Northern corridor talks: Tortoises and a tunnel

The Red Cliffs National Conservation Area overlaps most of the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, Washington County, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management, St. George News
A desert tortoise crosses the trail in Johnson Canyon, Snow Canyon State Park, Utah, Sept. 21, 2014 | Photo by Julie Applegate, St. George News
A desert tortoise crosses the trail in Johnson Canyon, Snow Canyon State Park, Utah, Sept. 21, 2014 | Photo by Julie Applegate, St. George News

ST. GEORGE – Local officials and wildlife managers plan to meet and get down to the nitty-gritty of how, or whether, a northern corridor could be built without harming the endangered desert tortoise.

The group will consider all options and all new technologies, including building a tunnel for a road underneath a small part of the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve. 

County officials and local transportation planners have long planned on a northern route to ease traffic congestion from expected population growth in Southern Utah.

However, wildlife biologists and others have said building it through the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve would harm the tortoise the reserve was created to protect.

Read more: Northern corridor through tortoise habitat? Maybe, maybe not

But after years of sometimes contentious wrangling, a group of interested parties will sit down and try to hammer out their differences.

“There’s no question in the mind of the County Commission and all of the mayors and city councils – in essence the elected officials of the cities – that this northern corridor is going to be an essential part of the transportation network for this region of the state,” Ivins Mayor Chris Hart said at the June 28 Habitat Conservation Advisory Committee meeting.

Map of desert tortoise recovery areas | Image courtesy of Washington County, St. George News
Map of desert tortoise recovery areas | Image courtesy of Washington County, St. George News | Click on image to enlarge

“The way that we are broken up, you don’t have the luxury of just moving down the road or down the hillside a little bit,” Hart said. “There aren’t a lot of ways to do this.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s stated position has been that it doesn’t see how the impacts to the desert tortoise could be adequately avoided, minimized or mitigated, advisory committee member Larry Crist said.

“Now, I don’t think there’s been a full discussion on that yet in terms of not all options have been put on the table,” Crist said. “We’re open to further discussion on this … we’re willing to sit down and discuss it.”

The proposal to put a road across the reserve raises several issues for biologists tasked with protecting the tortoise. One big issue is fragmentation of the reserve which could cause genetic problems in the tortoise population. Roads also bring in invasive species and an associated wildfire risk, Crist said.

“It’s going to be a difficult conversation. I won’t pretend that it will be easy, I’m being honest here.”

Monitoring desert tortoise burrows after a fire, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Washington County, Utah, photo undated | Photo courtesy of Bureau of Land Management St. George Field Office, St. George News
Monitoring desert tortoise burrows after a fire, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Washington County, Utah, photo undated | Photo courtesy of Bureau of Land Management St. George Field Office, St. George News

“I think if we took a look at some of the innovative solutions, it might be possible. I won’t guarantee that, but we are open to that discussion just as we’ve always been,” Crist said.

From the perspective of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the question is not “how can we put a highway in the least impactful way?” Crist said. It’s whether it would be possible to adequately mitigate a highway in the reserve.

The reserve itself is mitigation for other tortoise habitat lost to development; a deal struck by the Habitat Conservation Plan 20 years ago.

Read more: Habitat Conservation Plan expires after 20 years of protecting tortoises; renewal efforts continue

“I’d just like to get everything out on the table and have everybody take an honest look at it and determine what the best possible option might be,” Hart said, “and then, see where that might go.”

While the northern route is not needed anytime soon, options are dwindling.

“I think your mitigation options are disappearing as you speak, and so you would want to be working on this now,” Crist said.

Read more: Northern corridor through tortoise habitat? Maybe, maybe not

Crist suggested putting together a team of people to look at ways of building highways that would not be impactful to the tortoise and identify areas that might need more research.

“On the one extreme, you have the tunnel idea. That works pretty well (for the tortoise),” Crist said.

Other options include alternate routes that don’t traverse prime tortoise habitat and new technology that might minimize habitat damage if a road were to be built through the reserve.

And while committee members at first joked at the mention of building a tunnel, after some discussion it was decided that all possibilities must be looked at. New technology and advances in tunnel building technology might make the option a viable one in the future.

Washington County Commissioner Alan Gardner said he is not aware of any other similar effort to sit down and try to problem-solve.

“We’re sitting on several hundred feet of sandstone through (the reserve). Going through that might be the easiest answer,” Gardner said, laughing. “It could be a lot straighter shot.”

There have been presentations from all sides of the issue, but having a group of all interested parties sit down and work together has not been done, biologist and Habitat Conservation Technical Committee member Nathan Brown said.

“An actual collaborative multi-stakeholder group hasn’t been put together,” Brown said.

“It’s been more in the nature of taking potshots at each other,” Crist quipped.

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Twitter: @STGnews

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  • Wes July 6, 2016 at 10:18 am

    We need this road. Anyone living North of St. George would be using this frequently. The use of this road would save tens of thousands of dollars in gas & time saved. Please don’t let the Wildlife Service kill this project because of their pet program. Stand up for your constituents, the people who live & work & pay taxes here.

