Posts Tagged ‘Interstate 11’
The I-11 lawsuit explained
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.
The latest on I-11: Lawsuit sees its first day in court
On Wednesday, January 25, 2023, U.S. District Judge John C. Hinderaker heard arguments on the federal government’s motion to dismiss a portion of our challenge to Interstate 11 filed in April 2022 in collaboration with the Center for Biological Diversity, Tucson Audubon Society, and Friends of Ironwood Forest. Big thanks to the 30 Coalition supporters that showed up to support us at the hearing.
According to a press release about the hearing, “The lawsuit says the agency failed to consider other transportation alternatives, such as rail, and sidestepped the required environmental review before approving the 280-mile-long highway between Nogales and Wickenburg. The planned interstate’s west option would plow through desert wildlands in rural Avra Valley and between Saguaro National Park and Ironwood National Monument. It would disturb hundreds of archaeological and cultural sites and spread invasive buffelgrass known to fuel wildfires.”
You can learn more at at a KVOA4 story that aired after the hearing and a KGUN 9 story that aired before the hearing. We will update you when we learn more about a timeline for Judge Hinderaker’s decision on the case.
Whatever his decision, we remain grateful for your support as we continue advocating against the West Option for Interstate 11 and for a connected and restored Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona for all.
Want to learn about the history of Interstate 11 and ways to get involved today? Head over to our comprehensive set of webpages (also found at the top of this page under the “Our Work” tab), including a history of the planning process, a thorough list of media articles, maps, and more.
The latest on Interstate 11 and our lawsuit
The Coalition has been involved in commenting on the proposal for a new southern Arizona federal highway, Interstate 11, for a decade. We first commented on the Corridor Justification Study in July 2013. As the project studies further progressed, the federal and state transportation agencies were seemingly bent on building a new freeway through the Sonoran Desert west of Tucson. However, you responded en masse, and by the time the Tier 1 (of 2 tiers) Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) was complete, thousands of Tucsonans had registered our adamant opposition to this proposal, which would have impacted multiple protected parks – from Saguaro National Park and Ironwood Forest National Monument to our beloved Tucson Mountain Park – and sever wildlife movement throughout Avra Valley. Because of this overwhelming response, the federal agency partially backed off of pushing the western route, and instead included an I-10 “co-location” option, with both options going forward to a Tier 2 EIS.
Where is this now? The Coalition filed a lawsuit in April 2022, citing the failure of the federal transportation agency to fully consider the importance of the parks, and the direct and indirect impacts this freeway would have on the critical and sensitive resources of these lands. They also failed to follow the US Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act, which necessitates a sign-on from other agencies to bisect certain protected areas, in this case the Bureau of Reclamation Tucson Mitigation Corridor. The Coalition’s lawsuit was filed in partnership with the Center for Biological Diversity, Tucson Audubon Society, and Friends of Ironwood Forest. The suit has been assigned to federal court judge John Hinderaker in Tucson.
The case has not been decided, as both parties filed for extensions of the deadlines for responding to documents. Most recently, the judge has given the federal government (defendants) until October 19 to respond to our (plaintiffs) latest filing. In summary, the federal government has asked the judge to throw out our lawsuit, and of course, we disagree and have filed a response to that effect.
As to funding for Tier 2, the Arizona legislature passed a bill that provides funding for the next round of studies, but only for the section in Maricopa County. We will continue to update all of you as this progresses. Thank you all for all your work to prevent this project!
Want to learn even more about the history of I-11? Head over to our comprehensive set of webpages about I-11 here.
CSDP and partners sue over federal approval of Interstate 11
On April 21, 2022, four conservation groups – the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection, along with our member groups Center for Biological Diversity, Tucson Audubon Society, and Friends of Ironwood Forest – filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of Tucson challenging the Federal Highway Administration’s approval of Interstate 11 last year.
The agency approved the highway in November 2021 despite postponing an environmental review or deciding between two route options in Pima County, both of which would harm wildlife, public lands, and air quality and exacerbate the climate emergency. The lawsuit says this “approve now, study later” approach violated federal law.
