Land use advocates ask Hatch to resolve land issues in tortoise habitat

Utah Land

Land use advocates ask Hatch to resolve land issues in tortoise habitat, eliminating Sand Mountain land swap

ST. GEORGE – Hurricane Mayor John Bramall and Utah Public Lands Alliance President Gil Meacham and UPLA members Stacey Eaton and Menlo Smith met with Sen. Orrin Hatch Dec. 22, 2014, in Hatch’s Salt Lake City office and presented a proposal that could resolve a contentious proposed land swap under Washington County’s Habitat Conservation Plan in what some see as a win-win solution for all involved parties.

“Sen. Hatch appreciates the input he is receiving on this issue. He will continue working with stakeholders to find a resolution that will address vital issues including the importance of the renewal of the Washington County desert tortoise Habitat Conservation Plan with the Fish and Wildlife Service,” Hatch’s spokesperson Heather Barney said.

Substitution of habitat land

The new proposal would eliminate landowner and developer Bob Brennan’s need for a land swap by taking his property out of the HCP altogether and instead adding 2,000 acres of land located between Leeds and Toquerville to the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area.

Substituting land within the conservation area would require the approval of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the recovery of the endangered Mojave desert tortoise.

“Sen. Hatch committed to writing up a bill to get the 2,000 acres put into the National Conservation Area, and to help get approvals from Fish and Wildlife to allow the take-out of Brennan’s land from the reserve,” Meacham said. “There’s nothing guaranteed, but we’re cautiously optimistic.”

The NCA is a component of the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, which was created to protect populations and habitat of the threatened Mojave desert tortoise and other species. The NCA boundaries mimic the Red Cliffs Reserve, Habitat Conservation Plan Administrator Bob Sandberg said.

Map of proposed addition of 2,000 acres to the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area.

Proposed land swap

Brennan’s land swap proposal comes under the terms of the Habitat Conservation Plan, which comes up for renewal in early 2016. He owns about 800 acres in the Green Springs area subject to the HCP and within the borders of the Red Cliffs Reserve.

Brennan is one of three remaining land owners who have yet to be compensated in cash or trade for their property.

Brennan’s proposed swap would involve multiple properties, including a controversial 1,200-acre chunk of land within the Sand Mountain OHV area in Hurricane, which experiences considerable off-road motorized recreation use.

Bramall, who is vice chairman of both the Washington County Mayors Association and the Habitat Conservation Advisory Committee, represented the county mayors at the meeting with Hatch.

“We want to preserve the area as a permanent OHV area, and we made an alternative offer (to Sen. Hatch) of some other ground to use,” Bramall said.

We want to protect the recreational opportunities out there for our residents, and residents of the county and the region,” Bramall said. “It is part of the economy (of Hurricane) and it’s part of the lifestyle.”

The Sand Mountain OHV area is important to Hurricane’s economy, Bramall said. Events such as Winter on the Rocks (now Winter 4×4 Jamboree), the Tri-State ATV Jamboree and others all utilize the Sand Mountain OHV area, and the events contribute to Hurricane’s economy, Bramall said. Between 56-70 percent of people who visit Sand Hollow State Park come to ride ATVs, he said, primarily in the Sand Mountain area.

“So we’re anxious to protect recreational opportunities long-term for all of our residents and for the region,” Bramall said.

Viewpoints on the alternate plan

“It makes sense, it lets those people develop, it saves taxpayer money,” Bramall said of the alternative proposed to Hatch that would allow Brennan to retain and develop his current property while substituting habitat for the desert tortoise; “… another area that has been designated as prime habitat for the desert tortoise would be in the preserve for the desert tortoise.”

Jim Raines, a full-time land consultant for Brennan, said while he doesn’t think the plan is very practical, if it were to be implemented, it would solve Brennan’s problem.

It’s not a very realistic option

It’s not a very realistic option,” Raines said. “We wouldn’t have any objections if our ground could come out of the reserve … and we could develop our property the same way everyone else in town does,” Raines said.

Sandberg said the 2,000 acres near Leeds is not as good a tortoise habitat as Brennan’s property, which is occupied by tortoises while the Leeds property is not.

“It’s kind of on the margin,” Sandberg said, “it’s towards the very north and eastern-most extension of anything that could be considered desert tortoise habitat; whereas Mr. Brennan’s property is definitely good habitat – it is identified as critical habitat by the Fish and Wildlife Service.”

The new proposal involves moving tortoises from Brennan’s property to the land in Leeds.

“That could be done,” Sandberg said. “I don’t know how well that would work, but it would take a considerable amount of effort and energy to be able to go out and locate all the tortoises and actually move them.”

Ultimately, Sandberg said, Fish and Wildlife has the final say in the matter.