A new highway project outside of St. George will involve a land swap to protect popular biking and climbing areas, but may impact the habitat for the desert tortoise population, an endangered species.

On Jan. 14, Washington County officials announced that the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had issued a right of way to build the proposed Northern Corridor Highway through the southern tip of the existing Red Cliffs Reserve National Conservation Area. The controversial deal includes a separate 6,813 acres of land southwest of St. George to be added to the reserve. Within this separate island of land lies some of the most popular climbing and mountain biking in southwest Utah.

While some in the outdoor recreation community see this as a chance to concretely protect their beloved outdoor areas, others see this as a fundamental violation of the agreement regarding the Red Cliffs Reserve.

For the Southern Utah Climbers Alliance, the land swap could be a real boon: the deal would offer protection for Moe’s Valley, an increasingly popular bouldering area that has been threatened by development for years. Moe’s Valley sits on a block of land owned by the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, which typically uses the land to generate revenue by either selling it or granting commercial permits for land use. Now, with the incorporation of the Moe’s Valley area into the Red Cliffs Reserve, the bouldering area could be protected from SITLA development.

“I think, as a community, it’s a great opportunity for us to be able to preserve Moe’s because it’s blown up. In the last 10 years, it went from being a local destination to a national destination,” said Mike Swartz, a board member of the Southern Utah Climbers Alliance. “Now you got people traveling internationally to come to Moe’s Valley and go climbing which is absolutely wild.”

The threat of the state land being sold off isn’t entirely theoretical, either. For years housing developments have been inching their way closer to the state land boundary and new houses are being built on the border of the state land. New signs cropped up recently marking private land boundaries at the end of the paved road to the climbing area access.

“The goal in the long term is that the [Red Cliffs Reserve] want to figure out how to get some that land switched over to BLM or another land agency that protects it,” said Swartz.

Although getting Moe’s Valley protected within the Red Cliffs Reserve helps ensure future access for climbers, it comes at the cost of regulation. Camping is prohibited in the area and dogs must be leashed.

Climbers aren’t the only group that’s affected by the land swap. The area also includes some of the most popular mountain biking trails in the area, including the popular Bearclaw Poppy Trail and the more technical Zen Trail.

Kevin Christopherson, President of the Trail Alliance of Southern Utah (formerly the Dixie Mountain Bike Trail Alliance), said he wasn’t too worried about changes or heavy regulation from the coming management change of the area.

“From my personal point of view, and in terms of the recreation [in the affected area], and what I’ve been told by the BLM, is there won’t be a big negative impact,” said Christopherson. “Now, a lot of people don’t believe that, and I guess they’re entitled to their opinion. My advice would be, well, if the Bureau of Land Management doesn’t adhere to what was said in the public meetings, and then they will be held accountable.”

Current plans include building overpasses over existing trails that the Northern Corridor Highway crosses and reducing the number of user-created social trails in the area over time.

At the same time, environmental groups continue to oppose the highway plan.

“I think some people are disappointed because they were hoping to rally recreationists to join them on the conservation front. There’s a lot of overlap there. A lot of my good friends are in both camps,” said Christopherson.

According to maps published by the Bureau of Land Management during the environmental assessment process for this project, the Northern Corridor Highway will pass through some of the densest desert tortoise habitat in the area.

In a 2018 letter to the US Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources the Desert Tortoise Council evaluated the tortoise population in the reserve at twice the density to anywhere else in the country. Adding the highway will cut through one of the hotspots of the local tortoise population, a population that has already been affected by wildfires both this past year and in 2005 and 2006, according to state and local biologists.

Environmental groups argue that though the total acreage of the reserve would increase, the land swap further degrades tortoise habitat. According to a 190-page complaint from a coalition of environmental organizations led by Conserve Southwest Utah, the new recreational land set aside does not adequately compensate for the loss of the contiguous habitat that the highway will impact, as the area is a focus for high-impact activities like off-highway driving and target shooting.

Although county and state officials expect the Northern Corridor project to move forward, federal actions could stop the project. Environmental advocates say they intend to push for this.

“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, senior attorney for Advocates for the West, which is representing the Red Cliffs Conservation Coalition. “We look forward to convincing [President] Biden—and a court, if needed—that Secretary’s Bernhardt’s plan to punch a 4-lane highway through this desert paradise will not protect, restore and enhance these irreplaceable recreation and conservation values.”

Land swap would include Moe’s Valley in reserve area