A Highway though Red Cliffs National Conservation Area is a Bad Idea and Not Necessary!

In 1990, the US Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Mojave desert tortoise as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. This would have impeded development on private and state lands in Washington County. In 1995, local elected representatives signed an agreement to establish a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP)  to protect tortoise habitat in exchange for releasing 300,000 acres of private and state lands for development. The HCP reduced the regulatory burden on land owners and provided economic certainty to be able to develop lands outside the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve. Washington County and this Reserve have some of the highest densities of endangered, threatened and special status species in Utah. A highway was debated in the HCP process, but was never part of the HCP agreement.

In 2009, the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area (NCA) was established by US Congress (Public Law 11111), adding a layer of permanent protection for tortoise habitat and 9 regionally and nationally-significant resource values. In 2016, the BLM released the Red Cliffs NCA Resource Management Plan (RMP) which further studied and rejected a highway through the NCA in accordance with federal law.

Today, local elected representatives want to go back on their pledge to protect this Reserve and build a highway through it in order to keep up with sprawling development that lacks integrated transportation planning and implementation of the Vision Dixie “smart growth” principles agreed upon by over 3,000 Washington County residents in 2006. Now these local representatives encourage our federal elected representatives to undermine federal laws and local input to allow a highway by proposing new legislation in Congress.

The HCP must be renewed to enable the remaining local private and state lands to be developed. It is inappropriate to tie HCP renewal to the approval of the highway, which would fragment legislatively-protected, prime desert tortoise habitat in Zone 3 in exchange for inferior and isolated habitat in Zone 6. A recent transportation plan shows that Zone 6 would be fragmented or impacted by at least 3 highways in the future.

Red Hills Parkway is an existing highway that travels through the NCA. There are alternatives for easing transportation congestion that would not violate the HCP/NCA which have not been considered. The model used to determine the need for this highway has not been opened to public scrutiny. A Notice of Intent that will initiate the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process for the proposed Northern Corridor Highway will likely be published by the end of the year. It is crucial that Washington County residents be allowed to participate in the NEPA public comment period and scoping process that will evaluate the proposed highway. Additional legislation to force this highway would rob local residents of this opportunity to weigh in on the fate of public lands owned by all Americans.

Here is more information on HCP and renewal:

Washington Parkway (Highway)