(Nevada Department of Transportation I-11 video screengrab)
Environmental groups and City of Henderson residents are fighting a proposal to build a freeway through the Lake Mead National Recreation Area and eastern Henderson.
The Nevada Department of Transportation (NDOT), in cooperation with the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), is moving forward with the development of the Interstate 11 Corridor Tier 1 Environmental Impact Statement meant to study the impact of a planned freeway that would travel through the Las Vegas metropolitan area.
The project is in the scoping phase, a period used to identify and develop corridor alternatives. One of the current proposed alternatives, the “eastern alternative corridor” would potentially run through either the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, the Clark County Wetlands Park, or along the border of the City of Henderson.
Public comments on the proposed corridors closed Aug. 31 and will be included in the final summary report.
During the final public meeting— held over a conference call — Henderson residents criticizing the proposed eastern alignment dominated the discussion, calling the plan a threat to their community and Nevada wildlife.
“This is one of the last rural areas in eastern Henderson,” said Mike Schroeder, a Henderson resident, during the public telephone meeting. “A week ago I was up on the hill and there was a bighorn sheep right in the middle of the trail a mile from my house. You put a freeway in the middle of it and it’s going to ruin everything.”
Several callers expressed similar sentiments, fearing their peaceful neighborhoods and hiking trails would be bombarded with interstate traffic.
“I just heard about this two hours ago,” said Jim Cottrell, another Henderson resident. “But the scary part of this to me and my daughter is the I-11 freeway running down the golf course in our backyard. My daughter bought this home with her life savings.”
Ken Lambert, the project lead for the study, emphasized that the project was still in its early stages of planning and no single route has been chosen so far.
“This is the first of many stages to follow,” Lambert said. “We don’t anticipate any construction resulting from this study any sooner than eight years after its completion.”
The I-11 Tier 1 EIS is scheduled to be completed in 2022 with the issuance of a Final EIS and Record of Decision from the FHWA.
Goals, values, conflicts, species
Conservation groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity and the National Parks Conservation Association, say NDOT’s proposed eastern alignments of the highway would harm more than just Henderson neighborhoods, but also endanger protected public lands and the habitat of imperiled wildlife.
Many of the proposed eastern alignments cross Lake Mead National Recreation Area, a unit of the National Park Service that includes habitat for desert bighorn sheep and the Las Vegas bearpoppy, a rare native desert flower that has disappeared across much of the Mojave Desert.
Over the past 20 years, the wildflower has been wiped out across more than half of its range in Clark County, and dramatically decreased across nearly 90 percent of its remaining habitat largely due to urban sprawl and mining.
In July the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the wildflower may warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act in response to petitions submitted by the Center for Biological Diversity.
The bearpoppy is also listed on the Nevada state list of fully protected species of native flora threatened with extinction.
Other proposed eastern alignments for the planned freeway go through Rainbow Gardens east of the Las Vegas Valley, a region classified by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) as an “area of critical environmental concern,” largely due to the presence of the poppy.
“Rainbow Gardens is among the best remaining bearpoppy habitats,” said Patrick Donnelly, the Nevada state director of the Center for Biological Diversity.
The Clark County Wetlands Park, which serves as a natural water filter for excess water returning to Lake Mead, could be impacted by some of the proposed eastern alignments putting a highway directly over the wetlands and possibly jeopardizing the health of the waterway.
Other possible corridors that would avoid the Lake Mead Recreational Area are the western alternative corridor, which would extend westward along existing I-11 from the Nevada-Arizona border to the I-215 before continuing further west along the I-215 to northwest Las Vegas, or the central alternative corridor which would extend along the existing I-11 from the Nevada- Arizona border to the I-215 and extend further north along the I-515 to the spaghetti bowl interchange before continuing northerly along the U.S.-95.
When a path through the Lake Mead Recreational Area was first introduced in 2013 officials for the National Park Service submitted a comment to NDOT opposing the eastern route alternative, citing habitat’s protected status and the existence of “other feasible alternatives.”
“Officials at Lake Mead National Recreation Area have been engaged with NDOT for several years. Dialogue will continue through the planning process,” said Christie Vanover, a spokeswoman for the National Park Service Lake Mead National Recreation Area.
In a joint statement, the Center for Biological Diversity and the National Parks Conservation Association condemned the proposed eastern alignments on the grounds that it “conflicts with management goals and values on protected public lands and conflicts with imperiled species.”
“The best choice is to stick to the existing developed corridors. If you try to stick a highway through a national park and endangered species habitat you can expect significant organized resistance and possible legal action,” Donnelly warned.
Neal Desai, the senior program director of the National Parks Conservation Association, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for the protection of national parks, said the group has long fought the proposed route through Lake Mead.
“We are talking about a situation where there are already identified feasible less controversial alternatives out there. We’ve known about them for years so what are we doing here? I think it’s fair to say it’s wasting the public’s time and causing unnecessary controversy,” Desai said.
“Here we are over seven years later still talking about such a bad idea at a time when people want to use public lands more than ever,” he said. “Our hope is that it’s removed as an option.”
Congress designated I-11 as a future Interstate between Phoenix, Arizona and Las Vegas with its 2012 passage of the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21), and although this designation does not guarantee funding it does improve the chances for obtaining federal funds.
Construction of the roughly 450-mile long future I-11 could be phased over future decades and is part of a greater plan to link Mexico and Canada via a transportation network and strengthen trade across the western United States, with the belief it could help improve economic development and diversification in Nevada.
The construction of the high capacity transportation corridor would also mean increased long-haul trucking, raising the prospect of the city becoming a major transportation hub and more 18-wheelers, which already account for a large amount of the Nevada transit sector’s greenhouse gases. Las Vegas already sits in the only air basin in the state that does not meet the Environmental Protection Agency’s air quality standards for ozone, which state regulators say is largely due to current transportation emissions.
“The designation of Interstate 11 as a transcontinental shipping lane is going to bring much more heavy truck traffic through town one way or another,” Donnelly said. “There’s not really room right now to say ‘hey we shouldn’t turn Las Vegas into a hub on an international shipping corridor.’ I think that time has passed unfortunately. It’s now about making sure that the alignment they do choose has the least harms.”
“This is something that should be of interest to more people than just endangered species lovers and public lands lovers,” Donelly said.
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