ST. GEORGE – Supporting an expansion of the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve while also approving a new route for a contested northern corridor through the reserve were parts of a resolution passed by the Washington County Commission last week.
Over a year ago, the permit for the county management’s of the habitat conservation plan, or HCP, ran out after a 20 year run. Despite this, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service has allowed the permit status to remain intact as efforts and negotiations for renewal continue.
There are just a few issues that need to be resolved before that can happen – like the proposed northern corridor and its impacts on the reserve.
“One of those complicating issues we’ve had … involves the possibility of alternative mitigation (for the northern corridor and other issues), and if there is any out there, what that would look like,” Cameron Ragnon, Washington County’s HCP administrator told the County Commission during its Sept. 19 meeting.
The Red Cliffs Desert Reserve was created over 20 years ago by the HCP to protect the endangered Mojave desert tortoise and other species while also allowing development to continue in the rest of the county.
Tortoises beyond the reserve
The county has received many reports of the Mohave desert tortoises occurring outside of the reserve, particularly in areas northwest of Bloomington and up toward Santa Clara.
Seeing the possibility for mitigation, the county oversaw surveys across a combined 5,150 acres of land managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, more commonly known as SITLA. County officials wanted to know how many tortoises were occurring in these areas and were surprised by what they found.
“We found a lot of tortoises,” Ragnon said. “We knew we’d find a few, but we found a lot more than we were expecting.”
Overall, an estimated 468 tortoises were found spread across 30,000-plus acres. Of those numbers, around 30 percent are juveniles, Ragnon said, which shows the population is reproducing and growing.
“It appears to be very outstanding habitat for the desert tortoise,” Ragnon said, adding that the population density is about 22.5 tortoises per square kilometer, which is higher than the reserve’s current 15.3 tortoises per square kilometer.
The areas where tortoises were found are heavily recreated, Washington County Commissioner Victor Iverson said. This includes areas like the Bear Claw Poppy Trail System that is a playground for mountain bikers, ATV riders and many others.
“It shows we can live and use and recreate in the same area, which hasn’t been accepted as far as (tortoise) recovery goes,” Iverson said.
It isn’t exactly known why the tortoise populations are high in these areas, Ragnon said, though he did note that human activity may help in keeping predators away. Utah’s own bounty on coyotes is also believed to play a possible part in this.
As a part of the Sept. 19 resolution, the County Commission voted that recreational use of the area would be allowed to continue despite potentially being made a part of the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve.
Still, the idea of creating satellite portions of the reserve isn’t a popular option for some.
“They’re trading good habitat for poor habitat,” Washington County resident Lisa Rutherford said Friday. She has followed the issues surrounding the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, HCP and northern corridor for many years and was in attendance at the Sept. 19 meeting.
Rutherford disputes the density numbers and said that in 1999, the reserve had a density of 27 tortoises per square kilometer. However, since then, a wildfire on the reserve in 2005 and years of drought have taken their toll on the population, she said.
Also a longtime opponent of the northern corridor, Rutherford would like see the County Commission cease its continual push for a roadway that would fragment the reserve.
County and municipal officials contend that Congress promised the county a route for a northern corridor in the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009. Rutherford and others, like the environmental advocacy ground Conserve Southwest Utah, argue no such promise exist.
New route for the contested corridor
During the Sept. 19 commission meeting, a new route for a northern corridor was also presented to the County Commission. This new route still cuts through the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve yet dips down toward the southern boundaries of the reserve.
The proposed roadway is now designed to connect between Red Cliffs Parkway and Washington Parkway and is anticipated to be a five-lane road that may have a 300-foot wide footprint and run approximately 5 to 6 miles through reserve. Parts of the roadway will be on stilts as is passes over a wash in the area.
The new route was considered to have the least impact on the reserve.
“One of the worst things you could do is put a highway through the reserve,” said Tom Butine, president of Conserve Southwest Utah.
A primary reason for the reserve is to provide safe habitat for the tortoise where development is forbidden, Butine said, and yet the county wants to develop a road through it.
The new proposed route was also shown to the Habitat Conversation Advisory Committee, the group that oversees the HCP, during a meeting Monday.
“I personally think that people do not come to St. George to visit the desert reserve to observe a road,” Chris Blake, chair of the advisory committee, said, “so we need to make it as least impactful as possible.”
It was noted by a handful of the committee members that the new route for the corridor was still subject to the scrutiny of environmental impact studies and the like – provided it finally gets the approval to move ahead, that is.
The corridor is also the subject of congressional legislation being pushed by Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah. In his bill he repeats supporting arguments for the corridor, such as the county’s increasing population. He also reiterates the claim that Congress promised the county the road, and thus should make good on that promise.
Currently Washington County sports an estimated population of over 150,000 and is projected to more than double by 2040 at around 321,000, according to the a report from University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Institute.
“This has been a multidecade conversation,” Iverson said in the Sept. 19 meeting. “I believe that 2009 lands bill promised us the northern corridor, and I feel bad that we have to fight so hard for it now when Congress and the president signed for it before. I’ll accept whatever option we can compromise for.”
For its part, Conserve Southwest Utah wants to continue that conversation yet had found itself stuck when dealing with the county and others involved in promoting the corridor, Butine said.
“We just want to be open to having a public dialogue on this issue,” he said.
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