ST. GEORGE — Concerned and curious residents and members of supporting and opposing parties gathered at the Dixie Convention Center on Wednesday evening for an open house focused on the Northern Corridor and hosted by the Bureau of Land Management.
Gloria Tibbetts, director of the BLM’s Color County District in southwest Utah, speaks to St. George News about the renewed review process by the Bureau of Land Management concerning the Northern Corridor and its potential rejection while attending an open house on the matter, St. George, Utah, Dec. 6, 2023 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News
The open house was part of a review process approved by a federal judge last month when she made a ruling on elements of a pending settlement in a lawsuit between the U.S. Department of the Interior and conservation groups that oppose the roadway’s creation.
The judge’s ruling puts a pause on plans regarding the Northern Corridor and related items while the BLM — which previously approved a designated right-of-way for the road through the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area — creates a supplemental environmental study that includes a new round of public input, or scoping period, regarding the project.
“This is a public scoping meeting to gather public feedback regarding our initiation of a supplemental environmental impact statement process for the Northern Corridor project,” Gloria Tibbetts, district manager of the BLM’s Color County District, told St. George News at the open house.
The current scoping period runs through Dec. 21 with the intent to collect information from the public to be used in a new environmental study that revisits and builds upon the previous one that resulted in the BLM granting a right-of-way for the Northern Corridor to the Utah Department of Transportation in early 2021.
The road and the lawsuit
The proposed highway, which stretches 4 miles from Washington Parkway on its east end to Red Hills Parkway on the west end, is seen as a crucial piece of transportation infrastructure by state and local officials. They have stated for years that the preexisting traffic system will “fail” if the Northern Corridor is not constructed to help relieve increased traffic that will come with a projected county population of nearly 500,000 by 2060.
Conserve Southwest Utah’s set up outside of Dixie Convention Center with members of the conservation group speaking to others about their opposition to the Northern Corridor, St. George, Utah, Dec. 6, 2023 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News
Opposing the roadway are conservation groups like Conservation Southwest Utah, which joined together in a lawsuit against the Department of the Interior over the right-of-way being granted. They argue the roadway will have a devastating impact on the national conservation area and the Mojave desert tortoise population that resides there. The tortoise is listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.
In their lawsuit, conservation groups argue the BLM and U.S. Forest Service did not follow particular federal procedures when drafting the approval of the Northern Corridor’s right-of-way and also ignored the impact of recent wildfires that torched large portions of the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve and the Red Cliffs Conservation Area in mid-2020.
The judge overseeing the case agreed that both the impact of the wildfires should be further examined and that procedures related to historical artifacts within the project area were not followed as well as they should have been. This subsequently led to last month’s ruling where the judge has given the BLM a chance to reconsider the right-of-way approval following a new review process.
“We’ll be looking very closely at the impact of wildfires, what impacts that has had in burn areas for invasive species and what impact that has for sensitive species like the Mojave desert tortoise,” Tibbetts said.
The review process is intended to be an objective one that is not burdened by the biases of people for or against the Northern Corridor, Tibbetts said, adding the BLM is analyzing all of the alternatives to the proposed roadway that were in the original environmental impact statement, as well as the potential impacts pulling the granted right-of-way might have.
“All aspects of the potential (road) alignments are being considered,” she said.
The land within the red border is the proposed “Zone 6” – nearly 7,000 acres of land that would be turned into additional protected tortoise habitat in exchange for a right-of-way route through the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve for the Northern Corridor | Image courtesy of Washington County, St. George News
An area explicitly tied to the creation of the Northern Corridor is Zone 6.
This area, located west of Bloomington and south of Santa Clara, covers nearly 7,000 acres that have been annexed into the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve as a way to offset the impacts of the Northern Corridor within the reserve once built. Within Zone 6 is also a sizable desert tortoise population as well as many miles worth of trails and numerous climbing locations popular to locals and visitors alike.
If the Northern Corridor goes away, so does Zone 6 and the added protections that come with being a part of the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve.
