OPINION — As Washington County continues to grow and change, we have an opportunity to unite our community through the protection of our spectacular public lands. We encourage community members and elected leaders to have the vision and foresight to protect both the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area and Zone 6.

Once again, the proposed Northern Corridor Highway has brought national attention to Red Cliffs. Over the last two decades, Washington County has tried no less than six times to bulldoze a four-lane highway through Red Cliffs National Conservation Area even though this area was established by Congress in 2009 “to conserve, protect, and enhance, for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations, the ecological, scenic, wildlife, recreational, cultural, historical, natural, educational, and scientific resources” this special area contains. During the last go-around, over 35,000 people from Utah and across the US signed a petition opposing its construction in the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area.

Washington County’s Red Cliffs Desert Reserve’s “Zone 6” is another local area worthy of permanent protection — regardless of what happens with the proposed highway. Well before it became known as “Zone 6” as mitigation habitat for the proposed highway, the 6,800 acres west of Bloomington was well-loved by locals and visitors alike.

These lands are home to world-class climbing and bouldering areas, popular mountain bike trails, scenic hiking areas, significant cultural resources and critical habitat for the threatened Mojave desert tortoise, the endangered dwarf bear-poppy and the endangered Holmgren milk-vetch.

Red Cliffs and Zone 6 both provide outstanding recreation and refuge for imperiled species including the threatened Mojave desert tortoise, and contribute to St. George’s healthy economy. Yet, Washington County administrators have taken the short-sighted position that citizens have to choose between preserving one area or the other: If we say no to the highway, they say no to Zone 6.

A preliminary trail map of Zone 6 from the amended Washington County Habitat Conservation Plan | Image courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management, St. George News

Denial of the highway does not mean an automatic loss of protections for Zone 6 lands. If Washington County wants to say no to Zone 6, it would need to initiate a separate process and face backlash from both residents and the local and national conservation and recreation communities. We urge the county to listen to these tens of thousands of voices by affirmatively protecting both Zone 6 and the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area.

Both Red Cliffs and Zone 6 are treasured local gems that deserve permanent protections. After all, the lands now threatened by the proposed Northern Corridor Highway were originally set aside as mitigation for development of Mojave desert tortoise habitat to allow for county-wide growth. It is time to permanently protect both places and stop this shell game of setting aside lands to mitigate for development and then going back and bulldozing them later. Future generations will never criticize us for protecting these public lands—they’ll ask us why we didn’t protect even more when we had the chance.

We encourage Utahns who care about protecting wildlife, open space, and outdoor recreation access to submit comments to the Bureau of Land Management and Fish and Wildlife Service on their reconsideration of the proposed Northern Corridor Highway by Dec. 28. Tell BLM, FWS and your elected officials that Utahns want to protect Red Cliffs and Zone 6. Together, we can create a land legacy resplendent with wonderful outdoor recreation and biodiversity.


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