Opinion: Don’t let St. George become Las Vegas. Speak up about the Northern Corridor Highway.

Paving over paradise is not the answer.

(Lexi Peery | The Spectrum | The Associated Press) This undated photo shows a view of the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve from a planned extension of Washington Parkway in southern Utah.

With more than 25 years of combined residency in St. George and Washington County, we are deeply invested in preserving this desert paradise in its entirety for the survival of the desert tortoise, recreational opportunities and the economic benefits enjoyed by all of us.

Here’s a little history: In 1995, a bi-partisan agreement was reached to permanently protect the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve (RCDR) in exchange for allowing development on 300,000 acres of land outside the protected area. The purpose of the reserve was to protect the northernmost habitat of the federally protected, iconic desert tortoise and to provide recreational opportunities for multiple non-motorized user groups. This agreement was reached after extensive public processes, negotiations between Washington County and local cities and sign offs by federal agencies.

In 2009, an official act of Congress established Red Cliffs National Conservation Area (RCNCA) within the bounds of the RCDR, adding additional safeguards to the beloved landscapes.

Despite these protections and agreements, there have been multiple attempts to build a four-lane highway through the RCNCA, allegedly to serve the growing population of St. George and support economic growth. However, there are alternatives that support economic growth that would be more affordable for taxpayers and would not forever alter this beautiful desert tortoise habitat.

The Northern Corridor Highway would pave over land that the Bureau of Land Management acquired with almost $20 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund — taxpayer money earmarked for conservation, endangered species habitat protection and public recreation purposes. We firmly believe that the original right-of-way for the highway was issued in error and contradicts the guidance created to protect Red Cliffs.

This highway would reduce the spectacular quality of life we enjoy in Washington County by damaging scenic vistas, open habitat, cultural sites and world-class recreational opportunities. These opportunities draw more than 200,000 visitors annually and include hikers, cyclists, equestrians, runners, rock climbers and more, while generating millions of dollars for our local economy. We were promised that these trails would be here for generations to come, and with viable alternatives available, it’s hard to understand why anyone would want to destroy the very things that make St. George so beautiful, accessible and unique.

Not only would the highway infringe on recreational opportunities, but it would also plow through one of the most important high-density populations of Mojave desert tortoises in existence. In southern Utah, tortoises benefit from lower temperatures, higher annual precipitation and better access to shelter sites than in the Mojave Desert.

In addition to loss of habitat, when we fragment critical habitat, wildlife loses its ability to have access to different populations of animals, meaning they have fewer options for finding a mate. Genetic diversity is essential and when we continue to eliminate habitat, we lose species connectivity. This has a ripple effect as desert tortoises are considered a keystone species, meaning an abundance of critters utilize burrows made by tortoises. Having access to these burrows helps protect all desert creatures which keeps our local ecosystems thriving. It sounds silly, but the circle of life really does depend on the survival of every single organism.

The stunning natural beauty and world-class scenery that we have here in southwestern Utah is something that is important to us all. It might seem like adding one road corridor here or one neighborhood there isn’t going to have a real impact. But the rate of growth in Washington County is astronomical, and if we do not stop to think about smart development that meets the needs of not just the people that live here, but the plants and animals that have survived here for millennia, we will threaten the survival of our precious natural spaces forever.

We don’t want to live in a desert that looks like the outskirts of Las Vegas — an endless sprawl of houses and rapidly decimating desert.

Locals have been fighting this road for years, including taking the issue all the way to Washington, D.C., to express our deep concerns to Congress. We were told by one staffer that they were unaware that there was any opposition to the road, which paints an important picture as to why we must speak up and make our voices heard.

Local recreation groups like the Back Country Horsemen and the Southern Utah Climbers Alliance are dedicated to working with land managers to keep trails open for all recreational users within the NCA. We encourage our neighbors, policymakers, advocates and anyone who cares about common-sense approaches to economic growth and sustaining the beauty of an intact Red Cliffs to engage in this debate and support an alternative outside of the National Conservation Area. It’s up to us to step up and protect these resources and demand smarter growth policy here in southern Utah.

(Photo courtesy of Mary Lane Poe) Mary Lane Poe

Mary Lane Poe is a member of the Desert Tortoise Council and the Southern Utah Climbers Alliance. She is a wildlife biologist, ecologist and outdoor advocate who moved to Washington County in 2013 to work in Zion National Park. She is a member of the Utah Resource Advisory Council and loves spending her time biking, hiking, climbing and being an advocate for the conservation community.

(Photo courtesy of Freddy Dunn) Freddy Dunn

Freddy Dunn is a member of the Southwest Chapter of Back Country Horsemen of Utah. She has lived in St. George with her husband, Larry, since 2000 and has been a member of Back Country Horsemen for 24 years as well. She has held leadership positions locally, state wide and was the first female Chairman of Back Country Horsemen of America (2017-2019).

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