Fighting to Stop BLM’s Plan to Build a Four-Lane Highway on Utah Lands Set Aside for Conservation

10th of Sep 2020

Advocates for the West is working with Conservation Lands Foundation, Conserve Southwest Utah and other allies in an effort to stop the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) from punching a four-lane highway through an area acquired for the purposes of conservation and recreation in southwest Utah’s Red Cliffs National Conservation Area (NCA). BLM’s own environmental review process determined that alternative transportation routes to the Northern Corridor Highway outside of the NCA are best for reducing traffic, yet the agency maintains its preference to build a highway through Red Cliffs.
An analysis of BLM land use and acquisition records shows that the agency is planning a highway on land that was purchased with Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) funding. LWCF is a federal program that invests a portion of revenue from offshore drilling toward protecting land, water, and recreation areas for all Americans. Full and permanent funding for LWCF was recently signed into law as part of the Great American Outdoors Act, which garnered broad bipartisan support.
To date, BLM has used over $20 million from LWCF to acquire more than 831 acres in Red Cliffs NCA under the auspices of outdoor recreation and conservation of wildlife habitat, including for the threatened Mojave desert tortoise. As recently as last year, BLM acquired land within the footprint of the proposed Northern Corridor Highway using LWCF funds. However, the current BLM and U.S. Fish & Wildlife (USFWS) plan will misuse those funds for the construction of the highway.
This improper use of LWCF funds is the latest in a series of steps BLM has taken to play fast and loose with the approval of the controversial four-lane highway. On the heels of two wildfires that devastated about 14,000 acres within the NCA last month, BLM ignored a formal request by Advocates and others to suspend its environmental review until BLM could prepare an assessment of the fire damage. Similar fires in 2005 burned approximately 11,500 acres of the Red Cliffs NCA, and killed fully 15% of the desert tortoise population.
“During my tenure at the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, I closely followed all proposed and completed land exchanges in the Reserve. I know for a fact that the intent of acquiring these lands with LWCF funds was to ensure their permanent biological protection and conservation. It was never the intent of these funds to support a future highway through the Reserve,” said Bill Mader, first Administrator of the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve. 
Local and national conservation advocates are alarmed that by misusing LWCF funds for development in Utah, BLM is setting a dangerous precedent that threatens LWCF-funded public lands nationwide.
“We will not sit idly while BLM abuses the public’s trust and diverts millions of dollars from the Land and Water Conservation Fund to pave paradise and put up a four-lane highway,” said Senior Attorney Todd Tucci. “The Great American Outdoors Act does not allow BLM to convert to a highway public lands acquired for conservation and wildlife habitat purposes, and we will fight for the integrity of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.” 
BLM’s misuse of LWCF funds violates a longstanding agreement between federal and local agencies that dictates the purpose of Red Cliffs NCA. The benefits of the 20-year old agreement include preserving critical wildlife habitat, biodiversity, world-class recreation, stunning scenery and the local economies that depend on and are growing from these assets.