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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

Federal Agencies Give The Go-Ahead On Controversial Highway In Washington County

A photo of grass and a pathway with cliffs in the background.
David Fuchs
Federal agencies have approved a four-lane highway to cut through protected Mojave Desert tortoise habitat in Washington County.

Federal agencies approved a right of way for the Northern Corridor in Washington County Thursday. The proposed four-lane highway has been a controversy for decades because of its planned route — through federally protected Mojave Desert tortoise habitat north of St. George.

The state and county have been gunning for the project because they say it will alleviate traffic in the region. But those against it say it hurts the threatened species and damages public lands.

The decision from the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service allows for 1.9 miles of road to be built through the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, and around 7,000 acres west of St. George will be set aside for the tortoise instead.

The decision doesn’t mean they’ll start “turning dirt tomorrow” for the highway, according to Washington County Commission Chair Gil Almquist. But he said the approval “exponentially” increased the county’s chances of building the highway.

Almquist said there’s a lot of work still to be done, including fending off challengers of the highway.

“Let's just say we're ahead going into the fifth inning,” he said. “It's certainly not the ninth inning, but we're pretty comfortable where we're at.”

Members of the Utah congressional delegation expressed support for the decision. Sen. Mike Lee, R-UT, stated the highway will improve the lives of residents in Washington County.

“This project has been contemplated for decades. The administrative process has been long and arduous, spanning multiple administrations,” Lee said in a statement. “I applaud the Trump administration and the many state and local officials involved for their diligent efforts to finally get this across the finish line.”

Conserve Southwest Utah is a local environmental group that has been fighting against this project since the beginning. They said in a statement they’re concerned about this approval unwinding “long-standing protections for public lands and wildlife.”

But Tom Butine, the group’s president, said he isn’t surprised by the decision.

“We knew the decision was already preordained because the county commissioners had already greased it all with our congressional delegation, and they'd already run it through the Trump administration,” Butine said. “They already had all the backing behind it.”

The group proposed alternatives to the Northern Corridor that would avoid the conservation area altogether. They were considered in the environmental impact statement, but were not preferred by the federal agencies.

Butine said they will now go about addressing the decision through federal court or the new presidential administration, which he believes will be more favorable to their cause.

“Our big team of experts are all energized and ready to jump into this next step where it's our turn [to be heard],” he said.

The environmental impact statement for the project cost around $8.4 million.

Lexi is KUER's Southwest Bureau reporter
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