ST. GEORGE – A land use group is threatening action to prevent a proposed land exchange that would remove 1,200 acres from the popular Sand Mountain Recreation Area.
In an April 13 letter to developer Bob Brennan, the Utah Public Lands Alliance vowed to use “every conceivable legal means available … including widespread publicity and public demonstrations” to prevent any land from being taken out of the off-highway vehicle area. The area is known to locals as Sand Hollow or simply “the sand dunes.” The area is widely used both by residents and visitors, and is the setting for several off-road events.
UPLA and other land users oppose the loss of the 1,200-acre parcel within the Sand Mountain OHV area in Hurricane, one of the few areas in the state designated as “open travel,” meaning users are not restricted to roads or trails.
Brennan is one of a handful of property owners with land remaining inside the boundaries of the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, which was established by the Habitat Conservation Plan in 1996 to protect the endangered desert tortoise.
The county has been trying to finish up acquisition and exchange transactions with owners of remaining privately owned property subjected to the HCP, with a looming February 2016 deadline. Nearly 800 acres Brennan owns within the habitat conservation area has been tied up since the plan’s inception, and he is waiting to be compensated monetarily or with exchange properties for his land.
The 1,200 acres in Sand Mountain are among properties identified as viable for the trade by the Bureau of Land Management, but the proposal to trade land in the OHV area has proven contentious.
UPLA states in the letter to Brennan that the organization is against any kind of exchange involving Sand Hollow, citing the continual loss of acreage by the OHV community.
“We don’t feel like a compromise is appropriate because the whole reason why we have that 20,000-acre area there (Sand Hollow) was a compromise in return for losing 62,000 acres in the Desert Reserve,” UPLA President Gil Meacham said.
“We’re going to go as far as it takes … to avoid that exchange taking place,” Meacham said, up to and including legal action. “We don’t feel like we should give up any more acreage.”
Off-roaders have already given up bits and pieces of the original 22,000-acre OHV area, Meacham said. “We’re not going to compromise on this 1,200 acres.”
The letter further states:
Thousands of individuals as well as all organized recreational user groups in Utah and the surrounding states are dedicated to the support of our mission as it pertains to Sand Mountain Recreation Area (SMRA). Every conceivable legal means available will be utilized to prevent any incursions on the remaining SMRA including widespread publicity and public demonstrations.
HCP Administrator Bob Sandberg told the Habitat Conservation Advisory Committee at an April 28 meeting that while efforts will proceed on an exchange in Long Valley, they want to “continue discussions” on the Sand Hollow exchange because of cultural resources on the property and opposition from the OHV community, which, he said, is “ … obviously controversial.”
“There are cultural resources that would need to be dealt with, as well as a lot of the controversy surrounding removing that from the Special Recreation Management Area that BLM has identified, and then taking that away from the OHV users,” Sandberg said. “They’re not very happy with that, at all.”
In an April 26 letter of response, developer Bob Brennan stated that he is simply trying to solve a problem facing the county, which is the preservation of the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve and the HCP, and that solving it “is essential for the continued economic health of this area.”
Brennan said the county, the off-road users, the BLM and the Fish and Wildlife Service all have their preferred solutions, but none they have been able to agree on.
“There is not an option that doesn’t make somebody upset,” Brennan’s consultant Jim Raines said.
Brennan is willing to meet with all the parties concerned to discuss a solution.
“I want to work with everybody to sit down and see … how do we know we can’t resolve something unless we sit down and try and resolve it?”
Brennan and Raines said they have spent considerable time looking at potential trade properties, but there are very few BLM parcels valuable enough to compensate Brennan for the nearly 800 acres he owns in the Green Springs area of the reserve.
Raines, on behalf of Brennan and at the request of the county and the BLM, has spent the last few weeks looking for suitable property in the entire state of Utah, but the search has come up empty, they said, as School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration went through the same process three years ago and has already purchased all of the good BLM land in the state.
The response letter further states:
Over the past 20 years the residents of Washington County have enjoyed the mitigation provided by these private lands without any compensation paid to these land owners. The burden of that mitigation will not be carried by the private land owners for the next 20 years.
Raines said Brennan is willing to donate up to half of his property, which is worth “tens of millions of dollars,” but still needs to be compensated for the rest. Also the Long Valley parcel is only worth $2,000 per acre, Raines said, which, for 610 acres, equals $1.22 million.
Of 822 acres Brennan originally owned within the Reserve, 22 acres have been purchased with Land and Conservation Fund monies for $3 million, Brennan said, and 11 acres were donated to the Reserve in that transaction.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Serice responds to HCP permit renewal
Washington County officials can breathe a little easier after getting a response to the HCP renewal application from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service confirmed in a letter to the Habitat Conservation Advisory Committee that the HCP renewal application has been received and is being reviewed. The letter also states that “activities authorized by your existing permit until we have acted on your permit renewal request,” even if the review extends beyond the expiration date.
“The important thing is … the existing permit will remain in force, as long as there’s good faith negotiations going on,” said Larry Crist, who represents the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the advisory committee, “so we’ve got a little bit of time to deal with here.”
Fish and Wildlife will be asking for additional information, Crist said. “One of the big issues, of course, that will come up will be the idea of ‘how are we going to solve the outstanding land issues’ … ,” he said.
Long Valley property
The advisory committee is moving forward on an exchange with Brennan in Long Valley, for approximately 610 acres, Sandberg said.
“Long Valley, right now … everybody feels like it could potentially go forward,” Sandberg said, “although there is still a lengthy process to go through.”
A realty specialist in the Utah BLM office is working on the exchange, and the proposal is close to being ready to send to the BLM Washington office, Sandberg said.
Long Valley is located between the St. George Municipal Airport and the Washington Fields diversion dam on the Virgin River, west and north of Warner Valley, on the last section of the Southern Parkway, which is currently under construction. The Long Valley exchange could potentially be completed within a year or so, Sandberg said.
Seven other exchange parcels in Washington County have been under consideration but have been taken off the table because of various complicating issues such as the presence of cultural resources on the properties.
- Land use advocates ask Hatch to resolve land issues in tortoise habitat, eliminating Sand Mountain land swap
- Developer pursues land swap under Habitat Conservation Plan; OHV users argue to preserve Sand Mountain
- Land users angry about land swap, county may consider alternatives
- County applies for HCP permit renewal, moves forward on land exchanges; STGnews Videocast
- Hurricane council strongly disapproves BLM land swap, favors sand dunes ATV recreation
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