What is the Northern Corridor Highway?

For decades, Washington County officials have envisioned a “Northern Corridor Highway” connecting the northeast side of the St George metro area with the northwest side as part of a “ring road” concept. Since 2006, local and national officials have faced grassroots opposition in their attempts to secure approval for the Northern Corridor Highway amidst significant ecological and economic concerns.

Despite several alternatives outside the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area meeting the County’s traffic needs, a four-lane highway through the heart of Red Cliffs’ protected habitat was approved in January 2021 during the final days of the Trump Administration.

To see the land and neighborhoods at stake, watch this video.

In response to the 2021 highway approval, CSU and six Utah-based and national conservation organizations filed a lawsuit against the US Department of Interior to challenge the decision. In May 2023, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) identified both legal errors, and substantial and legitimate concerns with their 2021 analysis and are currently reassessing the highway approval with a new decision anticipated in October 2024.

Our Stance

Conserve Southwest Utah opposes a Northern Corridor Highway in Red Cliffs because it would:

  • Undermine the spectacular quality of life we enjoy in Washington County by increasing sprawl and damaging the scenic vistas, open spaces, and world-class recreational opportunities that annually draw over 200,000 visitors and millions of dollars to our local economy. The highway would fragment 2 popular trails and negatively impact 13 others.
  • Impact significant cultural resources of Indigenous peoples.
  • Increase risk of wildfires from vehicles, careless human activities, and invasive plant species.
  • Increase noise, pollution, and disturbance in the Green Springs, Middleton, Warm Springs, and Brio communities. Projections estimate daily traffic on the highway would reach 32,000 to 46,000 vehicles by 2040.
  • Set a dangerous national precedent that would undermine the protection of conservation lands nationwide.

The highway ignores alternative, effective solutions for managing traffic congestion that do not destroy Red Cliffs.

It is also illegal per the provisions of the 2009 Omnibus Public Land Management Act (OPLMA) and breaks agreements to safeguard Red Cliffs Desert Reserve and National Conservation Area and its inhabitants, including the threatened Mojave desert tortoise and over 20 other sensitive species including the Gila monster, burrowing owl, and kit fox. The highway would cause direct loss of 275 acres of tortoise habitat and indirectly impact 2,333 additional acres.

Take Action: Preserve Red Cliffs for Future Generations

CSU supports the county in its responsibility to enable efficient traffic flow, but there must be a balance with honoring the protection agreements and principles. There are solutions outside of the protected areas that compare favorably in cost and effectiveness to alternatives inside the NCA. The chosen route for the Northern Corridor Highway represents a critical juncture in our stewardship of this land. It’s a choice between preserving a legacy of natural beauty and cultural heritage or paving the way for irreversible damage.

Currently, the BLM is conducting a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) and the Interior Secretary will issue a new decision on w the right-of-way for a highway through Red Cliffs. We are expecting the release of the draft SEIS and the next public comment period for April/May 2024. Join our mailing list to stay up to date on the latest actions you can take to protect Red Cliffs Desert Reserve and National Conservation Area.

History of the Northern Corridor Highway

1990s & Early 2000s: The Beginnings

  • Early 1990’s: The US Fish and Wildlife Service announced its intent to declare the Mojave desert tortoise as a species whose existence is threatened by human activity.
  • 1995: To allow further development across Washington County, a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) was created which set aside the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve to make up for in exchange for the relocation and “take” (harm or death) of tortoises. The HCP aimed to protect public lands and endangered species without hindering Washington County’s growth and development. It explicitly prohibited new roads within the reserve, allowing only existing roads to remain without expansion.
  • 2006: On behalf of Washington County, Utah’s delegation proposed an act of Congress to push the highway through Red Cliffs. That effort was resisted by a small group of county citizens that would later form Conserve Southwest Utah.
  • 2009: The Red Cliffs National Conservation Area (Red Cliffs NCA) was created through a substantial national public lands bill, OPLMA 2009, incorporating a majority of Red Cliffs Desert Reserve land. The mission of Red Cliffs NCA was rooted in conservation – safeguarding threatened species, and cultural resources, while permitting planned recreation. OPLMA directed the Secretary of the Interior to “identify 1 or more alternatives for a northern transportation route in the County”, but it did not approve or make an exception for the Northern Corridor Highway through Red Cliffs NCA. Red Cliffs’ conservation management mandate does not allow for highways.