The Coalition’s Executive Director, Carolyn Campbell, said in a press release about the lawsuit, “This is an egregious assault on 100 years of efforts by local, state and federal land agencies to protect important desert lands forever, for species to survive and move through the landscape. There is overwhelming opposition by residents, tribal entities, public agencies and elected officials here in the Tucson area and we won’t stop until we’ve blocked this destructive and unneeded freeway that will harm our wildlands and wildlife.“
To learn more, you can read a press release and an AZ Daily Star article about the lawsuit. You can also find comprehensive background information on Interstate 11 at this webpage, which includes a main page with the latest information and extensive sub-pages that chronicle our years-long campaign opposing this project.
Thank you for using your voice to oppose the West Option for Interstate 11!
Public comment period now open on I-11 Tier 1 Final Environmental Impact Statement
On July 16, 2021, the Arizona Department of Transportation and Federal Highways Administration released the Tier 1 Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS). The FEIS now identifies TWO possible Preferred Alternatives, a West Option through Avra Valley AND an East Option that co-locates I-11 with I-19 and I-10 through the Tucson region.
Action #1: Please ACT TODAY and request an extension of the public comment deadline from 30 days to 120 days.
You can read the comment letter we submitted with this request HERE. Feel free to copy the language in this letter and/or personalize with your own words.
A summary of talking points from our letter requesting an extension of the public comment deadline include:
- The 30-day comment period is insufficient for review of the documents and ensuring the public is aware of the opportunity to review and comment on the project.
- Because the impacts of this project are intergenerational, we urge you to consider an extension to provide the public with a full and fair opportunity to participate in this process.
- Many of the communities impacted by the Preferred Alternative Options within the Corridor Study area are minority and low-income populations who in many cases do not have access to the traditional means by which federal EIS processes are advertised and published. Both proposed alternatives will have disproportionate adverse effects on these populations and they will need adequate time to be notified via ground mail or other means.
- The Western Alternative through Pima County is proposed through traditional Tohono O’odham lands where tribal members may have limited internet access.
- The Draft EIS documents totaled close to 5000 pages of text, maps, and other figures – the length and breadth of this document warrants a longer public comment period to allow adequate review by the public.
- A new Interstate freeway has not been built in this metropolitan area since 1961 – over two generations ago. Many of the issues will have long-lasting, significant impacts on our community and we need sufficient time to review the record, research issues and concerns, and provide a substantive response.
Action #2: Submit a comment stating your opposition to the West Preferred Alternative Option (can be done concurrently or separately from Action #1)
The Tier 1 FEIS identifies TWO Preferred Alternative routes: 1) a West Option that runs through Avra Valley, and 2) an East Option that co-locates I-11 with I-19 and I-10 through the Tucson region. There is currently a 30-day public comment period for the FEIS, with public comments due on August 16, 2021 (see above for information on our efforts to extend this deadline to November 16, 2021).
The overarching message we encourage in your comments is that ADOT/FHWA should ABANDON the West Preferred Alternative Option in Avra Valley. We are currently working on our comments and will be posting more details soon. Check back here for more information in the days ahead.
Comments can be submitted in the following ways:
Online Provide Your Comments | Proporcionar sus comentarios
Phone: 1.844.544.8049 (bilingüe)
Mail: I-11 Tier 1 EIS Study Team c/o ADOT Communications
1655 W. Jackson Street Mail Drop 126F
Phoenix, AZ 85007
Head over to our main I-11 webpage for more ways to get involved.
Background and History of I-11
Links to media articles and published Letters to the Editor about I-11
Past information on the 2019 I-11 Draft Environmental Impact Statement process
The main I-11 FEIS website is at: http://origin.i11study.com/Arizona/
A traditional PDF version of the FEIS (split into multiple documents) can be found at: http://origin.i11study.com/Arizona/Documents.asp
An interactive version of the FEIS can be accessed at: https://i11.ee.alytics.com/I11Arizona-Tier1EIS/
Questions? Please reach out anytime to our Associate Director Kathleen Kennedy at Kathleen.Kennedy@sonorandesert.org or leave us a voicemail at (520) 388-9925 and we’ll get back with you ASAP!
