Local Voices Left Out Of Public Hearing

May 05, 2024 (The Independent)

Some battles are worth the fight. For eighteen of my twenty-four years in Washington County, I have been involved in public land issues; specifically the contentious Northern Corridor highway proposed through our Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, most of which is now Red Cliffs National Conservation Area.

The highway is in the news again along with renewed interest in transferring public lands to the state. I’ve written about the Northern Corridor recently, but an update is required following the April 22 public hearing on the issues.

The hearing was held on Earth Day. It was an unfortunate and vivid example of the divided politics we are witnessing in this state and country, while using Earth Day in a feigned attempt to show love for our public land. The hearing titled “Empowering Local Voices and Stopping Federal Overreach to Improve the Management of Utah’s Public Lands” provided no real opportunity for local voices – at least not any that disagreed with those of the event organizers and speakers.

Held at noon outside on a ninety-degree day, citizens who attended were required to sit in the sweltering heat while members of the House Subcommittee on Federal Lands and others who were speaking out against how our public lands are managed and in favor of the contentious Northern Corridor sat under a covered area.

There was no opportunity for dissent at this event. Republican Representative John Curtis led the event that had no Democrats on the stage to counter the Republican position on the issues. Other federal lands subcommittee members – who support our public lands and might otherwise have attended – were advised of the April 22 hearing via the April 15 Field Hearing Notice and expected to confirm attendance by April 16. Given legislators’ busy and demanding schedules, they were probably already committed to other Earth Day activities.

The process and timing on this hearing squelched opposing information on these important topics, rather than have a fair and honest presentation of the facts. Organizers did not even allow representatives of Conserve Southwest Utah – local voices! – to have a say and present opposing information.

Contrast that to the January 22, 2016 public land hearing held in St. George, Utah, which I attended. Organizers gave those who testified at that hearing, including my partner, former Utah Attorney General Paul Van Dam, plenty of notice and time to prepare testimony. Although that hearing also highlighted the passion and divisions around the topic of public land and the Northern Corridor, at least both sides had a say.

The proposed Northern Corridor through Red Cliffs NCA, was a key topic during the April 22 public land hearing. Apparently, however, as noted by Dixie Metropolitan Planning Organization estimates, the highway would reduce traffic congestion by a mere fifteen percent. Anyone who has driven recently in Washington County, surely knows that fifteen percent seems a ludicrous reason to run a damaging highway through a National Conservation Area even as growth in the county continues unchecked and with abandon.

One speaker asserted that the modeling done for the June 2020 draft Environmental Impact Statement was outdated and felt that new population growth data would show the need for the Northern Corridor. However, as shown in my previous article, new data from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute reveal that growth in Washington County from 2022 to mid-2023 actually slowed. Washington County’s mid-2023 population was 198,533 according to the institute’s report. That’s less than what was projected in the studies supporting another contentious issue: the Lake Powell Pipeline (LPP). Washington County’s growth rate was 2.4% during the period reviewed while the LPP studies projected a 3.6% annual growth rate. So, perhaps the need for a road that would reduce traffic congestion by a mere fifteen percent is even more questionable now.

Even before this latest revelation about slowed growth, evidence provided in the 2020 Draft EIS (DEIS) and 2020 Final EIS (FEIS) supports the fact that the Utah Department of Transportation’s (UDOT) requested right-of-way for the Northern Corridor is not needed. I presented this information in my previous article, but it bears repeating. The 2020 DEIS and FEIS contain a report titled “Highway Alternatives Development Technical Report” (May 2020) by Jacobs, an engineering firm. Two alternatives – Red Hills Parkway Expressway and St. George Boulevard/100 South One-way Couplet – perform as well or better than UDOT’s and the county’s preferred route through Red Cliffs Zone 3.

Two alternatives – Red Hills Parkway Expressway and St. George Boulevard/100 South One-way Couplet – perform as well or better than UDOT’s and the county’s preferred route through Red Cliffs Zone 3.

