ST. GEORGE — It’s not every day that a crowd of nearly 50 people gathers in front of the Bureau of Land Management office here.
But that’s what happened on Monday afternoon, when the 30-day scoping period of a controversial highway project came to a close. Before the deadline, a cadre of concerned homeowners and residents descended upon the BLM office to submit their comments in-person.
The group represented a small fraction of the roughly 16,000 comments the BLM had already received about the so-called “Northern Corridor” proposal, which has been floated seven times over the past few decades, each time generating controversy.
At the heart of the debate is whether a roughly 2-mile section of highway will be built through the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area — an expanse of red rocks and high desert prized for its trail networks and scenic views and set aside for the protection of the threatened Mojave Desert Tortoise.
Many of the people gathered at the bureau’s office were residents of Green Springs, a St. George neighborhood that abuts a section of the reserve where the road might be built.
Karen Westover, a president of a local homeowners’ association, said she wouldn’t have known about the scoping period of the project if a local conservation group hadn’t contacted her over the weekend.
She added that she was frustrated that neither her elected officials nor any of the involved agencies had reached out to her homeowners association or any of the others in the nearby neighborhoods that also stand to be affected.
“Where is one person in this whole area that wants this to happen? It doesn’t exist,” said her husband Larry Westover, pointing to what he views as a lack of constituents calling for the project.
Victor Iverson is one of the three county commissioners for Washington County, which has long argued that the roadway is critical for alleviating future congestion as the area grows.
Iverson said the need for the roadway was identified by the Dixie Metropolitan Planning Organization, adding that its implementation was an important step for the area’s future, even if it’s not popular now.
“As community leaders, you always have this challenge where you have to be thinking a decade or two decades ahead,” he said. “Maybe we would hear a lot more from the constituents if they were stuck in traffic for 40 or 50 minutes, running their cars.”
Christian Venhuizen, a spokesman for the Bureau of Land Management office reviewing the proposal, said the decision-making process is far from over. He added that additional public comments will be vital when his agency releases a draft environmental impact study later this year.
“This is a process that’s built around public input and public trust,” he said. “It only works if people feel empowered … to provide us with guidance, direction and information regarding the proposed action.”
David Fuchs is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southwest Bureau in St. George.