A planned highway in Washington County threatens our way of life

Paving over paradise is not the solution.

(Lexi Peery | The Spectrum | The Associated Press) This undated photo shows a view of the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve from a planned extension of the Washington Parkway in southern Utah.

With more than 25 years of combined residence in St. George and Washington County, we are deeply invested in preserving this desert paradise in its entirety for the survival of the desert tortoise, recreational opportunities and the economic benefits we can all enjoy.

Here’s a little history: In 1995, a bipartisan agreement was reached to permanently protect the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve (RCDR) in exchange for allowing development on 300,000 hectares of land outside the protected area. The purpose of the preserve was to protect the northernmost habitat of the federally protected, iconic desert tortoise and to provide recreational opportunities for multiple non-motorized user groups. This agreement was reached after extensive public processes, negotiations between Washington County and local cities, and signing by federal agencies.

In 2009, an official act of Congress established Red Cliffs National Conservation Area (RCNCA) within the boundaries of the RCDR, adding additional safeguards to the beloved landscapes.

Despite these protections and agreements, there have been multiple attempts to build a four-lane highway by the RCNCA, reportedly to serve St. George’s growing population and support economic growth. However, there are alternatives that support economic growth, would be more affordable for taxpayers and would not forever change this beautiful desert tortoise habitat.

The Northern Corridor Highway would pave land that the Bureau of Land Management acquired with nearly $20 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund — taxpayer dollars earmarked for wildlife conservation, endangered species protection and public recreation purposes. We believe that the original right of way for the highway was granted in error and contradicts the guidelines established to protect Red Cliffs.

This highway would diminish the spectacular quality of life we ​​enjoy in Washington County by damaging scenic vistas, open habitats, cultural attractions and world-class recreational opportunities. These opportunities attract more than 200,000 visitors annually, including hikers, cyclists, equestrians, runners, rock climbers and more, while generating millions of dollars for our local economy. We were promised that these trails would be here for generations to come, and now that viable alternatives are available, it’s hard to understand why anyone would want to destroy the very things that make St. George so beautiful, accessible and unique.

Not only would the highway infringe on recreational opportunities, but it would also plow through one of the country’s most important, high-density Mojave desert tortoise populations. In southern Utah, turtles benefit from cooler temperatures, more annual precipitation and better access to shelters than in the Mojave Desert.

In addition to habitat loss, when we fragment critical habitats, wildlife also lose their ability to access diverse animal populations, meaning they have fewer opportunities to find a mate. Genetic diversity is essential and if we continue to eliminate habitat, we will lose species connectivity. This has a ripple effect because desert tortoises are considered a keystone species, meaning an abundance of critters use burrows made by tortoises. Having access to these caves protects all desert creatures, keeping our local ecosystems thriving. It sounds strange, but the circle of life really depends on the survival of every single organism.

The stunning natural beauty and world-class scenery we have here in southwestern Utah is something that matters to all of us. It may seem like adding one road corridor here or one neighborhood there will have no real impact. But the rate of growth in Washington County is astronomical, and if we don’t stop thinking about smart development that meets the needs of not only the people who live here, but also the plants and animals that have survived here for millennia, we will threaten the survival of our precious natural areas forever.

We don’t want to live in a desert that resembles the suburbs of Las Vegas: an endless sprawl of houses and a rapidly decimating desert.

Locals have been fighting this path for years, even taking the issue all the way to Washington DC to express our deep concerns to Congress. One employee told us they weren’t aware there was any opposition to the road, which paints an important picture of why we need to speak out and make our voices heard.

Local recreation groups such as the Back Country Horsemen and the Southern Utah Climbers Alliance are committed to working with land managers to keep trails open to all recreational users within the NCA. We encourage our neighbors, policy makers, advocates and anyone who cares about a common sense approach to economic growth and preserving the beauty of an intact Red Cliffs to join this debate and propose an alternative beyond National Conservation Area to support. It is up to us to strengthen and protect these resources and demand smarter growth policies here in southern Utah.

(Photo courtesy of Mary Lane Poe) Mary Lane Poe

Mary Lane Poe is a member of the Desert Tortoise Council and the Southern Utah Climbers Alliance. She is a wildlife biologist, ecologist and advocate for the outdoors. She moved to Washington County in 2013 to work in Zion National Park. She serves on the Utah Resource Advisory Council and enjoys spending her time biking, hiking, climbing, and advocating for the conservation community.

(Photo courtesy of Freddy Dunn) Freddy Dunn

Freddy Dunn is a member of the Southwest Chapter of Back Country Horsemen of Utah. She has lived in St. George with her husband Larry since 2000 and has also been a member of Back Country Horsemen for 24 years. She has held leadership positions locally and statewide and was the first female president of Back Country Horsemen of America (2017-2019).

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