County officials say ‘close to the finish line’ for Northern Corridor; opponents file protest with BLM

ST. GEORGE — Supporters of the Northern Corridor anticipate hearing good news from federal agencies next month concerning the potential approval of the project. Conversely, detractors claim the proposed project is being rushed for political reasons and will irreparably harm the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve if approved.

The Washington County Commission, St. George, Utah, Dec 15, 2020 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Washington County Commissioner Dean Cox said Tuesday that county officials expect to hear a “record of decision” concerning the Northern Corridor and attached renewal of the county’s Habitat Conservation Plan, or HCP, around Jan. 13.

The County Commission approved three legal documents attached to the amended HCP during their Tuesday meeting, where Cox noted how grateful he was to see it on the cusp of renewal for another 25 years.

“It’s an awesome thing to see happen,” Cox said, adding that the old plan expired in February 2016.

The original Washington County Habitat Conservation Plan was created in 1996 and covers the management of the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve. The 62,000 acre reserve, which also encompasses much of the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, was created as a place the Mojave desert tortoise could be taken and protected. The tortoise is considered “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.

Additionally, the creation of the reserve has allowed development to continue in parts of the county rather than be stymied and ultimately halted by the tortoises’ presence.

Mojave desert tortoise in the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, Nov 2, 2018 | Photo courtesy of the Red Cliff’s Desert Reserve, St. George News

The HCP expired in 2016, with local, state and federal officials working on its renewal since then. Despite some road blocks along the way, an amended HCP document was drafted and approved in November by the plan’s managing committee and the County Commission soon after.

Documents approved by the commission Tuesday involved agreements between the HCP and other entities, such as area municipalities.

“We’re close to the finish line,” said Cameron Rognan, the HCP’s administrator.

Final adoption of the amended HCP is dependent upon a final record of decision issued by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In mid-November, those agencies released the final draft of an environmental impact statement that listed the Northern Corridor, along with the creation of a nearly 7,000-acre addition to the HCP to offset the impact of the roadway known as Zone 6, as a preferred option moving forward.

This alternative was chosen over five other options, two of which still cut through the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve and National Conservation Area between Green Springs Drive in Washington City and Red Hills Parkway in St. George. The other two alternatives, which are located outside of the reserve, would either turn Red Hills Parkway into an expressway with limited access to on/off ramps or turn St. George Boulevard and 100 South into one-way streets.

Image courtesy of Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, St. George News

The remaining option was a “no action” alternative, which would leave things as they are.

The proposed highway, which would stretch 4 miles from Washington Parkway on its east end to Red Hills Parkway on the western end, is seen as a crucial piece of transportation infrastructure by state and local officials. They have stated for years that the preexisting traffic system will “fail” if the Northern Corridor is not constructed to help relieve increased traffic that will come with a projected county population of nearly 500,000 by 2060.

County officials and their supporters in Utah’s congressional delegation, such as Sen. Mike Lee and Rep. Chris Stewart, have long argued that the right-of-way for a Northern Corridor highway was promised to the county in the 2009 Omnibus Lands Bill. Both Lee and Stewart have previously introduced legislation on the Northern Corridor.

Opponents of the Northern Corridor claim the project is being rushed through for political reasons and that the BLM and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have not following policies outlined in the National Environmental Protection Policy Act. The environmental advocacy group Conserve Southwest Utah is among the proposed highway’s opposition. The group submitted a complaint to the BLM on Monday, the final day the public could submit protests concerning the project.

“The Northern Corridor’s approval is being rushed, on the premise that it will be harder to overturn if it’s recorded before the presidential inauguration on January 20th,” Tom Butine, president of Conserve Southwest Utah’s Board of Directors, said in a press release. “It’s driven by politics rather than science and sensible solutions. Our protest describes how approving the highway would break several major, long-standing, bipartisan environmental laws. We’re confident it won’t survive the administrative and legal challenges to come.

Sarah Thomas of Conserve Southwest Utah, points out toward the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve that butts up to the Green Springs area of Washington City which could have the Northern Corridor built in close proximity to area homes, Washington City, Utah, Dec. 12, 2019, 2019 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Butine also claims the final environmental impact statement didn’t adequately consider highway route options outside of the HCP which “would not destroy threatened wildlife, scenic beauty and access to trails in Red Cliffs National Conservation Area.”

Washington County Attorney Eric Clarke said there are strict deadlines in place for the BLM and USFWS to issue a final decision on the Northern Corridor and amended HCP, and those deadlines are coming up.

“We anticipate a decision on the Northern Corridor and the county’s final take permit being issued before (the next president’s) inauguration day next year,” Clarke said.

A new presidential administration will most likely have a new slate of environmental policy in the works, Clarke said, but he added that he’s not aware of any administration undoing a project that has already undergone an environmental impact statement process.

Cox said he doesn’t think there will be too much concern.

“This will be pretty high fruit for the new administration,” he said, “and it’s not something I think they can just unilaterally set aside because of the nature of the process we went through to get that record of decision.”

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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