SALT LAKE CITY — It is a 4.3-mile proposed northern corridor in Washington County that proponents say could help alleviate congestion in the nation's fastest growing metropolitan area.

The problem is 1.9 miles of the "Washington Parkway" would cross the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, established to help the threatened Mohave desert tortoise.

A congressional hearing on a bill sponsored by Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, proposes the construction of the transportation corridor and utility corridor, but adds 6,800 acres of desert tortoise habitat to offset impacts.

"This bill is a good example of where we have made extraordinary progress," Stewart said Tuesday during a hearing of the House Natural Resources' Subcommittee on Federal Lands in Washington, D.C.

Washington County
Washington County | Aaron Thorup, Washington County

Stewart said the 2009 public lands omnibus bill passed by Congress clearly directed the Bureau of Land Management to identify a northern route in Washington County as part of its travel plan.

"It has not been implemented and it is desperately needed," he said.

His Desert Tortoise Conservation Plan Habitat Expansion Act disrupts 147 acres, specifically 65 acres in the Red Cliffs area, according to Washington County Commissioner Dean Cox. The Red Cliffs National Conservation Area occupies 45,000 acres of public and nonfederal land.

The addition of 6,865 acres to the reserve provides more "high-quality habitat" for the desert tortoise, which is found in southern Utah, Nevada and California, Cox said.

"The roadway would disturb 15 to 20 animals," Cox told the committee. "We would work really hard to minimize that."

Controversy over the planned corridor sparked a contentious meeting two years ago in St. George, where the same committee convened a rare hearing to blast the BLM for its failure to follow the "letter" of the 2009 law and allow the corridor.

But Paul Van Dam, a member of the board of directors of Conserve Southwest Utah, said the bill circumvents the Endangered Species Act by allowing a county to dictate the terms of a "take" of an animal and ways to mitigate that.

"The bill sets a bad precedent nationally," he said, adding "the highway is incompatible with protections for the desert tortoise."

Washington County, which manages the habitat conservation plan for the desert tortoise, has a good track record of conserving the species, Cox countered.

"For the past 22 years, Washington County has managed (the plan). We are not new to this. (We) have the highest densities of tortoise throughout its range," Cox said.

The Desert Tortoise Council wrote a letter in opposition to Stewart's proposal.

"The council believes that construction of this new highway would create new impacts and threats that cannot be mitigated by enlarging the existing reserve," wrote Edward L. LaRue Jr., chairman of the council's ecosystems advisory committee.