Environmentalists excluded from speaking at congressional hearing in southern Utah

The North Corridor Highway was a particular point of contention among the speakers. But nonprofits and environmental groups were not allowed to respond.

Hurricane • It may have included “empowering local voices” in its title, but the House Natural Resources Subcommittee’s field hearing chaired by Utah Congressman John Curtis on Monday was noticeable for who was excluded.

Not a single Democrat from the congressional committee attended the hearing at the outdoor Rock Bowl at Sand Hollow Resort. None of the environmental or conservation groups in attendance were invited to speak. Nor did the committee, which was following its “Washington, D.C., format,” take public comment.

Curtis, the lone committee member — Republican or Democrat — at the hearing, said every committee member was invited, but added the fact none of them attended was a matter of personal choice and said that they could still submit written testimony.

Environmental groups in attendance also were free to submit written comments to the committee. As for the public, Curtis noted, they could fill out comment cards or talk with him or other Republicans after the hearing.

In condemning what they called federal overreach and mismanagement of the state’s public lands, Curtis and fellow Utah Reps. Celeste Maloy and Blake Moore spoke with one voice. So did their five witnesses: Washington County Commissioner Adam Snow, Washington County Attorney Eric Clarke, Utah Department of Transportation Executive Director Carlos Braceras, Washington County Water Conservancy District general manager Zach Renstrom and local developer Darcy Stewart.

Federal overreach on North Corridor Highway

Speakers were especially united in condemning the Biden administration for its handling of the proposed four-lane North Corridor Highway, which would cut through 4.5 miles of prime Mojave Desert tortoise habitat in the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area.

The right of way for the road was approved in January 2021 during the Trump administration, prompting a coalition of national and local environmental groups to sue the U.S. Department of Interior and the Bureau of Land Management for allegedly violating the Endangered Species Act and the National Historic Preservation Act, among other federal laws.

Citing issues with the initial environmental impact statement, U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman put that approval on hold last November while federal agencies take another look at the proposed highway and conduct a supplemental environmental impact statement that would build upon the original.

In 2009, Congress enacted the Omnibus Public Land Management Act, which created the 45,000-acre Red Cliffs National Conservation Area in Washington County. The BLM was tasked to oversee the land and protect the area’s natural resources and desert tortoises.

Braceras said that the agreement authorized the construction of an east-west highway across the county and gave the BLM three years to create a travel management plan that included one or more alternatives to a northern corridor route. Witnesses said the BLM has failed to do either.

Maloy lauded Washington County for being a “poster child” for showing how to work with federal agencies in good faith to manage and maintain access to public lands. She blamed the BLM’s actions and the reversal on the North Corridor Highway on unelected bureaucrats. For his part, Commissioner Snow blamed shady backroom dealings between the Biden administration and “fringe environmental groups.”

(Mark Eddington | The Salt Lake Tribune) U.S. Reps. Celeste Maloy, left, and John Curtis attend a special hearing of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee held in Hurricane, Monday, April 22, 2024.

Deep State trying to deep-six highway

“Pathetically, some fringe environmental groups weren’t happy with that cooperation and, unfortunately, it appears the deep state of unelected bureaucrats in D.C. will roll this back to score political points in an election year.” Snow said.

North Corridor Highway supporters argue the road is needed to ease traffic congestion in St. George. By the Dixie Metropolitan Planning Organization’s estimates, the highway would reduce traffic congestion in the area by up to 15%. Failure to build the highway, state and local officials have attested, will further tax the area’s transportation infrastructure and harm the economy.

Witnesses testified that failure to build the road also wouldn’t be great for tortoises. In 2021, Zone 6 was established on roughly 6,800-plus acres west of Bloomington and south of Sunbrook neighborhoods and added to the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve 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.

Roughly half of the zone is BLM land, and the remainder is SITLA land. Clarke said Zone 6 protects between 500 and 1,000 of the endangered tortoises, compared to about 40 to 50 that would be impacted by building the North Corridor Highway. Moreover, he added, it adds 12 acres of habitat for every acre that would be impacted by the highway.

