Last week, the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced a decision approving permits for the Northern Corridor Highway planned to run through the Red Cliffs National Conservation area.

Environmental groups including Conserve Southwest Utah plan to challenge the permits issued to Washington County and the city of St. George, while county officials celebrated the decision.

The 62,000-acre Red Cliffs National Conservation Area was set aside in order to protect the endangered desert tortoise. The highway deal includes the addition of 7,000 acres to the reserve, including the popular bouldering area Moe’s Valley. The deal also assures recreational access to the area will remain.

“With today’s decisions, the new plan will protect an additional 7,000 acres of occupied tortoise habitat while still meeting our community’s transportation needs in a way that benefits air quality,” said Washington County Chairman Gil Almquist in a press release. “We are excited to continue our successful tortoise translocation program and fulfill our additional conservation activities for another twenty-five years.”

The Northern Corridor would connect the west end of Washington Parkway to the Red Cliffs Parkway just north of St. George, allowing traffic between Ivins and Santa Clara to Interstate 15 without having to pass through the city of St. George. Congestion in the city has long been an issue.

Environmental groups say that the project does harm, both legally and physically, to conservation efforts. The nonprofit Advocates for the West has alleged that BLM officials used Land and Water Conservation Fund money illegally to purchase land not for conservation. The Desert Tortoise Council also points out that the highway will divide the highest-density population of the endangered animal in the country: The Red Cliffs Reserve has over double the population density of Agassiz’s desert tortoise than anywhere else in the nation, according to a 2018 letter to the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

“This is the beginning, not the end, of the fight to protect the world-class recreation, open space, and Mojave desert tortoise habitat provided by the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area,” said Todd C. Tucci in a press release. Tucci is the senior attorney for Advocates for the West, which is representing the Red Cliffs Conservation Coalition. “We look forward to convincing President-elect Biden—and a court, if needed—that Secretary Bernhardt’s plan to punch a four-lane highway through this desert paradise will not protect, restore and enhance these irreplaceable recreation and conservation values.”

Route planned to alleviate congestion; opponents say it risks desert tortoise habitat