Can a desert tortoise preserve still preserve habitat if it has a four-lane highway running through it? Through January 6, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are accepting public comments on environmental impacts from a proposed “Northern Corridor” highway that would slice through the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve in Washington County.
A little history: The Reserve was formed in 1995 during a period of rapid human population growth to comply with the Washington County Habitat Conservation Plan, a multi-agency plan to protect habitat for threatened desert tortoises (Gopherus agassizii). In 2009 the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area was created by Congress as part of the Omnibus Public Land Management Act.
Since then, BLM has spent tens of millions of dollars to buy out private inholdings for conservation (explicitly not for a highway right-of-way).
In 2015, Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) introduced bad-faith legislation trying to change the rules in order to construct a new road through the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve. This road is supposedly “necessary” to reduce congestion on I-15, but like all such new highways, it is actually a conduit for real estate development.
The citizen group Conserve Southwest Utah has proposed a smart growth alternative to the Northern Corridor Project that would modify existing roads in order to “avoid the continued trend of transportation planning chasing development.”
Even though Hatch’s bill never passed, Utah Representative Chris Stewart (R-Ut-2) and Senator Mike Lee (R) have kept pushing for the highway and in 2018 the Utah Department of Transportation requested permission for a right-of-way through the Reserve.
This would involve changing three management plans—for the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, the Red Cliffs NCA and the BLM St. George Field Office Resource Management Plan. In addition, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would need to issue a permit for incidental “take” (i.e. killing) of Mojave desert tortoises, listed as threatened on the Endangered Species List.
Turtles and tortoises are not good at crossing roads. Scientific studies of desert tortoises show that the “road effect” of reduced tortoise populations extends at least 400 meters from paved highways; as few as 300 vehicles passing per day increases tortoise mortality. A study of turtles in Florida found that 98% of turtles that attempted to cross a busy four-lane highway were killed by traffic.
Red Cliffs Desert Reserve: redcliffsdesertreserve.com; Red Cliffs National Conservation Area: blm.gov/programs/national-conservation-lands/utah/red-cliffs-nca; Conserve Southwest Utah: conserveswu.org; Northern Corridor Environmental Impact Statement (Public Comments due by January 6, 2020 to BLM_UT_NorthernCorridor@blm.gov) https://go.usa.gov/xpC6H
This is an excerpt from our January EnviroNews column. View the full article here.