If the Biden administration blocks the highway, Clarke and others warn, it would open up 3,400 acres in Zone 6 to development.

“It is mind-blowing that people are willing to sacrifice so much habitat in order to prevent a congressionally authorized road,” Clarke said.

While discussion of the Northern Corridor dominated the hearing, it was one of a litany of complaints voiced by participants at the hearing. Curtis noted that roughly 90% of Washington County is owned by the federal government, which means residents are severely impacted by burdensome federal regulations and red tape.

Curtis said that impacts are especially severe with respect to affordable housing.

“If the federal government were to free up … less than one-tenth of 1% [of its land holdings] for residential development, housing would become newly affordable for 4.7 million Americans,” he said, citing a 2022 study by the U.S. Congressional Joint Economic Committee. “That would address 35% of Utah’s housing shortages.”

Curtis and Moore also took aim at the BLM’s new Public Lands Rule, which the agency implemented this month to restore balance on the nation’s public lands by protecting land health, establishing “restoration and mitigation leases” and clarifying protections for Areas of Critical Environmental Concern.

They argued the new rule would lock up grazing rights, limit mineral extraction and curtail recreational access to public lands. They further accused federal regulators of ignoring them and not giving them a voice in managing the state’s public lands.

Irony and hypocrisy

Unable to voice their opinion during the hearing, members of environmentalist and conservation groups had plenty to say after it concluded. They characterized the proceeding as a one-sided sham.

Conserve Southwest Utah Executive Director Holly Snow Canada noted the irony of participants complaining about not being heard by federal officials while excluding “local and indigenous” voices at the hearing. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance also took issue with how the hearing was conducted.

“Today’s partisan hearing was out of touch with local and national support for protecting public lands — especially the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area,” Travis Hammill, the Southern Utah Wilderness Association’s D.C. director, stated.

Conserve Southwest Utah officials said much of the testimony at the hearing was false. For example, they insist the 2009 Omnibus bill neither authorized a northern corridor road to be built nor required the BLM to designate a corridor in the Red Cliffs NCA. It only directs them to identify one or more alternatives to a northern transportation route in the county. In addition, they said, the 2021 Environmental Impact Statement found cheaper and more efficient alternatives to the North Corridor Highway.

Environmentalists further argued that half of Zone 6 is managed by the BLM and already protects desert tortoise and habitat as an area of critical concern and that SITLA can sell the remainder it owns to developers at any time. They dispute the contention that Zone 6 will lose its protections if the Northern Corridor is built.

“Holding the American public hostage by insisting they must allow a highway to be built through a congressionally mandated conservation area or else other tortoise habitat is on the chopping block, is [wrong],” said SUWA wild lands attorney Kya Marienfeld.

Equally ludicrous, Conserve Southwest Utah officials say, is Snow’s assertion that the “deep state” and “back-room deals with fringe environmentalist groups” are responsible for the BLM’s decisions concerning the Northern Corridor. They say the judge’s ruling and the supplemental environmental impact are the result of the mistakes federal agencies made in the original 2021 EIS.

Contrary to Clarke’s assertion that the highway would only impact 40 to 50 tortoises, environmentalists insist the road would negatively impact more than 350 adult tortoises in addition to juvenile tortoises. They maintain it also could spark more wildfires, which in 2020 devastated nearly 25% of tortoise habitat within Red Cliffs. Between 1999 and 2019, tortoise numbers in and surrounding the Red Cliffs NCA dropped 41%.

SUWA officials, in turn, blasted congressional officials’ criticism of the BLM’s public lands rule. “... The rule highlights what was always there: that conservation is an integral part of how the BLM tackles its work … Keeping conservation front and center is particularly important in places like Washington County and across Southwest Utah that are seeing both significant growth and the impacts of climate change such as prolonged drought and diminishing water supplies.”

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