2010s: Conflicts and Conservation Efforts

The creation of a Resource Management Plan for Red Cliffs NCA brought the issue of the Northern Corridor Highway back to the forefront of conservation discussions.

  • 2016: The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) approved a Resource Management Plan (RMP) for Red Cliffs NCA, governing BLM’s management decisions within the NCA and implementing the Public Lands Act’s “protect, conserve, and enhance” mandate. The RMP contains a number of protective measures, and, notably, it rejected Washington County’s proposed alternative designating a new transportation corridor within the NCA. According to BLM, this “northern transportation route” would cause significant adverse impacts to protected resources in the NCA, including desert tortoise.
  • A contentious congressional hearing in St. George addressed the road issue. CSU board member and former Utah Attorney General, Paul Van Dam, provided testimony, both written and oral, for that hearing. Thankfully, again, the road idea was deemed unacceptable in Congress due to the area’s status as a National Conservation Area.
  • This was not the first time federal and state agencies concluded that a road across the Reserve and the Red Cliffs NCA would harm tortoise populations and habitat. In 2000, 2006, 2007, 2011, and 2015, agency scientists also concluded that a highway would be “biologically devastating.”
  • 2017: The County appealed the BLM’s Resource Management Plan, but their appeal was rejected by the Department of the Interior. Efforts to authorize the highway through new legislative bills were unsuccessful due to the highway being in clear conflict with the management mandate of a National Conservation Area. Utah’s congressional delegation, at the behest of Washington County, made 3 attempts to introduce legislation to approve an NCH route through the NCA, but none made it out of committee.

2020s: The Northern Corridor Highway and the Movement to Save Red Cliffs

In late 2018, the much-discussed proposal for a highway through Red Cliffs was formally introduced via a right-of-way application, marking a pivotal moment in our ongoing efforts to protect the future of this cherished natural landscape. This turn of events sparked an inspiring wave of support from people across Washington County and beyond, who came together to champion the continued protection of our area’s natural beauty.

Hans Glasmann’s illuminating documentary, THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE SLOW, chronicles this period of NCH history and Conserve Southwest Utah’s participation in the protest.

