Save Red Cliffs Desert Reserve
Due to a lawsuit filed by Conserve Southwest Utah, the federal government is now considering removing over 6,800 acres from the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve. In 2021, the Reserve was expanded, in conjunction with approval of the Northern Corridor, to protect:
- The threatened Mojave Desert Tortoise
- The endangered Dwarf Bear Poppy
- Zen and Bear Poppy Bike Trails
- Moe’s Valley and Green Valley Gap Climbing
- 65 miles of other multi-use trails
If the BLM rescinds the Northern Corridor authorization, half of these protected lands may be sold off and privately developed. Access to public recreation areas could be denied. Vulnerable species will lose their protection. The habitat may be destroyed.
In 2021, the Northern Corridor right-of-way was authorized as part of a long-negotiated agreement with federal agencies to construct a connection between Washington Parkway and Red Hills Parkway. Over 6,800 acres were added to the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve (Zone 6) to replace the 150 acres within the Reserve that would be used for the roadway. With a 6,650-acre net gain in habitat protection, this approach supported conservation and necessary road infrastructure in the County.
Now, federal agencies have entered into a settlement agreement with Conserve Southwest Utah and are reconsidering those 2021 decisions.
Conserve Southwest Utah and its partnering environmental groups would no doubt prefer that federal agencies stop the road and keep the new Reserve. However, this is not a legal option. If the BLM revokes the road permit, it will also abolish the 6,800-acre Reserve expansion, which could result in:
- 3,300 acres of tortoise/poppy habitat developed
- 500+ tortoises relocated or killed
- 55,000+ dwarf bear poppies demolished
- $15 million reduction in conservation funding
- 65 miles of multi-use trails put at risk
Frequently Asked Questions
Why is the Reserve expansion area needed?
The expansion of Red Cliffs Desert Reserve (aka Zone 6) is essential to protect vulnerable plant and wildlife species and its recreational opportunities. This Reserve spans over 6,800 acres and is home to nearly 800 federally threatened Mojave desert tortoises and 24,000 endangered dwarf-bear poppies. The private lands in this area were previously included in the County’s incidental take permit, allowing them to be developed. But with approval of the Northern Corridor in 2021, they were instead added to the Reserve. This made them unavailable for development. They have since been managed to protect the tortoise, poppy and to preserve outdoor recreation opportunities. The Zen and Dwarf-bear Poppy trails are among the most highly ridden bike trails in the County. Moe’s Valley and Green Valley Gap are internationally recognized climbing destinations.
Why do we need the Northern Corridor?
Washington Parkway (aka Northern Corridor) has been a part of local transportation planning efforts for several decades. As Washington County continues to grow, traffic models show significant slowdowns along St. George Blvd, Red Hills Parkway and other surrounding areas. Due to the local topography, a natural bottleneck occurs at the Middleton Black ridge where few roads are capable of passing through. The proposed road would add another vital connection between Washington and St. George to alleviate the traffic caused by this bottleneck. Without eventual construction of the Northern Corridor, our community will suffer from increased traffic, congestion and significant air pollution.
Why not stop the road and keep the new Reserve?
Conserve Southwest Utah and other environmental groups would prefer to stop the road and keep Zone 6. However, this is NOT a legal option available to the federal government and, as shown in the public scoping meeting, it will not even be considered in the SEIS. First, most of the land in Zone 6 is not federally managed. It’s owned by School Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA). They are mandated to raise money off the land to support Utah schools. They agreed to have their lands in the Reserve contingent upon the Northern Corridor approval. To keep the lands protected in the future, the long-term plan called for exchanges with the BLM. This would allow SITLA to make money off their lands at a different location while BLM or other wildlife agency could care for the lands to protect the tortoise, poppy and recreational values in Zone 6. But if Zone 6 is not a part of the Reserve, those exchanges will never be realized and SITLA will need to pursue other options to monetize their land. In most instances in the County, that means selling the land to developers.
The County’s Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) is another reason federal agencies cannot require the inclusion of Zone 6 in the Reserve. HCPs are voluntary agreements that local entities (like the County) enter into with the federal government to facilitate development while at the same time protecting threatened or endangered species. The federal government encourages these agreements since many species are more vulnerable on state and private lands. To this end, federal agencies include something called “No Surprises Assurances” with each HCP agreement. This clause essentially states that a deal is a deal and they will not come back at a later date and ask for additional compensation in land or money. As a result of No Surprises Assurances, and SITLAs mandate to make money from their land, the only viable path to keep these lands protected is to re-affirm the original decision to allow the Northern Corridor.
When and how was the Northern Corridor approved?
In 2009, Congress ensured that the Northern Corridor would eventually be built when designating the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area (NCA) through an Omnibus Bill. With the NCA designation, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was mandated to include a route for this corridor in its Travel Management Plan in no more than three years. A full 12 years later and the BLM has still not completed a Travel Management Plan. With no plan in place, Utah Department of Transportation submitted an application to BLM for a Northern Corridor right-of-way (ROW). It was reviewed and carefully analyzed for several years, resulting in a Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) and the issuance of a ROW permit in 2021. It was intended that the approved route would be incorporated into the BLMs Travel Management Plan whenever they are able to complete it at a future date.
