ST. GEORGE — The idea of the “Northern Corridor” — a roughly 2-mile stretch of road that would cross a national conservation area home to the threatened Mojave desert tortoise — has generated controversy for decades in Washington County.
So when federal officials announced earlier this month that they would study the environmental impacts of a new proposal, it marked the beginning of the latest chapter in the multi-decade battle over the integrity of the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve.
Local authorities argue that the road, which would create a bypass around downtown St. George, is needed for alleviating congestion as the area’s population grows.
Environmentalists contend that the county should consider ways to address traffic that would not damage protected lands and threaten vulnerable species.
“It doesn’t have to be an either-or,” said Sarah Thomas of Conserve Southwest Utah, a local environmental group. “[The reserve] can still be protected and we can still get to where we need to go in Washington County. This land doesn’t have to be sacrificed.”
The group is proposing several alternatives to the proposed route, which include widening existing streets and improving the efficiency of high-volume intersections.
Since 2006, variations of the project have been floated seven times, largely in federal legislation. The most recent attempt came in 2018 in a pair of bills proposed by Rep. Chis Stewart and Sen. Mike Lee, both Republicans from Utah.
Keith Rigtrup, a field manager at the Bureau of Land Management office reviewing the latest proposal, says his agency welcomes public input.
The bureau is working with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to create a draft Environmental Impact Statement for the proposal and is seeking public comment on what their study should focus on.
“It’s looking for information that we should consider. If there’s studies or if you have knowledge of resources out there, we’d like to know about those,” he said. “It’s also to suggest alternatives.”
The two agencies are holding an open house Tuesday night in St. George to answer questions and hear concerns.
The public comment period closes Jan. 6.
David Fuchs is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southwest Bureau in St. George.