  • September 2018: Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) submitted to BLM an application for a right-of-way for the proposed Northern Corridor Highway to be located in Zone 3 of the Reserve and Red Cliffs NCA, through the densest tortoise population. Washington County and the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) applied for official permission to build a four lane highway through the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area. Learn more about the specific plans below.
  • December 2019: BLM and USFWS published a notice of intent to prepare a joint Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) under the National Environmental Policy Act to evaluate the highway right-of-way application, and opened a public scoping period. BLM and USFWS received over 17,000 comments from the public during the scoping period, requesting increased protection for the conservation and cultural resources protected under the Public Lands Act and proposing a series of reasonable alternatives to UDOT’s Northern Corridor Highway proposal.
  • June 2020: BLM and USFWS issued a three volume Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for public comment. BLM’s proposed action was to issue a 30-year renewable ROW grant for the construction, operation, and maintenance of the highway across tortoise critical habitat as requested by UDOT.
  • The draft EIS proposed an additional area to the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve—Zone 6—as supposed mitigation for the environmental damage caused by the Northern Corridor Highway. Zone 6 is another area of land worthy of protection on its own merits and not at the cost of bifurcating Red Cliffs NCA with a four-lane highway. Read more about Zone 6 here.
  • The agencies received nearly 15,500 public comments on the draft EIS, which raised a host of concerns over the impacts of the proposed action on the world-class resources in the Red Cliffs NCA. CSU and our partner organizations submitted hundreds of pages of detailed comments, raising a series of concerns over the impacts of the proposed action on the world-class resources in the Red Cliffs NCA.
  • July 2020: In the summer and fall of 2020, four major wildfires, caused by humans, burned 25% of the Red Cliffs area, scorching many tortoises. Despite requests by CSU and others, the BLM did not pause their environmental review to incorporate a dedicated analysis of the wildfires’ impacts.
  • Utah’s US Representative Chris Stewart introduced H.R. 7815 to override public comment and force the highway. The bill died in committee.
  • September 2020: U.S. House Natural Resources Committee requested that the Northern Corridor Highway review be paused until unethical, illegal issues were resolved – including attempted routing of the highway through lands purchased using taxpayer money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which are meant to be used for permanent conservation.
  • November 2020: BLM released a Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) identifying UDOT’s northern corridor route through Red Cliffs as the preferred alternative, despite disclosing that the highway would:
    • Directly impact native vegetation communities, increase the spread of exotic species, and exacerbate the wildfire cycle.
    • Cause direct loss of 275 acres of tortoise habitat and indirectly impact 2,333 additional acres, increase fragmentation of tortoise habitat within Red Cliffs NCA, and bisect “the most important high-density cluster of desert tortoises” in the area. It would also allow the county to develop an additional unspecified 200 acres within the NCA
    • “Dramatically change” and degrade the recreational experience and resources within Red Cliffs NCA.
    • Adversely affect cultural resources and cause permanent or long-term effects to archaeological sites eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

This route was chosen despite the fact that the EIS showed alternatives outside the NCA solved the traffic issues just as well.

  • January 2021: In spite of the many significant adverse impacts of the highway and strong objections from the public, Secretary of the Interior Berhardt formally approved the right-of-way for the Northern Corridor Highway through the heart of the Red Cliffs NCA.
  • June 2021: In response to the BLM’s decision, CSU and six Utah-based and national conservation organizations filed a lawsuit against the US Department of Interior to challenge the approval of the Northern Corridor Highway.
  • November 2021: CSU launched a petition to gather worldwide support for protecting  Red Cliffs from road construction.
  • April 2022: The House Natural Resources Committee sent a letter to Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, imploring her to reverse the approval for the Northern Corridor Highway, citing the management mandate of a National Conservation Area and the enormous amount of grassroots opposition to the project.
  • June 2022: CSU representatives went to Washington D.C. to present the petition, which had been signed by over 35,000 people globally, to officials at the Department of the Interior. They also hand-delivered copies of the Red Cliffs Zine (“Protect Red Cliffs: Art and Narratives of a Threatened Place”) to members of Congress and the Department of the Interior, so that key decision-makers could see what is at stake if the Northern Corridor Highway is constructed through the Red Cliffs NCA.
  • May 2023: In May 2023, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) identified both legal error and substantial and legitimate concerns with their 2021 analysis and asked the US District Court to send the highway decision back to BLM and USFWS for further reconsideration.
  • November 2023: ​​The U.S. District Court (DC) issued an opinion and granted in part the motion from CSU and other plaintiff organizations. The court decided to send the 2021 decision, which approved the Northern Corridor Highway, back to the federal agencies (BLM and USFWS) to conduct additional reviews and re-issue a new decision based on the findings of the supplemental review process. Read more from the press release.
  • December 2023: The public participated in a public comment period, sharing their insights and priorities for consideration in the forthcoming Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement. Over 5,500 comments were collected from the conservation community expressing concerns with the proposed highway. This period also offered an invaluable opportunity for concerned community members to engage directly in a public discussion with the BLM and USFWS.

What’s Happening Now? 

The BLM is conducting a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) and issuing a new decision on whether or not to approve the right-of-way for a highway through Red Cliffs. We are expecting the release of the draft SEIS and the next public comment period for April/May 2024. Join our mailing list to stay up to date on the latest actions you can take to protect Red Cliffs Desert Reserve and National Conservation Area.