A planned highway in southwest Utah intended to divert traffic from busy downtown St. George would run through conservation land set aside to protect the desert tortoise. A conservation group also alleges the plan uses funds set aside specifically for protecting natural areas and providing recreational opportunities.

“We’ve been trying to strike a balance between our traffic planners coming in and saying that we need a northern bypass that you can cross through St. George or cross above St. George, without getting into the middle of downtown, and our ongoing commitment to help this threatened species that lives in our area adjacent to our developed communities,” said Eric Clarke, the interim Washington County Attorney.

The proposed Northern Corridor Highway would cut through the southern end of the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, connecting Washington City with Santa Clara and Ivins and going through land set aside to protect the endangered desert tortoise.

A coalition of conservation groups led by Conserve Southwest Utah aims to stop the highway, arguing that it will bisect the valuable habitat.

Tension regarding a proposed east-west road connection north of St. George began all the way back in 1995 when Washington County joined with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management to create the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve and the Habitat Conservation Plan. The three entities made a deal wherein the reserve would become a protected habitat for the endangered desert tortoise in exchange for over 350,000 acres of land elsewhere in the county being freed up for development.

Under the Habitat Conservation Plan, municipalities would be able to develop outside of the reserve without having to submit their own permit to comply with the Endangered Species Act which protects tortoise habitat, a long and costly process.

In 2009, Congress designated much of the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve a National Conservation Area to be managed by the Bureau of Land Management. This further protected the land within the reserve and required the BLM to create a management plan. When the plan was created, it didn’t include new roads.

The original Habitat Management Plan expired in 2016, and now Washington County, along with the USFWS and BLM are looking to amend the plan to allow a highway through the reserve.

“Not everybody agrees with this, but the law prohibits a highway through this protected area,” said Tom Butine, Conserve Southwest Utah board president. “If they want one, the appropriate way is through the [National Environmental Policy Act] process, which is what’s been going on this year.”

Part of the NEPA process is public comment, and over 20,000 citizens submitted comments regarding the Northern Corridor Highway proposal.

“There’s an overwhelming local opposition to this,” said Todd Tucci, a senior attorney for Advocates of the West, who is working with Conserve Southwest Utah.

On Sept. 9, just as the 90-day comment period was coming to a close, Conserve Southwest Utah accused the BLM and USFWS of purchasing over 800 acres of private inholdings within the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area using more than $20 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund with no intention of conserving the land in accordance with the fund’s goals.

The Department of the Interior specifies that funds from the Land and Water Conservation Fund are for “safeguard[ing] natural areas, water resources and cultural heritage, and to provide recreation opportunities to all Americans.”

“It’s obscene. The BLM is with one hand paying for the protection and conservation of these lands, and the other hand, allowing for a highway to go right through it,” said Tucci, “so we have this utter misuse of public funds.”

The Washington County Attorney disagrees.

According to Clarke, none of the land bought with conservation funds would go toward the highway project and explained the confusion comes from a difference in how wide the expected impacted area along the highway would be. The Draft Environmental Impact Statement analyzed the impact of a 500-foot strip of land for the highway, whereas the Utah Department of Transportation only requested a 300-foot strip, thus avoiding any land bought with the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Additionally, Clarke notes that the Northern Corridor project proposes to replace the habitat lost to the highway by adding a 6,800-acre parcel southeast of St. George, which is currently a mix of BLM and State Trust Land.

Typically, when choice habitat is taken, land managers use land swaps to replace habitat at a three-to-one or four-to-one ratio. This land swap would be at a thirteen-to-one ratio.

“We’ve been in the business of helping desert tortoises for 25 years. We’ve operated, by just about any measure, the most effective reserve helping tortoises. We’ve got the best translocation program in the country, we’ve done better at lands that are being developed,” said Clarke.

Although the comment period ended on Sept. 10, the issue isn’t over. The final Environmental Impact Statement will be published sometime late this autumn. After that, conservation groups seem likely to challenge the plan in court if concerns are not addressed.

“They’re supposed to address all the comments in the final impact statement,” said Butine. “We suspect they won’t address them, and just approve their preference, which is one of the routes through [the Reserve]. Then our only recourse is the federal court.”

St. George bypass would bisect conservation area