Bill Mader: Freeways, cronyism and an environmental Alamo

Firefighters work along the Old Dump Road off of Cottonwood Springs Road to monitor and contain a brush fire, Tuesday, July 14, 2020, in St George, Utah. (Chris Caldwell/The Spectrum via AP)

Another devastating fire (12,000 acres) recently ripped through the Red-Cliffs Desert Reserve outside St. George and then, before that fire was fully contained, another started (3,000 acres) adjacent to Interstate 15 in the reserve. Both were man caused and both were started from roads.

The point has been made that fires in the reserve can be stopped by the proposed Northern Corridor Highway (NCH) which would go through it. The vast majority of people who talk about using highways as fire breaks have never been on a fire line and don’t understand fire behavior. They should talk with the people in Paradise, Calif., and other cities that were leveled by fire and had road “fire breaks.” Some of these residents can’t discuss it because they’re in graveyards.

The proposed highway will not work as an effective fire break in today’s era of mega fires, high temperatures and invasive plants. Indeed, like the two fires above, they will probably just be fuses waiting to start more fires inside an already hammered reserve. And fires with wind behind them jump rivers and canyons – they don’t stop at highways.

This theme of protecting the reserve with a highway through it is reckless and idiotic. It is also idiotic to use our public (Bureau of Land Management) lands outside the reserve (which already protect threatened Mohave desert tortoises) as mitigation for the impact of a highway. This is daft fiction driven by an agenda to line the pockets of connected developers, politicians and cities so they can destroy what is left of a magnificent place for wildlife, people and history.

The immense level of fire destruction we are seeing now will continue in future years. It must be included in any Draft Environmental Impact Statement (now underway to grant the right-of-way for the highway and renew the Habitat Conservation Plan that manages the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve) along with other significant cumulative impacts (prior fires, soil changes, significant tortoise declines, roads etc.). Not doing so is like ignoring cancer spreading through your bones when you know it’s also in your brain.

The NCH should not happen. When all the cumulative impacts in the reserve are added up, the arithmetic says there are better alternatives than obliterating habitat in an Alamo ecosystem under siege. This pot-holed road to ruin cannot be glossed over by prostituted agencies dealing favors under the table.

Indeed, there seems a dull fidelity in flushing scientific fact down the toilet. The reserve is dying and biodiversity and recreational opportunities are dying with it. For kids in the next generation, it will be something they read about, not something they see.

The environmental cancers of fire, declining tortoise populations, declining biodiversity, invasive plants, political mismanagement and cronyism is metastasizing. Even a blind man can smell it through the smoke, ashes and decay.

At the end of the day, the case can be made that the Northern Corridor Highway through the reserve will push the coffin into the grave. There will be a last breath, a last heartbeat and then something big will pass away and that will be the end of what was.

Please do your part to keep the heart of Red Cliffs beating by visiting conserveswu.org for help writing your Northern Corridor Highway DEIS comment before Sept. 10.

Bill Mader

Bill Mader, Ph.D., Kanab, is a retired associate professor of environmental science at Navajo Technical University in New Mexico, the first administrator of the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve and a former smokejumper.

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