Citizens group president speaks out against highway through Red Cliffs Reserve in Utah

In response to a recent article and editorial generated  by a recent $200,000 study concerning a proposed Northern Corridor highway being  routed through the Red Cliffs Reserve, this piece will explain why the existing  Red Cliffs Reserve was set aside and why this proposed new highway is a flawed  idea. 

Red Cliffs Reserve Arch

Above: Red Cliffs Reserve

First, Congress created the Endangered Species Act of  1973 (ESA) to provide a means whereby ecosystems upon which threatened and  endangered species depend may be conserved. President Nixon signed it into law.  The ESA generally prohibits the “taking” of any federally listed species and “take” includes modification of habitat that would result in harm to a listed  species. The Mojave population of desert tortoise was deemed “threatened” under  the ESA in 1990 because of population declines attributed primarily to habitat  loss, deterioration, fragmentation and disease.

Second, conflict arose between development and federal  protection of the desert tortoise. Development on private lands could have been  halted by this conflict, but in 1995 Washington County, then one of the  fastest-growing areas in the nation, wisely assembled a committee to develop a  Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) in order to obtain an incidental take permit  from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). On Feb. 23, 1996, Washington  County signed the HCP, which set aside 62,000 acres as the Red Cliffs Desert  Reserve to protect that tortoise habitat, and in return, 300,000 acres of other  tortoise habitat in our county was permitted for development and associated  incidental taking of desert tortoise.

Third, the bipartisan 2009 Washington County Lands Bill  designated federal land within the reserve as the Red Cliffs National  Conservation Area (NCA) to conserve, protect and enhance for the benefit and  enjoyment of present and future generations .

Finally, on the national level HCPs have been an  effective management tool for federally listed species. To discard all or  portions of the working Washington County HCP now that nearly all the tortoise  habitat outside the reserve has been developed, would set a disturbing precedent  for the approximately 400 HCPs nationwide. Such action could lead to revocation  of Washington County’s incidental take permit and may preclude future  development in habitats of other special status species.

A highway through the HCP area has been proposed and  rejected several times before. The FWS commented previously that such “a road  would compromise the commitments on which the Washington County HCP was based,  is likely to compromise the biological integrity of the (desert tortoise)  recovery unit, and may result in an adverse modification of designated critical  habitat.”

Bottom line, the proposed Northern Corridor highway  should not be looked at only from the perspective of projected future traffic needs. The county should honor its agreements and not renege on the deal.

Mike Small is president of Citizens For Dixie’s  Future.

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