| My Turn
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the Northern Corridor Highway on Nov. 13. The FEIS cements the BLM’s preference for UDOT Alternative 3 which would travel through the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area (NCA)/Reserve, including portions devasted by recent wildfires.
The Turkey Farm Road, Cottonwood Trail, and Lava Ridge Fires burned 25% of the Reserve this summer, showing us that in addition to the threatened Mojave desert tortoise, the survival of thousands of homeowners living next to Red Cliffs is at stake. When tortoise habitat repeatedly burns, it’s only a matter of time before nearby neighborhoods burn too.
Careful study of these fires is necessary to understand the interplay between the proposed Northern Corridor Highway, the survival of the threatened Mojave desert tortoise, and the safety of thousands of Washington County residents. These fires caused evacuations in Green Springs, Harrisburg, Angel Heights and Leeds, cost millions of dollars to extinguish and were ignited by people on roads. When one careless mistake can jeopardize multiple neighborhoods and an entire ecosystem, it’s time to slow down and think.
Yet BLM failed to wait to deliver their final decision on the location of the Northern Corridor until after studying the impacts of these fires. Instead, they released a FEIS which claims that “the 2020 wildfires do not represent a significant new circumstance or information”, and which flies in the face of analysis showing that transportation alternatives located outside of Red Cliffs are most effective at reducing traffic congestion and protecting the trails, scenery and wildlife that residents cherish.
Thick fields of invasive Sahara mustard and cheatgrass wait like tinder in front of the blackened Mustang Mesa in the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve/National Conservation Area following the Turkey Farm Road Fire. Photo by Sarah Thomas.
Unfortunately, early discussion of the fires at public meetings has been misinterpreted, leading to the incorrect idea that the fires were not a big deal. In August, minutes from a Habitat Conservation Advisory Committee meeting state that “the HCP has begun conducting post-fire surveys, and to date, are finding an average of three to four live tortoises to every deceased tortoise. These results are very preliminary and it is too soon to draw conclusions based on these findings.”
Findings from a two-day survey of a fragment of the 12,000-acre Turkey Farm Road burn scar completed with volunteers are indeed preliminary. Seeing three live tortoises for every one dead tortoise in no way means that the population is stable or can endure further damage by the Northern Corridor Highway.
The Cottonwood Trail Fire Tortoise Mortality Survey Report released by the BLM contradicts the idea that finding live tortoises means everything is going to be okay. It reveals high mortality comparable to that of the 2005 wildfires which burned 14,634 acres in Red Cliffs, killing 15% of the desert tortoises living in Zone 3. The report concludes that the fires “will likely have significant population-level effects on tortoises within their respective burn areas” and that “losses of individuals in long-lived species with low reproductive capacity, such as tortoises, lead to population-level effects.” This means that the survival of all tortoises in Red Cliffs is at risk.
The question now is: if there were 12.3 tortoises per square kilometer in 2019, how many are left? BLM biologists surveyed a portion of the Cottonwood Trail Fire area and found that at least 16% of adult tortoises perished. And that’s one of three different fires that burned 14,000 acres, or 22 square miles, in Red Cliffs this summer. These numbers do not include juvenile, injured, scavenged, or entrenched tortoises, or those that will die from starvation because of the loss of native vegetation. The cumulative impacts of these fires won’t be understood for many years.
While it’s wonderful that live tortoises are being found in the Turkey Farm Road burn scar, we can’t let our relief that it wasn’t total annihilation cloud our reasoning. Bottom line, these fires devastated a vulnerable population of tortoises in Zone 3 that had already declined by 63% since 1998.
Any long-term Washington County resident can tell you that large-scale fires are not a natural component of the Mojave desert ecosystem where we live, meaning that recovery is slow. In the years ahead, we’re facing a continued decline of native plant diversity and accelerated conversion to cheatgrass monoculture that increases the risk of catastrophic fires that affect not only threatened species but thousands of residents who live next door to Red Cliffs.
With Washington County working to renew the Habitat Conservation Plan that has supported all residential, commercial and industrial development since 1996, they must pledge to uphold their end of the agreement. By signing the HCP, they made a promise to protect Red Cliffs in perpetuity and entered a balance between development and protection that serves both wildlife and people. With this promise, they’re on the hook for protecting Red Cliffs from wildfires and the highways that cause them.
While fires can be considered stochastic, or randomly determined events, there is much the county can do to prevent them. Recent discussion of purchasing a mower to keep roadside weeds down is promising. The work of county biologists exploring an herbicide called Esplanade that may help tamp down the cheatgrass problem is wonderful.
However, the Northern Corridor Highway, which is routed near a portion of Red Cliffs that has burned five times since 1976 is foolishly risky. While some may argue that highways provide a fire break, this summer has shown us that roads provide ignition sources and fail to stop the spread of flames. The Cottonwood Trail Fire jumped 4 lanes of I-15, endangering homeowners and causing motorists to abandon their vehicles on the highway and flee from the blaze on foot. Teenagers shooting fireworks off the side of Turkey Farm Road started a fire that caused 200 homeowners to evacuate and cost more than $2.5 million to extinguish, a burden on taxpayers for years to come. Roads do not prevent fires, but rather act as sources for ignition. Building the Northern Corridor Highway is like tossing a burning match into the Reserve, and Washington County residents only have until December 13 to protest BLM’s bad decision. Visit conserveswu.org/protest to learn more.
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