeguards.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)
(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

"We're proud that we've worked hard to benefit the tortoise there," Iverson said. "The big concern is the bifurcation of the habitat. We're going to do everything we can to mitigate those concerns."

To that end, the proposed alignment was moved near the southern periphery of the preserve nestled in the cliffs above St. George subdivisions. Residents of those neighborhoods, however, could see their access cut off to the protected landscape behind their homes, where sandy gulches and sandstone benches could be bisected by impassable dual ribbons of pavement.

The BLM’s Dec. 5 posting on the Federal Register initiates an environmental review that will consider four separate federal actions necessary for the project to go forward: The BLM would allow a transportation corridor to cross the Red Cliffs NCA; grant a 1.75-mile 300-foot-wide right of way; amend land-use plans so that territory outside the NCA could be managed for desert tortoise recovery as compensation; and permit the loss of some protected tortoises due to the highway.

The BLM will host an information meeting Tuesday from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. about the proposal at the Dixie Center in St. George. The public has until Jan. 6 to submit comments.

Driving the need for the corridor is unrelenting growth. The 4.3-mile route, which would include bike and foot paths, would begin at Washington Parkway and travel west to the Red Hills Parkway, providing a way for motorists to travel to Santa Clara and Ivins from Interstate 15 without passing though St. George’s busy streets.

“Because of the topography and just the way our landscape is down here, Mother Nature really hasn’t provided us with very many options where to put roads to get people east and west across town,” Iverson said. “As the community grows, if we don’t plan for important infrastructure like this, we’re going to end up seeing [St. George] Boulevard and our main artery roads fail.”

Conserve Southwest Utah argues the county can solve its transportation problems through smarter planning as promoted by Vision Dixie, a recent initiative that explored ways to balance growth and public lands protection. The proposed highway could generate more sprawl in one of the nation’s fastest-mushrooming metro areas, the group contends, while setting a troubling precedent that could expose other protected lands to bulldozers.

“If it can happen in Washington County, it can happen in other regions in Utah and, frankly, throughout our country," the group said in a position paper. “It puts at risk America’s National Conservation Lands as well as long established laws and agreements, such as the Endangered Species Act.”

Red Cliffs is also rich in archaeology. Although just 12% has been surveyed, some 260 artifact-bearing sites have been identified, according to Conserve Southwest Utah.

“We don’t know exactly how many cultural sites are located in the path of the Northern Corridor Highway,” the group said, “[but] in 2018, we found a large petroglyph panel in the highway route and there are likely other sites nearby."

The highway would fragment popular nonmotorized trails used by 10,000 people last year.

“The volume of traffic on this highway would add noise, lights, air pollution, litter, and more, drastically changing the experience of spending time in the beautiful expanse that is Red Cliffs NCA,” the group warned.

To compensate for the loss of prime tortoise habitat from the highway inside the NCA, the county is proposing to set aside 6,865 acres west of St. George to manage for the desert tortoise and compatible recreation, according to Iverson. This area is about half federal and half state trust land.

"The county did surveys of that area and actually found that we have a very vibrant population of tortoises there," Iverson said. "It's an area that's heavily recreated, which is kind of interesting because it proves that recreation is compatible with tortoises."

But Conserve Southwest Utah noted that this spot has been degraded by off-highway vehicles and recreational target shooting.

“It’s amazing there is a single tortoise out there. It’s really weird habitat,” Butine said. “It is crisscrossed with roads. There are people squatting out there, mountain bikes all over."

The corridor proposal has opened for public participation at the same time environmental reviews opened for another controversial infrastructure project Washington County says it needs to accommodate growth.

But critics fear both the Lake Powell pipeline, the proposed 143-mile tube that would carry Colorado River water to St. George, and the Northern Corridor could wind up inviting more growth and traffic into a delicate desert region that can’t handle much more asphalt, lawns, people and their machinery.

“We continue with the sprawl that Vision Dixie said we should not, putting at risk our clean air, the expansive viewscapes, sensitive habitat, quiet recreation, ease of transportation, and, perhaps, the ability of our local water supply to accommodate it,” Ivins resident and former Utah Attorney General Paul Van Dam wrote in a recent op-ed.

Washington County will likely figure out how to accommodate both fast cars and slow tortoises, but Van Dam is interested in a deeper question: Will the Northern Corridor and Lake Powell pipeline make southwestern Utah better or just bigger?