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.
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.