OPINION — Roads are important. I get that but not when they cost millions, do not serve the purpose for which they are purportedly intended, go against agreements made in good faith twenty-two years ago, undermine an area of great value in Washington County and waste tax dollars.
The contentious Northern Corridor (aka Washington Parkway) is one such road, and only one of the issues in Washington County that new residents may not be aware of. County residents, new and old, should be aware of projects that will cost us and have little value particularly when other options exist. Even as I write, efforts are underway at national and county levels focused on moving this project ahead. So citizen awareness and involvement are imperative.
In 1995 county leaders agreed to set aside approximately 61,000 acres to protect the threatened Mojave Desert tortoise and other endangered and/or threatened species. The Red Cliffs Desert Reserve was established to allow county growth elsewhere, and the Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) written to provide details on the area’s management. The HCP clearly states no new roads. HCPs are established to protect and preserve threatened and endangered species under the Endanger Species Act (ESA).
The HCP states that habitat “fragmentation” was a main reason for establishing the Reserve in the first place – an area which was and still is the smallest of all 6 tortoise recovery areas that include ours and others in Nevada, California and Arizona. Back in the 90s the tortoise habitat had been fragmented throughout our county, and the establishment of the Reserve attempted to remedy that.
In 2006, a Congressional land bill (Washington County Growth & Conservation Act) attempted to undermine the 1995 agreement but failed. In 2009, a new version of the land bill was incorporated in the Omnibus Public Land Management Act establishing Red Cliffs National Conservation Area (~40,000 acres) in the Reserve, but again, the road was not clearly mandated.
The bill required a Resource Management Plan (RMP) be written by BLM that was to include road options. When the RMP came out, county leaders were fuming because no well-defined road through the NCA/Reserve was included and the BLM did not support the idea of a road.
The twenty-year HCP has expired. An extension was granted by the USFWS and efforts to renew the plan began and are now underway.
The county commission recently – with no public fanfare and no public comment opportunity – passed a resolution adjusting the route of the contentious east-west NC, but it would still fragment the Reserve and require additional habitat to “mitigate” for the road acreage. Resolution No. R-2017-2240 reads:
A Resolution in Favor of Expanding the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve to Include the Area Northwest of Bloomington and Approving a Modified Washington Parkway Route to Create a Net-Positive Result for the Threatened Desert Tortoise.
When one first reads this resolution it seems good, right? But, the “mitigation” details matter. The recovery area (Upper Virgin River Unit) should not be made smaller – stealing acres for a highway – by using outside unconnected areas as justification.
They are attempting to deal with the mitigation problem by securing SITLA (School and Institutional Trust Land Administration) land to the west of Bloomington and east of where the proposed Western Corridor would be built.
Although tortoises have been found there, it is an island of land separated from the main Reserve/NCA area. Additionally, the area is heavily recreated at this time including ATVing, shooting, mountain biking, garbage dumping and grazing. This county will grow to over half a million people by 2060.
Tortoises are on the SITLA land in spite of the activities there but for how long as this county’s population and recreation needs and desires grow and the Western Corridor is built bringing its associated development pressures?
What additional costs would be incurred by this county to manage two separate Reserve areas? Would the area be fenced as the current Reserve is? Would additional Reserve staff be needed increasing government and taxes? What about the people who currently recreate there? Would their activities be curtailed?
Already there are challenges at Sand Mountain, a popular ATV area near Sand Hollow Reservoir, where ATV activities may be curtailed due to a land swap to exchange BLM land for privately-owned land within the existing Red Cliffs Desert Reserve.
In addition to the SITLA land to the west that the county seeks to secure, SITLA land still exists in the current Reserve. This SITLA land was supposed to be purchased or exchanged for other land to get it out of the Reserve.
Perhaps SITLA is not that interested in the exchange of the land at this time, but one must ask why? If their mandate is to provide money for Utah’s school children through economic use of their land, what are they waiting for to make this Reserve parcel viable? Will growth pressure allow them to maneuver politically in the future to get this land for development as leaders are now maneuvering to get their road through the Reserve? Can the BLM land to the west be used to facilitate an exchange and honor the 1995 agreement to get private inholdings out of the Reserve? Is that even being discussed?
In the meantime, Utah’s Congressman Chris Stewart is working at the national level through his HR 2423 legislation that would force a road through the Reserve. Stewart’s chief of staff Brian Steed has been named as BLM deputy director of programs and policy. With our current Interior Secretary Zinke’s distain for public lands, this new BLM appointment could mean dire things for our Reserve/NCA and other NCAs in this nation.
The proposed $110 million NC will do little to relieve traffic congestion when Washington County’s population reaches half a million. The road route is too close to St. George to make any real difference; yet, attempts continue to threaten our Reserve/NCA – an area of, to date, unmarred great beauty. What options are there?
The BLM’s 2015 RMP (page 283) shows four options for a corridor including the original preferred route which has now been moved to a more southerly position via the county commission’s September 19 resolution.
One of the routes shown is far to the north and avoids the NCA/Reserve almost entirely. It is similar to a route proposed by Habitat Conservation Advisory Committee members in 2006 to avoid bisecting the habitat.
When Washington County grows eventually to a 2060 projected population of 580,000 people, will the road that leaders want now, a road just barely outside of St. George proper, satisfy the need to divert traffic sufficiently, or will planners and leaders just come back asking for additional money to build another road adding to cost when a further-north road earlier would suffice and allow the county to grow into it?
Transportation planners have run models that show the preferred road to be cheaper and relieve congestion better. But work that is being done on other roads now before any Northern Corridor is built might end up changing the equation. Already a road from Washington Parkway Exit 13 to Green Springs is being built, which will relieve some traffic, along with other road work in the southern part of our county where the majority of growth is headed anyway.
Before approving any Northern Corridor route commissioners should have public sessions at which they clearly explain their process, answer citizens’ questions directly and allow public comments before heading down this questionable road. The public has a right to ask questions and get honest answers about why decisions made in 1995 regarding roads in the Reserve are being ignored. Perhaps a public vote is even in order.
Citizens, old and new, should be concerned and be involved. Contact Congressman Chris Stewart and let him know that you value our Red Cliffs Desert Reserve and NCA and want the area protected – for the threatened and endangered species as well as for current and future generations of Washington County residents to enjoy. There are other options to meet our transportation needs.
Written by LISA RUTHERFORD, Ivins
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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2017, all rights reserved.
Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2017, all rights reserved.