SALT LAKE CITY — A proposed 4.3-mile, four-lane highway on Washington County’s wish list for more than two decades continues to inflame opposition by its critics who say it will put the endangered desert tortoise in jeopardy and is a gateway for more development.
The Northern Corridor is under public comment as it undergoes a federally mandated environmental review before potential approval.
Utah transportation officials have applied for a right of way with the Bureau of Land Management, which will analyze potential impacts of the route, of which 1.9 miles would cross the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area.
Washington County Commissioner Victor Iverson said because that section of the route would disturb 58 acres of the conservation area, the county will set aside 7,000 acres of additional habitat for the tortoise. The conservation area encompasses 45,000 acres.
Iverson said the route was a provision negotiated as part of the 2009 Washington County public lands bill passed by Congress, but it has languished in the years since amid controversy.
“We have negotiated, renegotiated and negotiated what we have negotiated over and over again in good faith,” he said. “This road is absolutely essential for us to move traffic east-west across our county.”
But Tom Butine, board president of Conserve Southwest Utah, said there are route alternatives the county has not considered and this planned corridor would go through some of the best habitat for the desert tortoise that was protected in the agreement reached years ago.
“The road itself doesn’t make practical sense to us,” he said. “We have submitted to them several alternatives for road improvements outside (the conservation area) that we think would address the problems they see.”
Iverson countered that the county is limited by its topography in terms of route selection and insisted the allegation the highway will lead to more development is not true.
“There is a concern there will be more development in the national conservation area and that is absolutely not the case,” he said. “There are studies that show if we are not able to secure this road, we will see a lot of delays in traffic, with idling cars and exhaust that would be damaging to the environment.”
Butine says the organization does agree some road improvements will be necessary to meet the demand of growth, but not at the expense of the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area and the Mohave tortoise.
“We seriously question their claim that this highway is crucial and critical to traffic flow around the county,” he said.
The contested highway was left out of a BLM land use plan that spurred a rare meeting of a congressional subcommittee in 2016 in St. George, where the federal agency was blasted for its failure to work with local officials on the plan’s components.
Last year, Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, introduced legislation to designate the corridor’s route and give up some land for protection of the tortoise, but it, too, has not resolved the contentious issue.