HURRICANE – The Mojave desert tortoise has long been a source of contention in Washington County, at least insofar as it has taken preeminence over landowner’s rights. One landowner in particular has been waiting 17 years for a viable exchange of his property that was appropriated to the interest of the tortoise – and now, he faces possible opposition from yet another species territorial to the property he is considering for acquisition: the off-road vehicle community.
Native to the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico, tortoise populations have significantly declined since the 1980s due to natural predators and human threats; they are currently listed as a vulnerable species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List.
Conservation efforts in Arizona, Nevada and Utah gained significant traction in the early 1990s. In response, Washington County and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began working together to protect the local tortoise population. The Washington County Habitat Conservation Plan, designating 62,000 acres of land expressly reserved for that purpose, was created in 1996.
Once the HCP was put in place, all land identified as tortoise habitat was fenced and closed to any use, public or private. The majority of that land was owned by the Bureau of Land Management but some belonged to private entities, whose plans to develop were brought to an abrupt and irreversible halt. In the years since the creation of the HCP, those entities have exchanged their land for other property without environmental risk factors, either in Washington County or other parts of Utah, all except one.
Land developer Bob Brennan owns 821 acres just west of Green Spring Golf Course in Washington City. Once prime residential property (its value is currently estimated around $55 million), it also has more sensitive tortoise habitat than any other area in the HCP. Brennan’s land has been effectively trapped for the last 17 years; he cannot sell, trade or develop, but has still been obligated to pay property taxes.
Since September 2010, Brennan has been arranging a deal in cooperation with the Washington County Commission and the BLM to acquire a parcel of BLM-owned land. The deal would exchange Brennan’s land within the HCP for property equal in value – not size – that he could develop, most likely into a residential project.
“This is a very tough situation and we’re all working together to get it resolved,” Brennan said. “I just want to move forward. This has gone on way too long.”
“(This deal) is something that needs to happen,” Washington County Commissioner Alan Gardner said. “The rest of the community has benefited from the HCP, but landowners within the HCP have paid the price. It’s not fair, and they need to be compensated.”
Brennan has identified six parcels in Washington County that he is interested in owning. Because the trade will be made based on the value of the land, he could acquire any number of them. It depends on the results of appraisals of each parcel, which are currently in progress.
One possibility is an approximately 1,100-acre parcel of land located on the west end of the Sand Mountain Open OHV Area in Hurricane, a popular recreation spot for off-road enthusiasts. The parcel constitutes about five percent of the OHV area but does not encroach on any of the popular trails or accesses, Brennan said.
Nevertheless, the possibility of a private landowner taking a portion of public land specifically designated for off-road recreation has raised hackles among the off-roading community. The OHV area consists of 21,412 acres of recreational land, designated in 1999 through a BLM Resource Management Planning effort and co-managed by the BLM and Sand Hollow State Park. Just over 47,000 visitors used the area in 2012, BLM field manager Jimmy Tyree said, contributing more than $2 million to the Washington County economy. Many local businesses, especially those specializing in off-road products and services, thrive on the tourism the recreational trails attract.
“This has the potential to affect a lot of businesses and individuals in this area,” off-road enthusiast Julie Applegate said. “The Sand Mountain Open OHV Area gets a lot of use, especially this time of year. There are not very many areas that are classified as open to OHVs and it would be a shame to lose any of that area, especially if it’s taken away to benefit one individual or company.”
“I worry that once (private developers) get this section of land, it won’t be long until the rest of it meets the same fate and there is no longer any trail area available,” said Milt Thompson, owner of Dixie 4 Wheel Drive. “This deal will have no benefit to the people of this county whatsoever. A minority is pushing it and it won’t benefit the majority of locals or people who travel to use this area.”
“I don’t think that’s going to be the case,” Gardner said. “Mr. Brennan doesn’t want to own the county. He just wants to get some land back so he can recover his money and develop something.”
The deal is still far from completion. Once the appraisals are done and Brennan chooses his parcel or parcels, the deal will be compiled into a bill for the state legislature, a three-to-five year process. Gardner said that the county commission will endorse and help pass the bill into law; if it does, the BLM will see the exchange through.
“This is something the county not only wants to do, but has to do,” Gardner said. “It’s way past due.”
“Some people, like the OHV riders, might say they have to give up something,” Brennan said. “Well, I had to give up some of the most valuable residential property in the county. But I’m not blaming anyone; the past is the past. I want to work together to keep the HCP intact so the county can move forward economically.”
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