US sued over road project in Mojave desert tortoise habitat

SALT LAKE CITY — A coalition of conservation groups on Friday sued the U.S. government over the Trump administration’s decision to allow construction of a new four-lane highway through a national conservation area in southern Utah that includes protected habitat for the Mojave desert tortoise.

The group Conserve Southwest Utah argued the road through part of the “sensitive and scenic” Red Cliffs National Conservation Area would violate environmental laws and put the tortoise and several other species at risk.

There are alternative routes that would solve vehicle congestion problems in the fast-growing area and the decision to cut through protected land sets a dangerous precedent, said the lawsuit filed against the U.S. Interior Department and the Bureau of Land Management.

The coalition of state and national groups that sued hope that Democratic President Joe Biden’s administration will reverse the decision made in January allowing the road just before Trump left office.

Todd Tucci, senior attorney for the Advocates for the West group, called it “inconceivable” that new Interior Secretary Deb Haaland would support the highway.

The Interior Department did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment on the lawsuit. The Bureau of Land Management declined to comment.

Highway supporters have said the four-lane highway is needed to keeping traffic flowing in the area around the city of St. George, which has a metro area of about 170,000 people and is one of the fastest-growing parts of the U.S.

Officials in Washington County, which encompasses St. George, praised the Trump administration decision to allow the road, saying it strikes a balance between protecting the tortoise and meeting the community’s transportation needs.

Conservationists have long worried that the project would be detrimental to wildlife and landscapes, some recently scorched by wildfires.