Several hearing speakers referenced the 2009 Omnibus Public Land Management Act that created Red Cliffs National Conservation Area in their failed attempt to show that the highway was required by that Act. The 2009 legislation only states that in developing a travel management plan for the NCA, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) must “identify 1 or more alternatives for a northern transportation route in the county”. It does not require a route located within the Red Cliffs NCA– it must only consider a route “in the county”.

But one must go back before the 2009 Act to understand the decisions upon which Red Cliffs was established. Dr. Wiliam Mader, first administrator of Red Cliffs Desert Reserve (now primarily Red Cliffs NCA) had planned to testify at the April 22 hearing, but event organizers refused to allow him to participate. Conserve Southwest Utah has posted Dr. Mader planned testimony which makes it clear that “A highway through Red Cliffs was never included in any long-range reserve planning documents because, even in the early 90s, it was understood that a highway through the reserve would be catastrophic.” So, highway proponents may assert that the Northern Corridor has been in the plans for decades but wishing doesn’t make it so!

Complaints were made by one speaker at the event about the amount of money the county has spent on managing Zone 6 that was established to serve as mitigation (replacement) for the acres that would be taken for the Northern Corridor. The draft EIS that included Zone 6 came out in June 2020 and the final EIS came out in December 2020 supporting the NC right-of-way through Red Cliffs. However, a decision made by agencies regarding the highway’s right-of-way (ROW) was then litigated, and the agencies are now required to review the decision and provide a Supplemental EIS this year. Surely the county had to know the agencies’ 2020 decision would be challenged by environmental organizations, and six months later, June 2021, a lawsuit against the Interior Department was filed. So, whose problem is it that the county spent lots of money on managing the new Zone 6 since as early as June, 2021, they knew it was embroiled in a lawsuit? Didn’t they think it was wiser use of our county tax money to hold off until the lawsuit decision was made? Using poor spending decisions as rationale for needing the Northern Corridor ROW and complaining about what’s occurring now is not reasonable.

Zone 6 2017 tortoise surveys revealed that many of the tortoises found were adults which could have been there for a long time. Zone 6 probably should have been included in Red Cliffs Desert Reserve back in the 1990s but was not. As is made clear by Conserve Southwest Utah and the BLM, about half of Zone 6 was protected by the BLM anyway. The part that is TLA (formerly SITLA) land could have been and can be even now sold and developed at any time. If the Northern Corridor ROW is not approved and Zone 6 returns to its pre-FEIS status, protections will still be in place. If the county truly valued the Mojave desert tortoise and wanted them protected, they would do so without the Northern Corridor and quit sniveling about wasting money when they don’t need to do so.

Regarding the transfer of public land to the county, also a hearing issue, the assertion was made that more public land provided to our and other Utah areas would help our affordable housing problem. That, too, is ludicrous. Our public lands should not be dumping grounds and will not help solve housing problems we have created ourselves on land already developed. As shown in the Utah Foundation’s “Moving Utahns Toward Homeownership: Benefits, Rates, Affordability, and Obstacles” the lack of affordable housing is much more complex than just adding more land to the mix.  Fortunately, some bills were passed in the 2024 Utah General Session of the 65th Legislature that address the housing affordability issue with the land we already have. Better zoning, first-time homebuyer programs, and encouraging state land authorities, including Trust Lands Administration, to make affordable housing part of their mission are a few things that might help. When you have an authority such as TLA that’s dedicated to making as much money as possible for Utah’s schools via their land sales, that doesn’t help keep home prices down.

The referenced Utah Foundation report also points out that, “Local unaffordability may also be related to the reality that higher interest rates can lead to a lack of financing opportunities for construction. Not surprisingly, issued building permits have decreased dramatically from their 2021-2022 peak.” More public land would not negate the effect that higher interest rates has had on housing costs.

The housing and transportation problems that the biased speakers at the Earth Day hearing asserted would be solved by the availability of more land and by building the Northern Corridor are red herrings intended to take our minds off the real problems: poor local decisions and unfettered growth. More public land will not solve our housing affordability problem. And, the highway will not solve our transportation problem but would set a terrible precedent for our nation’s national conservation areas. Poorly orchestrated public hearings such as the April 22 event will not make the truth any less evident or prevent local voices from having a say however and whenever we can!

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Referenced Reports