“Insulted,” was the word Washington County Commissioner Adam Snow used when Rep. John Curtis asked how it felt for local leaders when the federal government made plans for land it controls in the county without including them.

Snow said his family settled in southern Utah in 1849, and they’ve tried to be good stewards of the land since then.

“Nobody can love this county more than I do. Some people maybe love it just as much, but nobody loves it more, I guarantee you that,” said Snow. “And for us to be the stewards that we have, and ... the hard work that it took to make this an incredible place, then somebody can come in from Connecticut or California or somewhere else and say, ‘Trust us, you screwed it up for the last 180 years, let us tell you now how to do it,’ is insane.”

The frustration felt by Snow was echoed by the other county and state officials who testified Monday at a field hearing for the Federal Lands Subcommittee of the House Committee on Natural Resources. Curtis chaired the hearing, which was also attended by Rep. Celeste Maloy, whose 2nd Congressional District includes much of southwestern Utah, and Rep. Blake Moore, who represents Utah’s 1st District.

The hearing was held outdoors at the “Rock Bowl,” in a new development near Sand Hollow State Park in Hurricane, Utah, on an unusually warm April day. The over-capacity crowd sat on folding chairs and blankets in a venue surrounded by the region’s distinctive red rocks.

A tale of tortoises and transportation in Washington County

There are several points of conflict between federal and local officials over how to best protect, preserve and use the land in Utah — especially over the two-thirds of the state’s land controlled by the federal government — but the biggest complaints raised at the hearing were over the federal Bureau of Land Management’s decision to reverse approval of a right-of-way for the Northern Corridor, a 4½-mile road county officials hope to build on the western side of St. George. They say the road is necessary to relieve congestion in the area, and will grow more critical as the region’s growth continues to strain existing infrastructure.

State, county spend millions trying to get Northern Corridor built

The state and county have spent “millions” trying to build the road — both in attorneys’ fees and lost time, according to Carlos Braceras, executive director of the Utah Department of Transportation, in response to a question from Moore.

The four-lane highway would run through the federally protected Red Cliffs National Conservation Area. The BLM approved the right-of-way for the road in 2021 during the waning days of the Trump administration but then rolled that decision back a few months later after a lawsuit was brought by environmental groups over concerns about the Mojave desert tortoise, an endangered species.

Many of the attendees at the hearing applauded when Maloy, a former county attorney, called out “unelected bureaucrats” in Washington, D.C., who make decisions about federal land management in Utah without accountability to local residents.

The road has been part of the county’s transportation plan for “decades,” she said. The people at the table had “bargained in good faith” over a right-of-way for the road, but the decision to deny approval was made by bureaucrats who are not accountable to voters, she said, despite accommodations for the tortoises in the county’s plans.

Curtis, who started the Conservative Climate Caucus in the House, and is known for trying to take a balanced approach on issues related to the environment, said in his opening statement that federal red tape stopped Utah residents from enjoying the state’s public lands, and from building more affordable housing.

Later in the hearing, he said, “I’ve driven around the state. Sometimes as I’ve been on a road, I think of I-70 as an example, where I asked myself, ‘Would this ever be built today?’” He asked Braceras, “If we used the same standards we were using for the Northern Corridor, how would transportation in Utah look?”

“It’s hard to imagine we could do the things that we need to do to support our economy, our society,” Braceras replied. “Today, it seems like it’s much harder to do things that matter.”

Opponents to Northern Corridor push back

But there were other attendees at the hearing opposed to the Northern Corridor, who wore stickers that said “NO highway thru Red Cliffs.” They were not pleased with what they heard, or with who was allowed to speak. Holly Snow Canada, executive director Conserve Southwest Utah, told the Deseret News that “local and Indigenous voices were excluded from the hearing today.”

She said many of the opponents of the road could not attend the hearing because it was held 30 minutes outside of St. George, with little notice, in the middle of a workday.

Reps. Blake Moore, Celeste Maloy and John Curtis, all R-Utah, attend a field hearing for the Federal Lands Subcommittee of the House Committee on Natural Resources in Hurricane, Utah, on Monday, April 22, 2024. Local officials who testified included Adam Snow, Washington County commissioner, Eric Clarke, Washington County attorney, Carlos Braceras, executive director of Utah Department of Transportation, Zachary Renstrom, general manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District, and Darcy Stewart, CEO of Fieldhouse Development. | Suzanne Bates, Deseret News

But Curtis said those upset by the hearing should address their complaints to Democratic members of the subcommittee, who chose not to attend the hearing nor to extend an invitation to testify to those who support the BLM’s decision.

Kya Marienfeld, a wildlands attorney for Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said besides concerns about the tortoise, much of the opposition to the road comes from local residents who live in the Green Springs neighborhood and would have the highway “in their backyard.”

“They deserve to have their voices heard,” she said.

Maloy echoed that concern, but in relation to the residents of southern Utah who feel like their voices weren’t being heard because of federal overreach.

“I love the West because we have open space, because we have access to natural resources,” Maloy told the Deseret News after the hearing. “I want that lifestyle to continue. But I don’t want that lifestyle to be at the mercy of people who may or may not understand what that lifestyle is about.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story said Holly Snow Canada is executive director of Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. She is executive director Conserve Southwest Utah.