AP NEWS

Feds weigh Utah highway plan through tortoise habitat

December 22, 2019 GMT
In this undated photo shows a view of the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve from a planned extension of Washington Parkway, in southern Utah. The Bureau of Land Management is considering a plan to continue that extension with a highway through the reserve." (Lexi Peery/The Spectrum via AP)
In this undated photo shows a view of the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve from a planned extension of Washington Parkway, in southern Utah. The Bureau of Land Management is considering a plan to continue that extension with a highway through the reserve." (Lexi Peery/The Spectrum via AP)

ST. GEORGE, Utah (AP) — Federal officials are considering whether to allow a highway to be built through protected Mojave desert tortoise habitat in southern Utah, a plan that’s drawn criticism from conservationists.

The proposed four-lane highway would pass through the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area north of St. George to connect traffic from Washington City to St. George, the Spectrum newspaper reported. The Bureau of Land Management is taking public comments through Jan. 6 ahead of a draft environmental impact statement that’s expected to come out late spring or early summer.

Elected officials in southern Utah have been pushing for the road to address current and future traffic concerns in one of the most rapidly growing parts of the country.

″(The Northern Corridor) is an absolute necessary route to move traffic east to west, or else we’ll see a collapse of other routes through town,” said Washington County Commissioner Victor Iverson.

Interchanges in the city of Washington have become so clogged that the city is “almost at failure,” said outgoing City Council member Troy Belliston. The plan would set aside another piece of nearby land west of St. George as tortoise habitat to replace the land used for the road.

But conservationists argue that officials should consider alternatives to a highway that could put the threatened tortoise and other sensitive species at risk.

Though there are traffic problems, increasing sprawl would degrade the quality of life, said Tom Butine, executive director of Conserve Southwest Utah. The group wants officials to consider alternatives such as adding more lanes and traffic circles to other roads and creating more underpasses and overpasses.

“If we start chewing up all the ‘out’ with houses, roads, water parks, this won’t be the same place,” Butine said.

The group’s public land program manager, Sarah Thomas, said she’s worried about the precedent set by building a road through protected public lands.

“We’re a rapidly growing community, and we have the chance to stand up and speak out about how we want to grow. That’s why public comment periods like this one are so important,” Thomas said. “We can shape the growth.”