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Conservationists Oppose Highway Through Tortoise Preserve

Courtesy/The Nature Conservancy
The dispute over legislation proposed by U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, centers on the Mojave Desert Tortoise, shown here. The bill's supporters say tortoise habitat will be preserved even with the new highway, which is need to accomodate growth.

Conservationists from around the country are opposing congressional legislation to allow a four-lane highway through a desert tortoise preserve in fast-growing southwestern Utah.

The Desert Tortoise Habitat Conservation Plan Expansion Act had its first hearing on Tuesday before members of the House Subcommittee on Federal Lands. The bill is sponsored by U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart, a Republican whose district includes the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area and a preserve for the Mojave Desert Tortoise. It's listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.

“This bill is really necessary for us,” Washington County Commissioner Dean Cox testified. “We need the road because the county is growing.”

Cox said that 1.9 miles of the proposed Northern Corridor highway would go through the tortoise preserve, and it would disturb just 65 acres of habitat for 10-20 tortoises. He added that 6,835 acres of new habitat would be provided just 6 miles away.

Credit Washington County Commissioner
Map of the proposed Northern Corridor highway.

Without the bill, there will be environmental consequences, too, he said.

“It’s going to absolutely degrade our air and water quality,” he said, “because of the number of cars that can’t move efficiently.”

But a representative of the environmental group, Conserve Southwest Utah, told lawmakers the bill would undermine the Endangered Species Act and other environmental laws.

In his testimony to the subcommittee, Paul Van Dam suggested that highway supporters were misrepresenting the true impact to the habitat and the federally protected tortoises. He said scientific studies just don’t support their conclusion that the highway would not have a significant impact on the tortoises.

“The highway is incompatible with protections of the Desert — of the threatened Mojave Desert Tortoise and other protected species,” Van Dam told them.

Conservationists from around the country have sent a letter to the congressional committee opposing Stewart’s bill. They call it a “dangerous precedent.”

“If there’s a hint of an economic impact, then a local government can override protections,” said Tom Butine, Conserve Southwest Utah’s president.

The groups say the land should continue to be managed in the national interest.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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