ST. GEORGE, Utah— Conservation groups sued federal officials Thursday to stop construction of the Northern Corridor Highway, a controversial four-lane highway through the protected Red Cliffs National Conservation Area in southwest Utah.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., against the Interior Department and the Bureau of Land Management, says the Trump administration violated five environmental protection laws when it approved the highway in January.
“The decision by the previous administration is a clear violation of the National Conservation Area’s congressionally mandated purpose and ignores more effective and environmentally sensitive transportation alternatives,” said Tom Butine, board president of Conserve Southwest Utah, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit. “Local and federal stakeholders designated what is now the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area 25 years ago as a permanently protected wildlife reserve in exchange for allowing development on 300,000 acres of land outside the protected area. It makes no sense to pursue this route when a better way exists to both move traffic and protect Red Cliffs. If a highway is allowed through this protected land, it means nothing can be protected.”
The Trump administration’s January 2021 decision, supporting a request from Washington County and Utah’s congressional delegation, permitted construction of a four-lane highway through Red Cliffs National Conservation Area.
Congress established the conservation area in 2009 to protect popular trails, cultural resources and critical habitat for 20 species of sensitive and threatened wildlife, including Washington County’s iconic Mojave desert tortoise. The National Conservation Area designation overlays the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, which was established in 1996 to protect the land for the tortoises in exchange for enabling development elsewhere in the county.
“Secretary Haaland should not allow the previous secretary’s destructive decision,” said Todd C. Tucci, senior attorney for Advocates for the West, which is representing the Red Cliffs Conservation Coalition. “If the Biden administration doesn’t adhere to the laws and reverse the current highway plan, it will let stand the previous administration’s attack on this vulnerable and irreplaceable National Conservation Area and diminish the integrity of all National Conservation Lands protections.”
The lawsuit says the Trump administration’s decision violates the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act, the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Administrative Procedure Act and the National Historic Preservation Act. The required 60-day notice of the intent to amend the lawsuit, adding the Endangered Species Act, was filed May 25.
“A wildlife extinction crisis exists in Washington County, Utah and tens of millions of taxpayer dollars have been invested in the National Conservation Area for the conservation of the threatened Mojave Desert Tortoise and preserving biodiversity,” said Bill Mader, the first administrator of the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve. “Recent wildfires devastated nearly 25% of desert tortoise habitat within the Conservation Area. The selected route for a freeway through the National Conservation Area will turn it into a wildfire tinderbox. It makes no sense to have spent millions of dollars to save tortoises and the biodiversity they depend upon, to then turn around and build a freeway that destroys the population.”
The coalition detailed more than 300 substantive legal, environmental, social and economic reasons to reject the new highway in its formal comments on the draft environmental impact statement. The coalition also identified the BLM’s failure to adequately address the impact of the recent wildfires, the illegal use of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and the failure to address issues with the alternatives’ cost estimates in selecting this route.
“As a fine artist I draw inspiration from the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area,” said Carol Bold, an award-winning artist, mother and outdoor enthusiast who has deep roots in Southwest Utah. “It is a place of solitude, of inspiration, of refuge and of life to a never-ending array of flora and fauna. There are not a lot of places left in the country with this kind of access to outdoor recreation, backcountry trails, and wilderness right out the backdoor. To remove access to such amazing places is essentially bleeding this area dry of one of its most treasured resources.”
The BLM analyzed transportation alternatives outside of Red Cliffs National Conservation Area and found that those alternatives more effectively relieve traffic congestion and protect wildlife, scenic beauty and local access to trails. One alternative, the Red Hills Parkway Expressway, would allow cars to travel east-west across the northern St. George metropolitan area, connecting Red Hills Parkway directly to I-15, enabling it to flow around congestion points while also improving flow through those congestion points. Another route improves traffic flow through congestion points while also improving business access and the pedestrian experience in downtown St. George.
“I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t do something to raise awareness about the devastating plan to build the Northern Corridor Highway,” said Pierce Kettering, a 21-year-old mountain biker and marketing professional who hosted a petition to stop the Northern Corridor Highway that garnered 800 signatures in two weeks. “It’s easier not to care. But I know that there are many people who, like me, want to make a difference in our community and are working to save the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area.”
“Our business is inspired by what we understand to be intrinsic values of desert living,” said Holly and Spenser Snow Canada, St. George business owners, trail runners and volunteer land stewards. “Consider the tortoise: it moves slowly, appreciates each drop of water, survives and thrives while conserving its resources. If we construct highways through sensitive land as if it’s an infinite resource, we won’t have a tortoise to learn from. We won’t have desert wildflowers to inspire us. We won’t have the calm, quiet solitude that can only be found in the desert. The next generation of small business owners will no longer dream big and aim for the stars — because unfortunately, they won't be able to see them.”
“Alternative routes exist that are a better use of taxpayer money, better at protecting our desert paradise, and better at supporting this economic engine for the county. We hope this administration will do the right thing and reverse course,” said Butine.
Statements from other plaintiffs in the lawsuit:
“This illegal plan to pave over prime wildlife habitat that taxpayers spent millions to preserve would set a dangerous precedent,” said Randi Spivak, public lands program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Encouraging urban sprawl by plowing a highway through some of the last remaining habitat for threatened Mojave Desert tortoises makes a mockery of public lands protection. The Biden administration can show it truly cares about preserving the natural world by not abandoning this spectacular place and these fragile animals just to build another freeway.”
“The Red Cliffs National Conservation Area is a national destination for recreation and enjoying outstanding natural and cultural values of the area,” said Phil Hanceford, a senior staff attorney at The Wilderness Society. “Paving a highway through the NCA makes no sense and is counter to the legislation that created it.”
“The ecologically rich Red Cliffs NCA was specifically set aside by Congress for conservation purposes, including the protection of the desert tortoise whose suitable home across the Southwest is disappearing at a rapid rate,” said Kya Marienfeld, a wildlands attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “If federal public lands with this kind of clear, sturdy intent for preservation of natural resource values and imperiled wildlife habitat can be paved over for more development on a whim, what areas will be left?”
“With its decision to permit the Northern Corridor Highway, the Bureau of Land Management bowed to pressure from local politicians obsessed with growth, rather than abide by Congress’s clear command to protect the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area for current and future generations,” said Chris Krupp, a public lands attorney with WildEarth Guardians. “BLM chose to set off additional sprawl rather than protect the Red Cliffs dwindling tortoise population, recreation assets and scenic values.”
“The Northern Corridor highway has no place in Red Cliffs National Conservation Area,” said Vera Smith, a senior federal lands policy analyst for Defenders of Wildlife. “The highway will pave over some of the best habitat for the Mojave desert tortoise in the region. By filing this lawsuit, Defenders of Wildlife continues its defense of this remarkable animal that is tragically trending towards extinction, largely due to projects like this one that destroy its habitat.”
Background on Red Cliffs National Conservation Area:
Red Cliffs National Conservation Area overlays the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve and is collaboratively managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the state of Utah, Washington County and other municipalities. The reserve was established in 1996 as part of a “grand compromise” to protect 62,000 acres of public land for the Mojave desert tortoise, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, while opening 300,000 acres of state and private lands for development. Congress established the conservation area in 2009 to strengthen the protections.
These spectacular public lands are 45 miles from Zion National Park and include 130 miles of trails, two wilderness areas, heritage public use sites, Native American cultural artifacts, several threatened/endangered species and Utah’s most popular state land, Snow Canyon State Park. People from across the world visit to hike, mountain bike, rock climb, horseback ride, photograph and marvel at the expansive red rock architecture.