Utah congressional leaders blast environmental study on Northern Corridor Highway

They accused ‘feds’ of underhanded attempt to kill the road that would bisect threatened desert tortoise habitat.

(Jason Jones | Utah Division of Wildlife Resources) The environmental report said that desert tortoises would be in danger because of the road.

St. George • While the final decision on a proposed four-lane highway that would cut through Mojave desert tortoise habitat near St. George has yet to be decided, all four Utah congressional representatives are not waiting to make their voices heard.

At issue is a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released last week that determined putting a Northern Corridor Highway through the federally protected Red Cliffs National Conservation Area (NCA) would spread invasive weeds, trigger more wildfires and exacerbate the risk to Mojave desert tortoises.

Rep. Celeste Maloy, a vocal supporter of the highway whose district encompasses the area, denounced the draft SEIS.

“This new BLM supplemental is the latest effort by D.C. bureaucrats to undermine southern Utah leaders as they plan our communities’ future,” Maloy stated in a news release. “The Northern Corridor is an integral part of the transportation plan, and local leaders in Washington County have already completed more than necessary mitigation.”

In January 2021, the Trump administration approved the right-of-way for the North Corridor Highway, a 4.5-mile road that would bisect the NCA north of St. George and link Red Cliffs Parkway on the west with Washington Parkway near I-15 on the east. That prompted environmental and conservation groups to sue the U.S. Department of Interior and the BLM for allegedly violating the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and other federal laws.

In response, a federal judge put approval of the highway on hold so federal agencies could conduct a supplemental EIS to reexamine the road and its impact on the Mojave desert tortoise, which is listed as threatened under the ESA.

Federal overreach, underhanded dealings

Utah’s congressional representatives took exception to the judge’s actions and see the findings in the draft SEIS as an underhanded attempt by the Biden administration to kill the highway they argue is sorely needed to ease traffic between I-15 and State Route 18 during peak travel times by 15%. Rep. John Curtis argued that state and local officials have worked with the federal government and followed the law to get the Northern Corridor Highway approved.

(Northern Corridor Environmental Impact Statement)

“To see the BLM ignore the law and betray these local officials, while stifling access and growth in this area, is maddening,” he stated in the release. “Unelected bureaucrats from Washington don’t understand this land better than those who have lived and worked on it for generations.”

For his part, Rep. Blake Moore scolded the Biden administration for “ignoring local voices.”

“The BLM’s recent announcement is negating the decades of work and millions of dollars that Utah’s local officials have spent to address transportation needs in southern Utah while balancing environmental and conservation needs,” he said. “I am deeply frustrated with this continuous federal overreach and dismissal of the people closest to the land.

Rep. Burgess Ownes, meanwhile, reiterated the need for the highway to cope with the area’s explosive growth.

“The BLM’s decision to revisit the project’s environmental impact undermines decades of collaboration and careful planning between stakeholders and local leaders. It’s time to prioritize the voices of our communities and move forward with the Northern Corridor project.”

Alas, the draft SEIS doesn’t confer “preferred route” status on the northern corridor highway approved by the Trump administration and it opens up previously abandoned alternative routes for reconsideration. That has led to Washington County Commissioner Adam Snow and other local elected officials accusing federal agencies of kowtowing to “fringe environmental groups.”

Environmentalists strike back

Conversely, environmentalists counter that members of Utah’s congressional delegation, in their rush to ramrod approval of the Northern Corridor Highway, are guilty of ignoring local voices. They specifically cited a congressional field hearing Curtis chaired at Sand Hollow Resort on April 22, at which the public and environmental and conservation groups were precluded from speaking but were allowed to provide written comments.

“... The public’s input is critical to encouraging the BLM to deny the highway right-of-way through Red Cliffs NCA—especially since there are better, cheaper routes that alleviate traffic while keeping Red Cliffs intact to protect recreation, wildlife habitat, cultural resources, and scenic vistas,” Conserve Southwest Utah Executive Director Holly Snow Canada told The Salt Lake Tribune.

“The path forward,” she added, “is one where our county continues thriving because of the economic impact of protected lands, and our transportation needs are met with effective alternatives that don’t pave over paradise.”

Kya Marienfeld, wildlands attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, echoed Canada’s remarks, noting Utah politicians’ repeated failed attempts to build the highway through the NCA over the past decade.

“The facts, congressional legislation and federal law have thwarted previous attempts to build the highway, and we are confident that when the final environmental review is complete, the proposed right-of-way through the Red Cliffs will be denied,” Marienfield said.

“Contrary to the revisionist history pushed by many highway proponents,” she continued, “this route was never promised or guaranteed. It’s time for Washington County to stop pursuing a route through the NCA and proactively pursue other transportation options that meet the needs of a community that loves protected and intact public lands.”

The BLM and FWS will be accepting public comment and feedback on the SEIS through June 24, 2024. That will be followed by the release of a final SEIS and a decision regarding the proposed highway.