Intern Spotlight: Rob Wisler
When did you fall in love with the Sonoran Desert? I suspect your answer and mine are the same – you fell in love the first time you wandered into it. For me, this was in early April 2009 on my first visit to Tucson. There’s something so transfixing about all of it: the majestic, arborescent Saguaro; the fascinating varieties of chollas; the stately Ocotillo; and the incredible biodiversity in terms of wildlife that though I did not see on that first visit, were very much there.
I had many options for post-grad institutions, and all things being more or less equal, academically, between different Public Administration Programs, I wanted to live in a place where I could hike and explore year-round. Clearly Tucson, in the lower Sonoran Desert and surrounded by imposing Sky Islands, fit the bill.
I’ve always been a preservationist; that value was instilled early in my life when year after year my family would visit Rocky Mountain National Park in Estes Park, Colorado, but that sense has greatly expanded every time I’ve stepped onto a trail here. This was the driving factor in me pursuing an internship with the Coalition. I was brought on board, first and foremost, to take on the discovery of records related to the proposed Interstate 11 project, which would run through – and destroy – the Avra Valley as it exists today. I wrote several Freedom of Information Act requests to multiple stakeholders in the process, a sometimes arduous and frustrating task but also a greatly rewarding one that revealed among many things: the legal questionability of running I-11 thru the Tucson Mitigation Corridor, a lackluster archaeological survey, the likely inappropriateness of the exclusion of Ironwood Forest National Monument from the Tier I analysis, the questionable exclusion of the potential impacts of a high speed rail between Tucson and Phoenix on traffic on I-10, ADOT’s own models showing a merely 4 minute “negligible” time saving between Nogales and Casa Grande on I-11 versus the existing I-10 at peak driving times and a “negligible” amount of truck traffic expected to move from I-10 to I-11, and an overall general Tier I analysis that could not be considered sufficient to presenting the impacts of I-11 on the environment. Though I-11 was my main focus, I also got to work on (and get a crash course in) Pima County’s Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, Maeveen Marie Behan Conservation Lands System, and the Multi-species Conservation Plan – all projects CSDP put considerable time and energy into developing. Finally, I was able to get my hands dirty in the field while helping install cameras.
In my time at the Coalition, I’ve been extremely lucky to be able to work with a committed group of people in Carolyn, Jessica, Whelan, and Kathleen, plus Kevin Dahl with NPCA and Cyndi Tuell with Western Watersheds Project, whom are just as good people as they are advocates. It was truly a pleasure to come in every Tuesday to the CSDP Office to work. It was as much a pleasure as it was to be with them as it is to step into the desert on an early Spring hike, and this is not something I say lightly.
The Sonoran Desert is an incredibly beautiful, timeless place, as best exemplified by its ancient Saguaros, but it is not invulnerable. Buffelgrass and other invasive species and continued, mindless sprawl are immediate, serious threats in many places. These threats are exemplified by I-11 itself and the Bighorn Fire, which though spared the majority of the lower Sonoran Desert and its Saguaros, burned (and thus killed) countless higher elevation Saguaros. Had the Bighorn Fire dipped further into the many canyons in the Catalinas, the effect of Buffelgrass would have been total devastation of the Sonoran ecosystem in those areas. Further, Climate Change threatens not just the Sonoran Desert, but landscapes (and more importantly, people) across the planet. Other additional threats exist including but not limited to: mining, overgrazing, and the border wall. But I am not resigned to defeat in the face of these – there are so many organizations in addition to the Coalition fighting these threats, too numerous to name, who are making a difference.
As for me, my future is uncertain at the moment. I graduated in May with a Masters in Public Administration from the University of Arizona and entered a world ravaged by the impacts of the Coronavirus. Thus far my employment endeavors have proven fruitless and I will likely have to leave Tucson as a result. I hope to stay connected with the Coalition and even provide help, if the need arises, particularly with regards to I-11, during my time in between finding work. Yet it is not all bad news – I’m proud of the work I was able to do that has brought important facts about I-11 into the light and I’m proud to have been part of an organization that is so committed to protecting the Sonoran Desert and its biodiversity.
