Should permission be granted for a new highway right-of-way through the protected Red Cliffs National Conservation Area and Red Cliffs Desert Reserve.
Washington County has long desired a “northern corridor” portion of a ring-road around the metropolitan area. When the Mojave desert tortoise was listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1990 as “threatened,” after years of negotiation, the county entered into an agreement with federal agencies including the Bureau of Land Management and the US Fish & Wildlife Service. They established a Habitat Conservation Plan that set aside the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve to protect the tortoise and its habitat in exchange for allowing “take” (harm to the tortoise and its habitat) throughout the rest of the county. The county pushed for this highway right-of-way at that time, but it was denied as incompatible with the Reserve.
Despite that denial, it next came to the forefront as a line item in the 2006 public lands bill in the US Congress. Local opposition, led by Conserve Southwest Utah (Citizens for Dixie’s Future at the time), led to the 2009 Omnibus Public Land Management Act which created another layer of protection on top of the Reserve- the establishment of the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area (NCA). In that legislation, it was agreed that the highway could again be considered in the management plans for the NCA. That planning again determined the highway was incompatible with the purpose of the protected lands. The county appealed that ruling and was again denied. They tried other bills in the US Congress in 2018, and, in large part due to action by CSU, again were denied. Now the county is trying to get the highway through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process, which we contend is invalid.
The NEPA Process
The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) allows requests for various uses of federal lands, including requests like this one for a highway on protected lands.
Step 1: The county, at the direction of the commissioners and with the support of the Utah Department of Transportation, Utah’s state government and congressional delegation, and the Trump administration and its Department of Interior (to which the agencies report), applied for the highway’s right-of-way in the Red Cliffs NCA. A key element of this application is a statement of purpose and need.
Step 2: The agencies requested input from the public concerning the scope of impacts that should be studied. This was completed in January 2020.
Step 3: The agencies released for public comment a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) in early June, giving 90 days for public response. The purpose of the DEIS is to analyze a range of alternatives addressing the applicant’s purpose and need and to consider the environmental and socioeconomic consequences associated with each one. This is the action we are now addressing.
Step 4: The agencies publish the final Environmental Impact Statement, targeted before the end of the year.
Step 5: The public has a chance to protest the final statement.
Step 6: The agencies issue a Record of Decision, targeted before the next presidential inauguration.
BLM & USFWS
Bureau of Land Management, the co-lead federal agency, in concert with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, charged with determining if the new highway is appropriate.
Environmental Impact Statement, a decision-making tool that is part of the NEPA process. It analyzes a range of alternatives, in this case to the Northern Corridor Highway, and discloses the environmental and socioeconomic impacts of each one.
A preliminary version of the EIS release for public comment.
Northern Corridor Highway, a proposed highway through the RCDR/RCNCA. The DEIS studies 5 alternatives to the NCH. When we refer to “NCH” we are referring to a range of alternatives inside the RCNCA/RCDR, and specifically Alternative 3, the BLM-preferred alternative for the highway.
A short-hand term for two overlapping protected areas:
- The Red Cliffs Desert Reserve (RCDR), 62,000-acres of land in Washington County- some of which is BLM-managed, some county-owned, some privately-owned (slowly being purchased by the BLM)- set aside to protect habitat for the threatened Mojave desert tortoise in 1996.
- Red Cliffs National Conservation Area (RCNCA), a 45,000-acre area overlapping the RCDR, providing an extra layer of protection against development and managed by the BLM as part of America’s system of National Conservation Lands.
Red Cliffs Management Plans
RCNCA Resource Management Plan (RMP), Washington County Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) and its related Incidental Take Permit (ITP) that defines how many tortoises can be killed or harmed by development actions in Washington County
6,800 acres of land between Santa Clara and Sun River, managed by the BLM and SITLA (the state school trust), that is being offered as mitigation for the damage caused by the NCH.
Approval of the new highway requires analysis of connected actions:
- Granting a right-of-way for the highway
- Amending the RCNCA RMP, degrading the protections in order to allow the NCH
- Adding Zone 6 to Red Cliffs and changing management plans to define what will be allowed in that area
- Renewing the Habitat Conservation Plan and granting a new Incidental Take Permit so that development can continue in Washington County
Action 1 is addressed by our issues 1-8.
Actions 2 and 3 are addressed by our issue 7.
Action 4 will be addressed with additional comment guidance in the near future.