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July 26, 2021

Environmental groups sue feds over highway plan through southern Utah conservation area

SALT LAKE CITY — Two Utah environmental groups joined five other regional and national groups in filing a lawsuit over an approved plan to build a four-lane highway through the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area in southern Utah.

The St. George-based Conserve Southwest Utah and Salt Lake City-based Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance joined the lawsuit against the Bureau of Land Management and the Department of Interior over the highway plan that the Department of Interior signed off on in January. Their complaint was filed in U.S. District Court Thursday in Washington.

“The decision by the previous administration to approve the Northern Corridor Highway is a clear violation of the National Conservation Area’s purpose and ignores more effective and environmentally sound transportation alternatives,” said Tom Butine, Conserve Southwest Utah’s board president, in a statement after the lawsuit was filed. “If a highway is allowed through this protected land, it means nothing can be protected.”

Conservation Lands Foundation based in Durango, Colorado; Center for Biological Diversity based in Tucson, Arizona; Defenders of Wildlife and the Wilderness Society both based in Washington; and WildEarth Guardians based in Santa Fe, New Mexico also signed on as plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit centers around a plan that was approved by then-Department of the Interior Secretary David Bernhardt in January. The plan called for a 4.5-mile highway, known as the Northern Corridor Highway, that includes a little more than two miles across the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area. The highway was considered a Utah transportation wish list item for more than 20 years because it would serve a growing population in Washington County.

BLM officials said at the time that a 6,813-acre zone would be established for species conservation within the conservation area.

The nearly 45,000-acre Red Cliffs National Conservation Area was established in 2009 and is considered a prominent home for the endangered Mojave desert tortoise. In the lawsuit, the environmental groups allege the plan violates multiple federal laws, including the Omnibus Public Lands Management, Land and Water Conservation Fund, National Environmental Policy and the National Historic Preservation acts.

They claim that the decision means 276 acres of critical desert tortoise habitat would be permanently eliminated and another 2,619 acres would be degraded as well. It estimates about 10% of adult desert tortoise and 50% of juveniles and hatchlings within the space would be killed or injured in addition to possible damage to other habitats and even archaeological sites in the area.

“Secretary Bernhardt approved these actions over the objections of the Hopi Tribe and local, regional and national conservation groups, which repeatedly raised concerns regarding the inadequacy of BLM’s consultation over the adverse impacts of the Northern Corridor Highway on cultural and historic properties, and inadequate environmental analysis,” the groups wrote in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit seeks to overturn and vacate the right of way use granted to the Utah Department of Transportation by the federal government in January, as well as other documents tied to it.

KSL.com reached out to the BLM for comment Friday but the bureau declined to speak about the lawsuit.

It’s unclear what the future is for the Northern Corridor Highway since it was approved by Bernhardt, who was then replaced by current Interior Secretary Deb Haaland after President Joe Biden took office a week after the project greenlight. Biden issued an executive order during his first day of office, Jan. 20, that called for a review of many Interior decisions made during President Donald Trump’s term. One of the more prominent reviews centers around Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, also in southern Utah.

Meanwhile, federal court records show that both the Department of Interior and Bureau of Land Management were summoned as a part of the lawsuit filed Thursday but neither has responded to the claim in court as of Friday.

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