by Tom Hannagan, Friends of Ironwood Forest, President of the Board of Directors
(excerpted from the Friends of Ironwood Forest Spring 2023 Newsletter)
Usually in this space, I would review three or four things that Friends of Ironwood Forest has been involved in recently. This time I’d like to focus on one item. We were in federal court for the first time in FIF history, to stop the proposed interstate I-11.
The FIF took a huge step forward in advocacy last year by joining three partners in filing a legal claim against the new I-11 interstate route favored by the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). Our three partners in this action are the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection (CSDP), and the Tuscon chapter of the Audubon Society.
The route chosen by ADOT, the so-called “west option,” would come very close to the eastern border of Ironwood Forest National Monument (IFNM) and bisect the Avra Valley, creating a barrier to wildlife connectivity between the mountains in IFNM and the Tucson Mountains, which include Saguaro National Park-West and Tucson Mountain Park. The ability of wildlife to move between mountain ranges is necessary for their genetic strength and in turn the continuing health of the species.
ADOT and the FHWA ignored the nearly unanimous objections of all bodies submitting public comments on their choice. In addition to conservation organizations, such as FIF and community organizations in Tucson, the governments of Pima County, the City of Tucson, and the Tohono O’odham Nation also filed formal objections. Even other departments of the federal government, including the National Park System, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service filed comments objecting to the west option.
Our lawsuit claims that ADOT/FHWA did not follow federal law in rushing through their Environmental Impact Study-Phase I (EIS). We feel ADOT ignored three separate federal laws affecting EIS requirements. Of critical importance to us was that the ADOT/FHWA excluded IFNM from any consideration as to environmental impact within the EIS. They felt that the IFNM did not qualify for consideration as a “park.”
Their rather flimsy justification for this is that the presidential proclamation creating IFNM did not use the term “park” or “recreation”. This is in spite of many references to recreational use in the BLM Resource Management Plan for the IFNM. It is clearly obvious that the IFNM is used for many public recreational activities from camping to hiking to photography to hunting and so on. It is also clear to all that the IFNM is a wildlife refuge for the only indigenous herd of desert bighorn sheep, along with other threatened plant and animal species.
Rather than waiting for the ADOT/FHWA juggernaut to proceed any further, we thought it was time to do everything possible to stop it. ADOT/ FHWA filed their EIS Record of Decision in November 2021. We began discussing a lawsuit by March 2022 and filed the legal claim in April 2022. See CBD’s press release about the lawsuit.
There were a series of minor filings by both parties regarding attorneys and other clarifying details. As expected, the defendants filed a motion to dismiss a part of our claim in August 2022. On January 25, 2023, we had our first appearance before a judge.
The attorney for FHWA/ADOT tried to justify their motion to dismiss by saying that taking into account the negative impact on the IFNM and other public lands was something they “might consider” in Phase II of the EIS process or sometime later. The judge repeatedly questioned the attorney as to why this wasn’t done, or shouldn’t have been done, sooner rather than later. Our CBD attorney argued that federal law clearly requires consideration covering impact as soon as possible in the overall process.
In fact, we all know that ADOT’s preference for the Avra Valley route could be materially affected by having to deal with the environmental impact on IFNM. The judge did not disagree with our line of argument. We conservationists in attendance (basically the only attendees other than members of the press) were very pleased to see the interest expressed by the judge and the performance of the CBD attorney, Wendy Park.
There is no deadline for the judge to rule on the motion to dismiss. He could decline the motion, grant it, or put it into some form of abeyance until later in the main trial. We will update you all when we get this ruling, and for other key stages of the legal claim over time. This is a rather long-term process.
I very much want to thank everyone of you who have continued to support FIF so that we have the capability to fight for the Monument. Your energy and goodwill are major factors in our continued efforts to protect the local treasure called Ironwood Forest National Monument.Tags: Friends of Ironwood Forest, I-11, Interstate 11