ST. GEORGE – A bill introduced in Congress by Utah Rep. Chris Stewart would require the Bureau of Land Management to grant a right-of-way for the proposed northern corridor and ease restrictions for utility access in the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area.
Washington County Commissioner Victor Iverson will testify Tuesday on the proposed legislation in a hearing before the Subcommittee on Federal Lands.
“The thing that we’re really going to be telling the committee is that Washington County knows that it can build the northern corridor without negative impact on the tortoise and without negative impact on the (Red Cliffs Desert) Reserve,” Washington County Commissioner Victor Iverson said Thursday.
“It’s absolutely essential that we have the corridor in order to not be bottlenecked on future traffic in our area.”
There are plenty of ways to mitigate for any harm caused by the proposed northern corridor, Iverson said.
The northern corridor has been planned for more than 20 years, Iverson said, and was promised in the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009.
“Congress did … instruct the Interior Department to allow the northern corridor to take place,” Iverson said.
The county is pursuing its plan for a northern corridor by continuing to work with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on an administrative level and by working with legislators; legal action will be a last resort, Iverson said.
Southern Utah officials believe the corridor and more utility development are both essential for future transportation and growth needs. Recently completed Bureau of Land Management plans do not allow what is needed.
Officials from Washington County, the Washington County Water Conservancy District and St. George City are pursuing all available options to fight the BLM’s resource management plans, which affect the county’s two national conservation areas – more than 100,000 acres.
Sen. Orrin Hatch has introduced a bill in the U.S. Senate that would require the BLM to restart the planning process for both the Red Cliffs and the Beaver Dam Wash national conservation areas:
Language in Stewart’s bill directs the U.S. Department of Interior Secretary to grant any necessary rights-of-way for a northern corridor route as outlined in the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009.
The bill also directs the Interior Department to authorize development of utilities as specified in the Washington County Habitat Conservation Plan, a document which governs the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve and the federally listed Mohave desert tortoise the reserve protects.
Stewart’s bill also directs the Interior Secretary to authorize the development of utilities in the Red Cliffs reserve, which officials say is severely restricted under the recently released BLM resource management plans.
When the Habitat Conservation Plan was created it included utility protocols, Deputy Washington County Attorney Celeste Maloy said, and the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 stated that those protocols could be adopted.
However, the BLM’s resource management plans stated the protocols were insufficient, Maloy said, and declared most of the area as exclusion zones where no rights of way are allowed under any condition.
The BLM management plans also tightened up restrictions on utility development in “avoidance areas” including an existing utility corridor. Under the new plan, even existing rights of way could not be permanently widened or upgraded.
“But even the ones we have will have to be maintained and upgraded over time. And turning Red Cliffs into almost completely an exclusion area causes problems for bringing utilities into St. George,” Maloy said.
The longer the resource management plans are in place, the harder they will be to change, she said.
“This is something that if we fix it now, this can work for a long time into the future. But if we can’t find solutions now, it’ll be even harder down the road when this (resource management plan) has been in place for years, and then a (utility) line needs to be upgraded.”
As a matter of policy, BLM does not comment on proposed legislation, BLM Color Country District spokesman Christian Venhuizen said in an earlier interview.
The “Washington County, Utah, Public Lands Management Implementation Act,” or H.R. 2423, was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives May 16 and referred to the House Committee on Natural Resources the same day.
The House Committee on Natural Resources’ Subcommittee on Federal Lands has scheduled a hearing on the bill at 10 a.m. EDT, Tuesday, May 23, in Washington, D.C.
A video feed of the hearing will stream live at House Committee on Natural Resources.
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