“Zone 6 is definitely near and dear to our hearts,” said Tyler Webb of the Southern Utah Climbers Alliance.
While the group is largely neutral on the matter of the Northern Corridor, Webb’s group worries losing the Zone 6 designation could put popular climbing areas at risk due to the potential encroachment of development.
While over half of Zone 6 is already on federally managed land, the rest consists of private land holdings and land owned by the Utah Trust Lands Administration, popularly known as SITLA. While SITLA supports the creation of Zone 6, its primary purpose is to hold lands in trust for the benefit of the state’s public education system.
If Zone 6 goes away and SITLA officials believe they can get the best use out of the land there by leasing or selling it for future development, it is their mandate to do so.
The impacts that would have on local recreation are among the concerns the climbers alliance and others have, Webb said.
“We’re trying to get an idea of what’s going on and what changes will be impacting the area, especially Zone 6,” he said.
Washington County officials have said recreation areas within Zone 6 that could be negatively impacted depending on the future of the Northern Corridor include the Bear Claw Poppy Trail and Moe’s Valley climbing area.
County response to the review of the right-of-way
Washington County Attorney Eric Clarke speaks to St. George News about the renewed review process by the Bureau of Land Management concerning the Northern Corridor and its potential rejection while attending an open house on the matter, St. George, Utah, Dec. 6, 2023 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News
“It’s a bunch of garbage – that’s my legal term for it,” Washington County Attorney Eric Clarke said of the lawsuit that triggered the review process and has put Zone 6 at risk.
While he and other county officials hope the BLM will conclude that the right-of-way can stay in place, Clarke said he is not that optimistic and that “it feels like the decision has already been made and they’re just going through the process.”
Like the members of the climbers alliance, the county is very concerned about losing Zone 6. The county already has invested over $2 million into infrastructure to turn the area into a better-protected tortoise habitat with millions more budgeted for it.
“If we lose that, we lose that protected open space,” Clarke said. “We lose that tortoise recovery stuff, and anyone that’s been stuck in traffic knows we need an alternative route – that goes away too. … If that highway goes, then Zone 6 goes away.”
As for the current review, Clarke also noted wildfires and their impacts on efforts to recover the tortoise population are key issues the BLM is considering.
Conserve Southwest Utah
While the BLM conducted the open house inside the convention center, members of Conserve Southwest Utah and Washington County employees attached to the Red Cliffs Desert Reverse gathered outside the building. They were set up on opposite sides near the entry to the convention center and sought to inform people of their positions regarding the Northern Corridor.
County employees primarily highlighted the potential loss of Zone 6 while those with Conserve Southwest Utah spoke about the threat they believe a roadway poses to the desert tortoise and overall area.
“We’re here to represent Conserve Southwest Utah and a lot of people who are concerned that the highway will degrade our natural resources, destroy habitat, be devastating to cultural resources and recreation values of the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area,” Holly Snow Canada, the group’s executive director, said while standing outside of the convention center.
“So we’re talking to everyone and letting them know about the process and what’s going on,” she said.
Regarding the issue of Zone 6, Snow Canada said the county is being misleading about protections over the area being lost.
“Zone 6 is 60% BLM land so that is protected regardless of the highway,” she said. “The county is currently messaging that if the highway is denied, the protections over SITLA lands would disappear, and that’s just not true.”
A measure of protection already exists in the area and would be a political headache to try and remove, Snow Canada said, adding that Conserve Southwest Utah would fight to preserve those protections and the recreational use of the area whether or not the highway is an issue.
How to comment
The public scoping period for the review of the Northern Corridor project runs through Dec. 21. To review the project website, visit BLM’s associated National NEPA Register website.
Interested parties may submit comments in the following ways:
Online via the “participate now” feature on the National NEPA Register.
Mail: Bureau of Land Management, Attn: Northern Corridor SEIS, 345 East Riverside Drive, St. George, UT 84790.
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