Conservation groups have filed a lawsuit against the Interior Department to prevent a highway from being built through Red Cliffs National Conservation Area. The groups claim that paving over the protected land would be a violation of bedrock environmental laws which require agencies to analyze potential environmental harms before making decisions.
Tom Butine is the president of Conserve Southwest Utah, an environmental group in St. George.
“We've protected this land for a purpose," said Butine. "And now we're saying that purpose isn't valid anymore. So, it's kind of saying, well, it doesn't really matter what is protected anywhere in the county. If you can get a friendly enough federal government. And if you can cobble together some reasons that can be passed off as logical, then you can do anything you want on any land anywhere.”
Red Cliffs was established as a conservation area in 2009 to help recover the endangered species, - the Mojave Desert tortoise.
Butine said that anything done in the conservation area needs to benefit the tortoises. Highways, he said, can be one of the worst things for them, and the location of this highway would impact the tortoises’ habitat.
“That area they want to put the highway through is the best and most successful habitat anywhere for this tortoise. Tortoises don't know what to do with highways," said Butine. "They can't get across them. They can't get over them.”
The main purpose of this lawsuit is to prevent the highway from being built.
“If a local government can disregard the Endangered Species Act and can disregard the purposes of protected land here, it means any local government anywhere can do it. So it really starts chipping away at some really basic environmental protections,” said Butine.