A HUGE thank you to Rob from all of us at the Coalition for all your work for us and the Sonoran Desert during your internship. We are so grateful for everything you contributed to our mission and can’t wait to see what you do next!
New wildlife cameras generate spectacular photos
Thanks to a new partnership with volunteer, welder, and ecology student Raynor Vandeven, there are now four wildlife cameras out in the field with professional photography equipment capturing images of Sonoran Desert wildlife. These cameras are located in an area along the proposed I-11 route, in the Tucson Mountains, near the Oracle Road wildlife crossings, and in the I-10 East wildlife linkage area.
We are so grateful to Raynor for his willingness to share these images with the Coalition and can’t wait to start sharing more of them with you in the weeks and months ahead!
(Note: the photos below are examples of Raynor’s wildlife photography and were not taken in the locations described above. )
The latest numbers from our wildlife camera program
Thanks to all of our supporters and volunteers for another year of successful wildlife camera monitoring in the Tucson Mountains and Oro Valley study areas! See an overview of our Tucson Mountain camera project results HERE and our Oro Valley camera project results HERE.
We have been monitoring wildlife with wildlife cameras in the northern portion of the Tucson Mountains and Avra Valley for four years. To date we’ve seen over 30 species across 23 camera sites, data which helps inform our I-11 work and knowledge about the Tucson-Tortolita Mountain Wildlife Linkage. Javelina have been photographed most frequently, and it is good to see these native seed dispersers out and about! Other notable results in the last year include more badgers, and bobcats with kittens in tow.
In Oro Valley, we have been monitoring east and west of the Oracle Road wildlife bridge and underpass for a total of seven years! We now have excellent comparative data pre- and post- construction of the crossings that were built in May 2016. With 62 species across 49 camera sites (and nearly 78,000 photos!), we are seeing lots of cottontails and quail that are plentiful prey for coyotes, bobcats, and gray foxes. We’ve seen white-nose coati and bighorn, and our resident female mountain lion has appeared again this year several times just west of the wildlife bridge.
We will post more detailed results as we finalize project reports and dive into the fun and useful information these cameras have in store!
New report on I-11 calls it a “white elephant” and “unnecessary”
On August 8, 2019, the Center for American Progress released a new report on the proposed Interstate 11 as part of its “White Elephant Watch” series, which “profiles projects that demonstrates the failures of the current U.S. policy approach to transportation infrastructure.”
This report provides a detailed analysis of this proposed project, including a point-by-point analysis of the Purpose and Need section of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement. The report concludes the following:
“ADOT’s proposed I-11 corridor has four major flaws:
- Fails to increase transportation choice or reduce local single-occupant vehicle trips made within the Phoenix and Tucson metro areas
- Promotes low-density land use and dependence on automobility
- Produces significant environmental harms
- Is based on flawed travel demand models that do not adequately account for induced demand”
The report can be found online and as a pdf document. It is well worth a few minutes of your time to read this timely and well-written report!
Coalition submits comments on the I-11 DEIS
On July 4, 2019, the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection, and additional signatories representing 27 community and environmental organizations, submitted comments on the Tier 1 Interstate 11 Draft Environmental Impact Statement, Nogales to Wickenburg.
The full comment letter can be found HERE.
Still haven’t submitted YOUR comments on the I-11 DEIS? There’s still time! The comment deadline is still 4 days away on Monday, July 8.
You can submit public comments in multiple ways, including:
Phone: 1.844.544.8049 (bilingüe)
I-11 Tier 1 EIS Study Team c/o ADOT Communications
1655 W. Jackson Street
Mail Drop 126F
Phoenix, AZ 85007
For more information on this issue to help inform your comments, head to our Take Action Webpage.
Thank you for using your voice for the people and wildlife of the Sonoran Desert!