Feds approve highway across Washington County’s Red Cliffs conservation area

Critics fear highway across tortoise preserve would degrade St. George’s quality of life.

(Tom Wharton | Tribune file photo) Red Cliffs National Conservation Area is pictured in the July 26, 2017 file photo.

With the end of the Trump administration less than a week away, federal agencies issued a string of decisions Thursday that will result in a paved highway through Utah’s Red Cliffs National Conservation Area.

The controversial project could fragment habitat set aside for Mojave desert tortoise and open space valued for outdoor recreation on the edge of St. George.

Local and state leaders have long embraced the so-called Northern Corridor as the key to solving traffic woes in one of the nation’s fastest-growing areas by allowing vehicles to cross Washington County without having to travel St. George’s congested streets. But critics see a costly and sprawl-generating boondoggle.

“Not only does building a highway in Red Cliffs NCA break major federal laws, but there are viable and affordable transportation alternatives outside of Red Cliffs that the Bureau [of Land Management]’s own analyses have identified,” said Tom Butine, president of Conserve Southwest Utah.

On Thursday, the Bureau of Land Management announced it has approved a 500-foot wide right of way across the preserve, while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved an “incidental take permit” authorizing the resulting loss of desert tortoises, which are listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.

Butine’s St. George-based group is among several that joined forces as the Red Cliffs Conservation Coalition to fight the project and push for alternative solutions to Washington County’s traffic.

“The Trump Administration and county officials have rushed this process forward and ignored significant public opposition every step of the way,” Butine said. “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.”

But elected county officials, whose views could not be more opposite, see the four-lane highway as a win for both the tortoises and humans that inhabit this scenic corner of Utah.

“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,” said Washington County Commission Chairman Gil Almquist. “We are excited to continue our successful tortoise translocation program and fulfill our additional conservation activities for another 25 years.”

The decision, signed by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, culminates an expedited two-year review that cost $8.4 million.

“Our goal in all of our decisions is to be good stewards and good neighbors and we appreciate the public engagement throughout the process which helped to refine and shape the decisions,” said BLM Utah State Director Greg Sheehan, a former state wildlife official. “Working together with the [Fish and Wildlife] Service, cooperating agencies, and the state of Utah, we were able to secure additional protections and opportunities for improving habitat in the NCA and Washington County.”

Critics say the county can better accomplish its transportation goals by upgrading the existing Red Hills Parkway along St. George’s northern periphery.

The county’s proposed 4.5-mile divided highway, which would include bike and foot paths, would begin at Washington Parkway and travel west to the Red Hills Parkway, providing a convenient route for motorists to travel to Santa Clara and Ivins from Interstate 15. The route passes through the 62,000-acre Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, established under a habitat conservation plan approved in 1995 and renewed as part of a highway approval process.

By agreeing to the tortoise preserve “in perpetuity,” Washington County was able to move forward on developing up to 300,000 acres of potential tortoise habitat elsewhere in the county under a deal reached with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 25 years ago.

“Protecting habitat for the tortoise in 1996, Washington County made the smartest decision it has ever made,” ,” said Sarah Thomas, lands program director for Conserve Southwest Utah, “because it set aside 62,000 acres of some of the most exquisitely beautiful red rock country anywhere in the Southwest with a 200-mile network of trails that has become world renowned. Biking trails, hiking trails, even amazing climbing that has drawn so many people to Washington County.”

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The road project could cut this trail network off from some of the five trailheads that are within a 10-minute drive of downtown St. George, such as the popular Pioneer Park, according to Thomas. She feels Washington County leaders have reneged on promises to leave intact the preserve, much of which was included in the national conservation area Congress designated in 2009.

But county transportation officials remain steadfast that a road through Red Cliffs is crucial for accommodating growth in St. George and surrounding towns, where the population is expected to triple to 500,000 by 2050. To offset the habitat lost to the proposed highway, the county has set aside a 6,800-acre area southwest of town, a move that is specified in the recently renewed habitat conservation plan, or HCP.

“This HCP is a model of cooperation between local, state, and federal authorities to benefit a threatened species,” said Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, who has longed pushed the BLM to accommodate the road project. “Washington County can now move confidently into the future with travel planning and tortoise recovery.”

But conservationists say the designation of these lands, known as Zone 6, does nothing for tortoise conservation. This area, which is about half federal and half state trust land, is heavily used for outdoor recreation, including mountain bikes, motorized use and target shooting. The federal share is already set aside as habitat for endangered plants, while there is no guarantee the state-owned half won’t be sold to developers some day, according to Thomas.

“Half of this has been managed by the BLM under strict conservation provisions for years,” she said. “You shouldn’t be able to get any credit for that.”

She believes some of the recreational uses there are not compatible with tortoise conservation.

“You’re much more likely to see shot-up TVs, shot-up couches than you are to see desert tortoises,” Thomas said. “When I have been out in Zone 6 scouting for tortoises, I’ve had to take cover because people have been target shooting over my head. It’s like the Wild West out there. It’s lawless.”

Conservationists are also disturbed that the Northern Corridor’s alignment passes through or near 15 inholdings inside the national conservation area that the feds purchased for nearly $21 million drawn from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). Some of these parcels were purchased as recently as 2019 from would-be developers who received top dollar.