OPINION — I’ve been closely following the Northern Corridor controversy for many years, and it seems to have more plot twists and surprises than a sleazy television soap opera. While no one knows how or when this controversy may end, this is a good time to summarize where things currently stand. A western movie title may be an apt way to do this in categories.
Despite Rep. Chris Stewart’s and Senator Mike Lee’s terrible companion legislation in Congress two years ago, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process for the Northern Corridor and related matters survived. This meant that the public could raise concerns and questions during the NEPA scoping process over the previous holiday season, and that those concerns and questions could be used by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to help prepare the voluminous Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) which is now out for public review and comment.
If the Stewart or Lee bill had been enacted, there would have been no opportunity for public scoping or DEIS input, nor any evaluation of alternatives. Even though the bills were considered in a Republican controlled Congress at that time, the Stewart bill barely made it out of a committee and the Lee bill made zero progress.
So the good news is that strong public opposition to the Stewart and Lee bills stopped them and allowed the current NEPA process to proceed. There is also good news in that the DEIS analyzes two feasible alternatives to meet future transportation needs that would be outside of the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve (RCDR) and BLM Red Cliffs National Conservation Area (RCNCA). These options would not have been studied if the Stewart or Lee bills had been enacted.
There now seems to be two harmful pandemics occurring together. One is viral (COVID-19); the other political (Trumpism). One can cause suffering and potential physical death, but can be largely prevented with good planning and government coordination of safety measures. The other causes cumulative suffering and potential death of the rule of law, rational science, and our cherished democratic institutions and constitutional republic.
The latter “Trumpism” pandemic has tragically “infected” many elected and appointed public officials, especially here in Utah and including BLM and FWS managers. The obvious symptoms of infection are a willingness to ignore or deflect serious public concerns and questions, and to demonstrate improper bias in their handling of the NEPA process and other public matters.
For example, BLM and FWS officials have failed to provide any reason for their decision to identify the harmful UDOT proposed Northern Corridor alignment through the RCDR and RCNCA as their “preferred” DEIS alternative. This is a key consideration because, on its face, this UDOT alignment appears to, at minimum, violate the Endangered Species Act and the conservation purposes for which the RCNCA was statutorily established in 2009.
Why would BLM and FWS officials “prefer” this harmful UDOT alternative when there are two feasible alternatives outside of the RCDR and RCNCA that could be more easily implemented and avoid the high level of public controversy?
In addition, there were massive recent fires in the RCDR and RCNCA that destroyed thousands of acres of tortoise habitat, and likely killed hundreds of tortoises through burning or gradual starvation. The current NEPA law requires agencies to prepare a Supplemental DEIS where there is “significant new circumstances or information” relating to the proposed action. This law defines “significant” to include the intensity of impacts on ecologically critical areas, endangered or threatened species, and critical habitats. The recent fire impacts clearly meet this legal standard.
Despite this law, and a request from many conservation groups, BLM and FWS officials have refused to pause the NEPA process. This prevents the new significant information on tortoise habitat loss and mortality from being included in the DEIS alternatives analysis. Moreover, the Washington County Habitat Conservation Advisory Committee, which oversees tortoise conservation and RCDR management, recently refused to even discuss a request for them to consider supporting a NEPA pause.
So the bad news is that, like putting your thumb on a scale, the integrity, objectivity, and credibility of the current Northern Corridor NEPA process is being undermined by Trumpism bias. Public officials who are supposed to remain objective, and follow the law and best science, are instead allowing political expediency to dominant. They are cutting legal corners in the mad rush to get the UDOT Northern Corridor approved before President Donald Trump may leave office. Shame on them. And shame on those in government service and our local communities who are willing to allow this illegal bias to proceed or who simply look away and pretend everything is fine.
An effective vaccine will hopefully end the COVID-19 pandemic. And, if we can stop Republican voter suppression and save the Post Office, an informed and outraged electorate will hopefully soon end the Trumpism pandemic. Our future physical and democratic health depends on it.
Like with Trump, I keep thinking that Rep. Chris Stewart cannot sink any lower, but then he does. Stewart recently introduced H.R. 7815. With one exception, this legislation is virtually identical to his terrible anti-NEPA bill two years ago. Like before, it would circumvent and supersede the current NEPA process, DEIS alternatives analysis and public commenting opportunity. It would give UDOT and county officials everything they want, and remove agency discretion to consider other laws, science, and public concerns.
It is plainly undemocratic and wasteful, as millions of public dollars have already been invested in preparing the DEIS. It is an insult to those who have been participating in the NEPA process in good faith, and reading the DEIS to provide meaningful comments.
I also believe that this Northern Corridor related legislation is an insult to the Shivwits Band of Paiute Indians. The new component of Stewart’s bill would give them independent tribal sovereignty. That seems like a reasonable and necessary proposal. But why did Stewart put it in as a non-germane portion of a much larger and more controversial bill?
Pauite Indians have a strong cultural affinity for Mojave desert tortoises. Is Stewart trying to extort their silence on the Northern Corridor controversy by including what they want in this bill? Why did Stewart not put this Shivwits text in a stand alone bill that could have moved forward much more quickly and easily? What does Shivwits sovereignty have to do with the Northern Corridor, tortoise conservation, or related BLM and FWS matters? Does Stewart know how late it is in the current session of Congress to be introducing new bills? Since his previous bill could not pass out of a Republican-controlled House, did Stewart hurt the Shivwits’ proposal by parking it in a bill that is likely DOA in the Democratically-controlled House?
So the ugly is that we continue to see Stewart and his supportive shills callously and cynically trying to score cheap political points with this ridiculous, ill-timed legislation. Given his latest legislative ploy, Stewart may think that a majority of his constituents are incredibly gullible, uneducated, and excessively trusting in authority. In any case, after this coming November’s election, we will learn if this is accurate.
Submitted by RICHARD SPOTTS, St. George.
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