How does the Reserve expansion area compare to the road impacts?
The Northern Corridor affects the desert tortoise, but it’s important to evaluate how those effects compare to the new Reserve which was intended to offset those impacts. The Northern Corridor would consist of a 300-foot right-of-way spanning approximately 1.9 miles over federal land and 2.4 miles over state and private lands. In total, this would result in the removal of 150-acres of tortoise habitat from the Reserve of which approximately 65 acres occur in the NCA. An estimated 50 tortoises would be moved out of the fenced right-of-way prior to construction of the road. Comparatively, the Reserve Zone 6 is significantly larger, with a lot more tortoises. It supports 6,812 acres and an estimated 771 tortoises. Of those, 3,341 acres are state or privately owned and would otherwise be authorized for development (the eastern half of Zone 6). If that occurs, it could require the removal of up to 500 tortoises.
What is a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS)?
A Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) can occur when new information comes to light after a Final EIS is completed. At the urging of Conserve Southwest Utah and other litigating groups, the federal government agreed to complete an SEIS to additionally study wildland fires and how their negative impacts may affect the right-of-way decision.
Will tortoises be able to cross the road?
While the relocation does initially stress tortoises, after a short time they return to their normal behavior and learn to utilize the crossing features if they want to explore other parts of the Reserve. Using camera traps at culverts on the similarly built Red Hills Parkway, Washington County documented 429 tortoise observations in 2022 and 2023. These observations included a minimum of 118 confirmed crossings, by at least 24 different tortoise individuals in 2022 and 26 different individuals in 2023. The cameras were not ideally suited for this set up and often failed to capture either the exit or the entrance of the tortoise on 211 occasions. However, using the data where both enter and exit photos were confirmed, approximately 60% of the usage was for passage and 40% of the usage was for temporary shelter. Due to the frequent camera failure rate, the confirmed 118 crossing events likely represent less than half of the actual crossings that occurred. Not only do culverts allow for safe passage under the road and offer day-time sheltering or cooling, but in one instance, newly hatched tortoises were discovered at the mouth of a culvert. In the 2023 study, two distinctly marked tortoises were found using multiple culverts separated by 800 meters. This suggest that they can travel long distances and are capable of finding safe passage through difficult to navigate landscapes. Crossing features for tortoises at the Northern Corridor would be larger, more closely spaced, and more suitable than what was done for Red Hills Parkway. See 4/20/23 & 12/20/23 reports.
What about rare plants? How are they affected by these decisions?
While desert tortoises would greatly benefit from keeping Zone 6, there are also two federally endangered plant species which occur there. Dwarf bear poppies thrive on the thick biological crusts prominent throughout the central portion of Zone 6. Drone surveys of this area recently estimated a population of over 55,000 poppies. Approximately 24,000 of these plants occur on the State-owned properties, meaning that they do not otherwise have any federal protection. If Reserve status is eliminated, the State could sell those lands to developers and those plants could be entirely demolished with no mitigation required. Holmgren’s milkvetch also occurs in the northwest corner of Zone 6 and it benefits from the Reserve designation because of increased habitat management, law enforcement, elimination of grazing, and the County’s outreach program. Conversely, the Northern Corridor ROW does not support habitat for any listed plants. Therefore, its authorization would actually provide a pathway to protect both dwarf-bear poppies and Holmgren’s milkvetch which are otherwise at risk.
|Land Ownership in Zone 6
|Estimated No. Poppies
Kody Rominger 2023 data – sent 12/7/2023
How is conservation funding affected by these decisions?
The County’s Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) is the primary funding source to help manage and protect tortoises in the County. This agreement between the County and US Fish and Wildlife Service was first made in 1996. The County in good faith spent over $15 million dollars implementing the plan during the first permit period which ended in 2016. The renewed permit, approved in 2021, is set to expire in 2046. During that 25-year permit period, the HCP agrees to support nearly $28 million in tortoise related conservation funding. However, if the Northern Corridor does not occur, and Zone 6 is not established, the conservation funding available in that agreement shrinks to under $12 million. Those additional $15 million dollars could be used to reduce fires, restore habitat, construct fencing, monitor tortoises, manage recreation, increase law enforcement, and control raven predation.
What Can You Do?
You can provide comments to the federal government before December 28 at https://www.washco.utah.gov/northern-corridor/
You can also reach out directly to the Bureau of Land Management, US Fish and Wildlife Service and Conserve Southwest Utah. Specifically remind them of the greater loss to tortoise, poppy and recreational values if they reverse or undo the 2021 decisions.
Bureau of Land Management
345 E Riverside Drive
St. George, UT 84790
US Fish and Wildlife Service
2369 W Orton Cir #50
West Valley City, UT 84119
Conserve Southwest Utah
321 N Mall Dr B202
St. George, UT 84790