  • KarenS July 6, 2016 at 10:59 am

    It is indeed refreshing to see interested parties sit down and talk about plans that involve all citizens in the area. Transportation is a big issue and needs to be discussed by all parties. The article says that the Northern Corridor is “not needed anytime soon” which, to me, indicates that the growth projections of Washington County need to be updated. And, most important, those updates should include available water resources, including discussions (and voter involvement) for or against the Lake Powell Pipeline. At this point, the Lake Powell Pipeline plan has considerable flaws including funding and potentially crippling lack of water from Lake Powell. Every citizen should be aware and follow the process and not leave it up to developers.

  • Dene July 6, 2016 at 12:54 pm

    Please show me ONE turtle that has mitigated from Beaver Dam, NV to Palmdale CA or I make is easier from Beaver Dam to Las Vegas. All I see is a BIG land grab by the Federal Fish and Game.

    • Lastdays July 6, 2016 at 2:53 pm

      Mitigated or Migrated ? They definitely didn’t migrate from the Mojave Desert to this area. STG residents started picking them up in the desert after visits to California and Nevada many years ago as early as the 1940’s probably. Then when the kids (and parents) got sick of the tortoise tied up in the yard, they took them up on the Red Hill. Probably a 100% chance they are not indigenous to this area.
      Creation of the HCP and then the Reserve will go down as one of the biggest scams to ever hit this area.

      • KarenS July 6, 2016 at 4:21 pm

        While it is true that the local population of tortoises was augmented by the escape and release of captive pet tortoises brought to the area from Arizona and Nevada, tortoises are native to this area too. St. George and the surrounding communities are nestled in the northernmost extension of the Mojave Desert. Mojave species include the Joshua Tree, Creosote bush, Gila monster, sidewinder rattlesnake, and desert tortoise.

        The Mojave Desert Tortoise is found fairly evenly throughout the Red Cliffs National Recreation Area in the lowlands areas which would be unlikely if they were all imports from CA and AZ and had escaped. The fact that all of the other species of plants and animals in the Mojave Desert are also found here is also evidence that the tortoises are native.

    • Eric July 6, 2016 at 11:39 pm

      I run up in those hills daily…all over…the past 3 years. The only thing I’ve ever seen is a d…* jackrabbit. The only turtle I’ve seen is the one on the stupid sign. We need better roads all over, period. That or they need to slow down on trying to get more people to freaking mover here.
      *Ed. ellipses

  • Not_So_Much July 6, 2016 at 4:42 pm

    No, no, no. No to the northern route, no to the water pipeline and no to the forces behind pushing all this BS.

  • Common Sense July 6, 2016 at 6:52 pm

    The desert tortoise in the reserve are abundant. There is NO traffic here. I am sorry it is such a huge expensive inconvenience for you to have to drive all the way around. It must be awful. You poor thing.

  • dellie July 6, 2016 at 10:14 pm

    This is nothing but a way for the powers that be to get their grubby hands on that land to develope it. Chris Hart should recuse himself as a builder developer from any involvement in this project as he has a vested interest to line his pockets from being able to build along that corridor once they get that highway in. It’s not just about the highway it’s about the land around it including Snow Canyon Park that they want.

  • Brugh July 7, 2016 at 12:23 am

    Like I’ve been saying…its not about tortoises, projected traffic and growth of our area. Just look at all the dealings this lil conflict has had. The trading of 150+ acres of conservation land, which has ended…for 650+ acres of land. That’s 4 times the amount…whats so special about this land that they’re willing to trade that much acreage for? 2, its been clear…this road is not wanted nor needed! Other resources are needed before this could be necessary…those plans i.e. pipeline from powell are ridiculous in itself. Now they want to tunnel through red rock??? There’s been a mirage pulled over this areas eyes since the beginning…well I should say a redsand stucco/plastering of sorts. As these lands open up…as well as outsider eyes…the need to make plans of these sorts become more apparent! The disillusion of the “natural” wonderment of the areas red rocks is close to becoming known. Sometimes when you actually put two and two together…the outcome may be exactly what is supposed to be!

  • [email protected] July 7, 2016 at 11:53 am

    Since almost all the expensive controversial projects are related to expected (desired?) population growth, how about a little more serious, rational thought about how to mitigate the growth “problem”? Perhaps something like a limit on building permits to some manageable number per year. I’ve chatted with local builders and there seems to be consensus that they’d like to see steady predictable demand rather than the boom/bust cycles that we have seen in the past. People move away, people die, there will always be housing available for some new people to move here, just not at the rate that the business community of the County would like to see.

  • Bender July 7, 2016 at 1:50 pm

    I can’t see a lot more growth happening in W. St George, Santa Clara and especially Ivins without congestion on Sunset Blvd and Snow Canyon parkway becoming unbearable. I share the county administration’s angst over possibly not being able to address this with a new route through the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve. I am, however, perplexed that the county and the three cities have not preserved a right of way for the corridor from Highway 18 over to Old Highway 91. Snow Canyon parkway, as it is now exists, is not going to handle a lot more traffic. It seems too late already for right of way to be carved out with all of the development that has taken place in the past decade. Carving out right of ways through private land is ugly and messy work and I suspect that although the local planners know it is needed, there is no appetite among local politicians to make it happen. Landowner’s and developer’s rights reign supreme.

  • .... July 8, 2016 at 9:30 am

    The Mexican cartels are using the tutles two smuggle illegals into the country. and that’s why the turtles are here

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