Would failure to build highway through national conservation area trigger gridlock, damage economy?

Washington County officials are predicting dire consequences if Northern Corridor is scrapped

St. George • If a major highway that would bisect endangered Mojave desert tortoise habitat is not built, traffic in nearby St. George would be brought to a standstill and the local economy could suffer, officials say.

Washington County officials argue those are likely outcomes without the Northern Corridor, a four-lane highway that would cut through about 4.5 miles of the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, which serves as a sanctuary for the threatened Mojave desert tortoise and other endangered species.

Southern Utah officials’ angst is being fueled by the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s announcement last month that they will reconsider the January 2021 decision made in the waning days of the Trump administration to approve a right-of-way for the Northern Corridor.

In a bid to stop the highway’s construction, a coalition of national and local environmental groups sued the U.S. Department of Interior and BLM five months later for allegedly violating federal law, including the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the National Historic Preservation Act.

In connection with a settlement reached last month between both sides in the dispute, in which the BLM and Fish and Wildlife conceded some issues were not fully resolved in the original Environmental Impact Statement, U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman ruled the Northern Corridor right-of-way application be remanded. That means the right-of-way is on hold while federal agencies take another look at the proposed highway and conduct a supplemental environmental impact statement that would build upon the original EIS.

“We are thrilled the BLM and Fish and Wildlife Service are looking at this again, especially since they found some troubling data in the environmental impact statement ... but still concluded the Northern Corridor highway was an appropriate choice, which it is not,” said Isabel Adler, Red Cliffs campaign director at Conserve Southwest Utah, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Dire consequences to traffic, economy

Conversely, local and state officials call the federal agencies’ decision a surprise and a “slap in the face.” Despite signing on as intervenors in support of the defendants in the lawsuit, Washington County officials say they were left in the dark about the settlement.

They argue the Northern Corridor is crucial to ease traffic woes in the fast-growing area by enabling vehicles to cross the county and bypass St. George’s already congested streets. Moreover, they worry the highway might be scrapped, especially since the Biden administration has reversed former President Donald Trump’s actions to slash the size of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante monuments.

“I think it is very likely the Northern Corridor will go away,” Washington County Attorney Eric Clarke said.

If it does, local officials say the impact could be catastrophic because there already is a shortage of east-west traffic arteries in the St. George area, and with the county’s population expected to grow from 182,000 to nearly 465,000 over the next 40 years, the situation could become even more dire.

Of particular concern are traffic “bottlenecks” on the Red Cliffs Parkway, St. George Boulevard, River Road and the junction of Green Springs Road and Telegraph Street, among others.

“Unless everyone gets in a helicopter and flies, there is no other way to move east-west where the [bulk of] population is without this corridor,” said Washington County Commissioner Adam Snow, adding that proposed alternative routes were too costly and increased pollution and commute times.

As presently envisioned, the Northern Corridor would link Red Cliffs Parkway on the west with Washington Parkway near I-15 on the east. Snow said it would provide Ivins and Santa Clara residents, as well as those living in Dammeron Valley, Veyo and other communities along State Route 18, quicker access to the interstate.

According to Dixie Metropolitan Planning Organization numbers, the Northern Corridor would carry 25,000 vehicles a day, reduce traffic delays by 300,000 hours a year and reduce congestion on St. George streets during peak travel hours by as much as 15%.

Another factor is Zone 6, roughly 6,800-plus acres west of Bloomington and south of Sunbrook neighborhoods that was added to the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve two years ago to offset the impact of the Northern Corridor. The land is separate from the rest of the reserve, which encompasses the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area.

Clarke said the addition contains a sizable tortoise population, prime habitat and recreational trails like the Bear Claw Poppy Trail. Currently, ownership of the land in the zone is divided between BLM and the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA). If the North Corridor goes away, Clarke said, Zone 6 goes away with it.

That means half the land would revert back to SITLA, county officials explain, which is obligated to sell the land to make money for Utah’s schools.

“Developers are going to be all over that, figuring out how to expand that side of the city and to build new lots next to that open space,” Clarke said.

Another factor, corridor opponents argue, is that Judge Berman’s ruling empowers the federal government to reexamine the county’s Incidental Take Permit, which is issued under the ESA and requires applicants to draft, implement and fund a habitat conservation plan (HCP) to mitigate harm to endangered species caused by a project.

The 69,000-acre Red Cliffs Desert Reserve was created in 1996 to help recover desert tortoises threatened by development and habitat loss, protect the area’s scenic red rock and manage recreation. The HCP plan, which is administered by the county in collaboration with federal agencies and was renewed in 2016, has enabled development to take place on several hundred thousand acres of prime tortoise habitat on private land outside the reserve.

“In a worst-case scenario … we could have to stop all the construction in the county,” Clarke said. “Imagine the impact that would have on our local economy.”

Legitimate fears or fearmongering?

For her part, Adler disputes such arguments. She said Conserve Southwest Utah identified alternatives that were more cost-effective and as good or better than the Northern Corridor in easing gridlock.

“So when the county says they don’t think any alternatives were viable, that is just false,” she said.

Environmentalists argue that over half of Zone 6 is already protected for conservation by the BLM as an area of critical concern and SITLA could sell its acreage to developers at any time. They insist much of the habitat has already been degraded by dirt bikers and off-highway vehicle users and debris from illegal dumping and target shooting. Moreover, they dispute the county’s argument that Zone 6 will lose its protections if the Northern Corridor is not built.

“That’s an entirely different process the county would have to go through,” Adler said, adding it is completely separate from consideration of the highway.

Highway critics insist Zone 6 falls short of offsetting the damage from Northern Corridor, which they say would destroy 153 acres of critical habitat in the Upper Virgin River Recovery Unit, one of the smallest and most successful desert tortoise recovery units.

Biologists have determined the Northern Corridor would impact up to 4,250 meters on each side of the road, thus negatively affecting 15,000 acres or more of critical tortoise habitat. Fire also is a concern. Adler said four wildfires in 2020 were caused by humans and scorched nearly 15,000 acres in the area, one of them sparked by a tire blowout. Recent wildfires have contributed to a 41% decline in the conservation area’s tortoise population.

As for the county raising the specter of the supplemental EIS process halting further construction, Adler chalks that up to scare tactics. What is truly scary, she countered, is the notion that building a highway through a national conservation area is a good idea.

“We shouldn’t even be having this conversation to begin with,” she said.

As part of the scoping period for the supplemental EIS, the BLM is accepting public comment until Dec. 21. On Dec. 6, the public is invited to attend a meeting from 4:30-7:30 p.m. at the Dixie Center, 1835 S. Convention Center Dr. in St. George, to ask questions and provide feedback.