A federal judge has rejected a government motion seeking the partial dismissal of a lawsuit filed by conservation groups against the Federal Highway Administration. The lawsuit challenges the agency’s approval of route options for the proposed Interstate 11, a 280-mile highway that would connect Nogales and Wickenburg in Arizona.

The judge’s decision brings positive news for Arizona’s public lands, wildlife, and the state’s climate and water future, according to Wendy Park, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. Park emphasized the importance of preserving desert wildlands to give species like the desert tortoise a better chance of surviving climate change.

The government argued that it was premature to challenge the approval of the Interstate 11 routes as more detailed environmental analysis was forthcoming. However, the judge ruled against this motion, stating that the agency’s selection of a highway corridor constitutes a final decision that is subject to judicial review.

If constructed along the approved routes, the interstate would cause significant damage to the pristine Sonoran Desert, protected public lands, threatened wildlife such as desert tortoises, and exacerbate air pollution and the ongoing Colorado River water crisis.

David Robinson, the director of conservation advocacy for the Tucson Audubon Society, commended the judge’s decision, emphasizing the importance of public review before irreversible choices are made. He stated that the public has the right to challenge the government’s proposal to locate such a highly impactful project through valuable and threatened wilderness areas.

The Federal Highway Administration approved the highway despite deferring an environmental review or making a decision between two route options in Pima County. The west option, in particular, would have significant impacts on wildlife and public lands, posing a threat to the Sonoran Desert National Monument, wildlife corridors, and habitats for species like the Tucson shovel-nosed snake. The lawsuit argues that this approach of “approval now, study later” violated federal law.

Multiple organizations, including the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, Bureau of Reclamation, and the Arizona Game and Fish Department, have raised concerns about the detrimental and long-lasting effects of the interstate routes on wildlife populations and public lands.

The judge’s denial of the motion to dismiss has been welcomed by the Friends of Ironwood Forest, with Tom Hannagan expressing delight and highlighting the importance of recognizing the Ironwood Forest National Monument as a wildlife preserve and a place for public recreation. This decision is seen as a significant step in safeguarding wildlife and the public’s access to open spaces.

The Center for Biological Diversity also released a new report titled “Deadpool Highway” that utilizes government data to illustrate how the proposed interstate would drive population growth and water demand beyond available resources.

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