ST. GEORGE — The Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have begun accepting public comment about a proposed four-lane highway project that would impact protected public lands in Washington County.
The Northern Corridor project would create a new highway through part of the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area in an attempt to ease congestion on nearby I-15. The 30-day public comment, or “scoping,” period officially began Thursday and will include a public meeting on Dec. 17 in St. George.
Transportation planners in Washington County say the highway is essential to support the area’s growing population, but the Conserve Southwest Utah nonprofit group has come out forcefully against the Northwest Corridor.
In a news release, Conserve Southwest Utah said the project would “negatively impact the public’s experience on these lands, threaten cultural sites, and set a dangerous precedent for National Conservation Lands elsewhere in Utah and throughout the country.”
It might also impact the threatened Mojave desert tortoise, whose preservation was a driving factor in the 1996 creation of the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve. Washington County would need to secure an incidental take permit to build the highway — “take,” in this case, referring to possible harm to the tortoise as a result of the road.
The BLM and Fish and Wildlife Service will issue a draft environmental impact statement about the highway after the scoping period, which begins a 12-month process of review and study. Utah BLM spokesman Christian Venhuizen said in an email that public comment allows the agencies to “identify issues and develop a range of alternatives to the proposal.”
The process is mandated and guided by the National Environmental Policy Act.
As a way to mitigate any potential impact to the Mojave desert tortoise habitat, the BLM is considering adding 6,800 acres, called Zone 6, to the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve. This would require an amendment to the St. George Field Office Resource Management Plan.
Conserve Southwest Utah argues that Zone 6 is “abused and discontiguous habitat” that would be a bad trade for the Northern Corridor.
The comment period ends on Jan. 6. The Dec. 17 public meeting will be held at the Dixie Convention Center, 1835 Convention Center Drive in St. George, from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m.