Tom Butine: Northern Corridor Highway would be a scar on Washington County

Utahns from all corners of the state visiting St. George will remember the scenic beauty of the rugged red Navajo sandstone cliffs and sculptures north of I-15. This wilderness gem is literally in St. George’s backyard and it’s been protected from development for the past 25 years.

This scenic area located within minutes of downtown St. George is at serious risk. Washington County is on the verge of getting approval for the Northern Corridor Highway (NCH) which would cut through this spectacular area. The country asserts that this highway is the only way to address projected future east-west traffic along the north border of the St. George metropolitan area.

This is, simply, false.

The “protected” nature of the land derives from the Mojave desert tortoise, which in 1990 was listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. A 1995 agreement was made with the county to forever protect this land as the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve in exchange for enabling growth and development throughout the tortoise habitat in the rest of the county. Another layer of protection was added in 2009 when Congressional legislation declared it the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area (NCA) — one of only 15 NCAs in the nation!

What’s the issue?

Even though the county agreed to protect this area, they apparently never really meant it. The agreement delivered development opportunities that have provided homes for a growing population over the past 25 years, but the county has repeatedly tried to undermine the protections by pushing for the NCH.

A highway is the worst thing that can happen to a protected habitat, short of developing it, which is what often follows a highway. This is their sixth attempt to force this highway through the NCA; Conserve Southwest Utah (CSU) has successfully worked to stop the previous five.

Real issues face the county: The population is growing, the growth has not been well-planned, the topography is challenging and traffic will increase. Addressing the core issues of land use planning, transportation planning, and real growth management would require leadership and hard work. Instead, the county is taking the path that almost every other urban area in the U.S. has taken: Punch highways through any open land no matter what the cost to our natural heritage, quality of life, or pocketbooks.

Our county’s elected officials have labeled the NCH as “essential” and have enlisted our congressional delegation to pressure the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to approve it. While a solution may be essential, the NCH is clearly not it. CSU has published a set of alternatives for improvements outside of the protected habitat that solve the traffic issue as well or better than the NCH, with no environmental damage, and at a comparable or less cost. (These alternatives are explained on the CSU website.)

The attraction of Washington County is its climate and its environment. We can grow and prosper only by protecting both. Our government’s decisions need to reflect these values. Instead, this proposed highway chips away at them, for no good reason.

Why should you care?

Visitors to Washington County value this place for the same reasons the people who live here do: the expansive views across the red rock, the hiking and biking, bird- and animal-watching — including the signature tortoise — the feeling that you’re in a wild open space right next to the city. The unnecessary and damaging NCH would erode all of this, and it would enable continued erosion, until it’s all gone.

What can you do about it?

Bowing to political pressure, the BLM is poised to approve the county’s wishes, unless there is a public outcry.

A Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the NCH has been issued by the BLM as the lead agency for managing these lands. Public comments will be accepted until early September.

Comments by all Utahns are crucially important because these are lands of national significance. An upswelling of public opposition to the NCH is needed to stop this destructive highway. Go to our website, and sign up for email notices that will help you submit a simple comment to help conserve Utah’s signature landscapes and precious species. We must not sacrifice our state’s grand natural legacy one highway at a time.

Tom Butine

Tom Butine, is president of the board of Conserve Southwest Utah.