Over 16K comment on highway set for desert tortoise habitat

ST. GEORGE, Utah (AP) — More than 16,000 public comments have been submitted for a proposal on whether to allow a highway to be built through a protected Mojave desert tortoise habitat in southern Utah, federal officials said.

The proposed four-lane road has drawn criticism from conservationists, because the corridor would run through land set aside to protect the tortoise.

The Bureau of Land Management opened the public comment period last month and will now go through all of the comments before releasing the draft environmental impact statement, The Spectrum newspaper reported Wednesday.

"We make sure we reach out to local neighbors and reach out nationally since we manage public lands for the nation," BLM spokesperson Christian Venhuizen said. “We do our best to be a good neighbor, our local public is very important to us.”

BLM is not permitted to say where the people submitting comments were from, but there was a “mix" of people who submitted comments locally and nationally, Venhuizen said. Details on the nature of the comments were not disclosed.

The draft is the first step in the year-long National Environmental Policy Act, officials said.

The Utah Division of Transportation and Washington County proposed building the Northern Corridor that would pass through the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, officials said.

A definite route for the road has not yet been determined, but the draft statement would take alternatives into consideration, officials said.

After the department releases the draft environmental impact statement, a new 90-day public comment period will open, officials said. A decision is expected by 2021.