Utah’s leaders try to control Endangered Species Act, take lazy way on traffic planning
© Greg Nash

A disappointing and disturbing bill passed Wednesday in the House Committee on Natural Resources that threatens one of Utah’s and America’s treasured places. At its core, H.R. 5597 (introduced by Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah)) is a short-sighted and lazy approach to addressing population growth in Washington County, Utah.

It’s also a clear attempt by a local government to end-run congressional action to remove federal protections of public lands. But for a moment let’s focus on the alarming lack of foresight because Utahns deserve more from the people elected to serve our collective interests.

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The bill would restructure -- through congressional fiat and without local public input -- a long-standing management agreement for Southwest Utah’s Red Cliffs National Conservation Area. This agreement was made transparently and with local input, and for years has successfully balanced the desert tortoise’s habitat and survival with the region’s population and economic growth.

H.R. 5597 would upend that agreement and allow Washington County to construct a four-lane highway in the heart of prime tortoise habitat despite it being protected by the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the 2009 Omnibus Public Lands bill that permanently designated this area for tortoise habitat and the BLM’s Resource Management Plan.

The bill is short-sighted because it would permanently and severely scar the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area that both protects critical habitat for the desert tortoise and encompasses the very open space that makes St. George a huge economic draw for residents and tourists. There are nearly 300 outdoor companies in Rep. Stewart’s district and residents of the district spend $1.89 billion on outdoor recreation each year.

Nor is this about just one highway. Once built, roads tend to multiply and if we allow a highway within this designated conservation area, what’s to prevent further proliferation? It makes no economic or conservation sense to degrade this National Conservation Area and disrupt the pragmatic land management approach that has been able to accommodate both of these objectives.

Which bring us to the lazy part of this strategy: it’s an old plan that has been tried and failed. Previous efforts to get approval for the highway through this National Conservation Area have been attempted and turned down many times by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

This time around, H.R. 5597 shamelessly avoids a public participation process and ignores the will of local constituents, perhaps because the majority of them oppose a highway through the National Conservation Area and want our leaders to find a more effective solution for mitigating traffic.

Red Cliffs is among the “crown jewels” Congress has designated as “national conservation areas” within Bureau of Land Management public lands. As such, they are protected from development for current and future generations. This is why the addition of a bait-and-switch land-swap within H.R. 5597 undermines the national concept of conservation areas and is a non-starter as a mitigation solution.

We can grow our economy but we can’t grow more wilderness and open space. Instead of wasting valuable taxpayer dollars on pursuing a highway that will forever scar the treasured places that make St. George such an attractive place to live and visit, our elected officials would do us better by showing some foresight and not relying on a stale and ineffective plan.

There are alternatives that would more effectively resolve our local traffic issues. We deserve leadership that finds solutions to accommodating development for growth while leaving the National Conservation Area intact.

H.R. 5597 would undermine the intent of Congress when it designated the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area and is a blatant end-run by county commissioners unwilling to go through a transparent public engagement process.

We strongly urge Congress to respect the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area designation, current laws, and the public process and investment taxpayers have made to identify the best management plans for this special place and oppose H.R. 5597.

Van Dam is a former Utah Attorney General and board member of Conserve Southwest Utah, St George, Utah.