Feds' preferred highway route would impact lands it spent millions acquiring for conservation

| Tribune File Photo Red Cliffs National Conservation Area.

Over the years, the Bureau of Land Management has spent millions acquiring private parcels inside the desert tortoise preserve that is now enveloped by the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area just outside St. George.

Now the agency is proposing to allow Utah transportation officials to pave a major highway through or near 15 of these parcels covering 832 acres, according to an analysis by Conserve Southwest Utah. The property was purchased with nearly $21 million drawn from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).

Under a draft environmental review released this summer, the BLM’s “preferred” alternative for the Northern Corridor — of the five routes analyzed — passes by two purchased late last year from a would-be developer for $7 million, a massive sum considering the land is not presently accessible.

The move outraged the project’s opponents, who say Washington County’s insistence on pushing the road through the conservation area would not only degrade habitat set aside for the imperiled Mojave desert tortoise, but also fragment scenic open space enjoyed by southwest Utah’s human inhabitants.

(Brian Passey | The Spectrum file photo via AP) This May 13, 2006 file photo shows a desert tortoise at its new home in the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve east of Leeds, Utah. More than 16,000 public comments have been submitted for a proposal on whether to allow a highway to be built through a protected Mojave desert tortoise habitat in southern Utah. The four-lane road has drawn criticism from conservationists.

“BLM spent LWCF funds to permanently protect these lands and now proposes to approve a highway that would destroy them,” fumed St. George resident Richard Spotts, a retired BLM environmental planner. “Adding insult to injury, BLM says that it has no obligation to even mitigate or compensate for destroying these federal-side LWCF-acquired lands.”

The BLM declined to address the criticism leveled at its preferred route, which was identified as part of the ongoing environmental impact statement. The public comment period for that process closed Thursday.

“We will closely review public input to help develop the final environmental impact statement for the project,” the agency said in a prepared statement released by its Utah office. Also under review is an amendment to the area’s habitat conservation plan to allow for the “incidental take" of the protected tortoise.

The county proposes setting aside 6,800 acres southwest of St. George to make up for the tortoise habitat lost to the road.

Using mineral royalties from offshore drilling, the Land and Water Conservation Fund was established to acquire lands for public recreation and habitat protection. Recent Utah acquisitions include the mouth of Kanarraville Canyon, a popular hiking destination just up Interstate 15 from Washington County, key inholdings in Zion National Park, and Rattlesnake Gulch in Mill Creek Canyon outside Salt Lake City.

The BLM lauded last year’s $5 million acquisition of a 113-acre Red Cliffs parcel that the proposed highway would skirt.

“Our partnership helps maintain desert tortoise habitat and the beauty of Washington County,” Washington County Commissioner Dean Cox said in a BLM press release. “This mitigation reserve shows how more than 20 years of conservation efforts can balance the protection of our amazing natural resource with our growing community.”

The private lands inside the conservation area will not likely ever be developed since they are surrounded by protected public lands. But Red Cliffs inholdings have still fetched premium prices because federal officials agreed to appraise them as if they could be developed in a bid to secure political support for landscape conservation in Washington County.

The proposed Northern Corridor has been a public lands flashpoint for years, dating back to Congress’ 2009 designation of the 45,000-acre Red Cliffs preserve, along with wilderness and another national conservation area in Washington County. Utah officials contend they agreed to the designations only after winning promises from the Interior Department to allow a four-lane transportation corridor through Red Cliffs.

The county’s preferred route would run from Washington Parkway west several miles to Red Hills Parkway, providing an alternate path from Washington City to the northern parts of St. George and Santa Clara. Officials say it is needed to alleviate traffic congestion that is projected to clog the rapidly growing St. George region.

During the Obama administration, the BLM pushed back against that plan, noting that a highway would defeat the conservation area’s purpose, but the Trump administration has been far more accommodating. Not only has the BLM initiated a process for approving the project, but the White House has listed it among several that are to get expedited reviews.

In the three months since the draft EIS was released, wildfire has scorched a quarter of Red Cliffs' terrain designated as critical habitat for the desert tortoise. The document identifies three potential alignments through the Red Cliffs preserve and two southern routes, which the environmental community prefers because they avoid the national conservation area, or NCA.

Tom Butine, Conserve Southwest Utah’s president, says traffic analyses show those southern routes will do a better job alleviating traffic congestion.

“The EIS says there are better alternatives outside the NCA, but if you do it inside the NCA, the topography dictates they go with the one they designated as the preferred. They are close together and have the same impacts. They all suck, but the southernmost one sucks the least because it cuts off less of the tortoise habitat.”

The BLM’s preferred route is the middle of these three inside the conservation area.

Butine is concerned the county’s unspoken goal is to remove lands south of the highway from the NCA, those sandwiched between the road and the city.

“The first step is getting the road in,” he said. “The second step is developing those inholdings because now you have a road to them. The third step is to say, ‘That area is wrecked so let’s move it out of the NCA,’ so they can develop it.”

Whichever route the BLM picks, the decision is expected to be challenged.

“If the BLM continues with their current plan and preference for a highway inside the NCA, we’ll definitely protest, using all avenues,” Butine said. Likewise, the county has signaled a willingness to go to court if the BLM rejects a route through the conservation area.