OPINION — I attended Washington County’s open house on the proposed “Desert Tortoise Habitat Conservation Plan Expansion Act” for the full two hours (Wednesday), and it was very well attended.
There were sign-up sheets for those attending and comment cards that people could write on and drop into comment boxes. There were live tortoises, a Gila monster and display stations with the usual maps of the Red Cliffs tortoise reserve, northern corridor and Zone 6. Despite my request to a county attorney last week, there were no copies of the actual draft congressional legislation. And despite my request to the HCAC (Habitat Conservation Advisory Committee) the previous day, there was no map showing the location of the proposed western corridor in relation to Zone 6.
There was a county handout that confirmed my worst fears about this proposed legislation. As with Rep. Chris Stewart’s pending (federal) legislation, this new bill would force construction of the northern corridor and designate Zone 6 as a reserve addition. Existing high levels of recreational use in Zone 6 would continue, including OHV (off-highway vehicle) use.
The Habitat Conservation Plan, or HCP, would be renewed on the county’s biased terms for 25 years. The recently finalized Bureau of Land Management plans for both the Red Cliffs and Beaver Dam Wash national conservation areas would be amended to reflect everything the county wants, including on livestock grazing, federal water rights and utility development.
In short, this erroneously-titled legislation would put into federal statute virtually everything that the county commissioners want in terms of federal endangered species, federal lands and federal water rights issues in Washington County. Its enactment would be a huge victory for the county commissioners and a huge defeat for everyone who believes in fidelity to existing laws, science and transparent and meaningful public involvement processes.
The commissioners have asked the municipal bodies throughout the county to pass resolutions in the next month or so in support of their (proposed) legislation. And the commissioners will likely cite Wednesday night’s open house as a sufficient opportunity for public input, despite the lack of details, the absence of a key map and no public forum for the airing of different views.
Despite the county’s propaganda campaign, there is no need for this legislation to renew the HCP. That could and should be done through the normal process for HCP renewals under the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act. The clear reasons that the county wants this legislation is so that it can avoid the normal process and ignore the concerns of BLM, Fish and Wildlife Service and the public. This is part of the larger pattern in Utah where state and local officials want to wrest control of federal lands and resources away from the federal agencies charged with managing them in the national interest.
In terms of next steps, I believe that the county commissioners will soon provide their draft legislation to the Utah congressional delegation. Chairman Rob Bishop will then likely move this bill through his authorizing committee in rapid GOP lockstep so that it can be brought to the House floor. Sens. Hatch and Lee will likely similarly try to move it fast through the U.S. Senate.
The strategy may be to get it far enough along so that it can then be quietly inserted into a large package of “must pass” legislation so that Democrats in the U.S. Senate may be reluctant to mount a filibuster. As such, the best hope to stop this Washington County legislation may be to carefully monitor its status in Congress, and to prepare Democratic senators for its potential arrival on the Senate floor (likely hidden in a voluminous tome proffered with almost no review time).
The Washington County commissioners recognize that, with the House, Senate and White House all in sympathetic GOP hands, this may be their best opportunity to ram their “wish list” through and enact it into federal statute. Their tactics are an example of why so many Americans have become cynical and lost faith in their leaders and democratic governance. We need to stop this legislation so that these despicable tactics are not rewarded and so that fidelity to law, science and public transparency are upheld.
I hope that this summary is helpful. Thank you very much for your consideration.
Submitted by RICHARD SPOTTS, St. George.
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