Hirschi feared the consequences as much as anyone. He had started hearing about tortoise troubles when he was a field representative for Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah. In 1989, he was elected a Washington County commissioner.
He'd seen a
disaster unfold in the Las Vegas Valley, where tortoise protection
had shut down virtually all gravel and concrete mining on federal
lands. Las Vegas builders had to haul materials from pits as far as
St. George, two hours' drive away, and Hirschi reckoned it was only
a matter of time before restrictions reached his
"It appeared that the proactive approach
could be worthwhile," Hirschi says. He gave his support to a
habitat conservation plan for the entire
The Fish and Wildlife Service was
enthusiastic, since an HCP would allow the agency to deal with
construction projects on a county-wide basis rather than one
developer at a time.
"We convinced (Hirschi) it
was the best thing to do for the county," says Bob Williams, who
was director of the Fish and Wildlife Service's Utah field office
until 1997, and who now directs the agency's Nevada field office in
To create the plan, ranchers,
environmentalists and housing developers joined biologists and
outdoor enthusiasts on the habitat conservation plan committee. The
group held three years of tense meetings that Hirschi calls
Esque remembers the initial
meetings as a pulpit for detractors to target county officials who
were cooperating with the federal government. "It was used as a
political hammer," he says.
But the committee
finally settled on a 61,000-acre reserve: 48,000 acres of BLM land
and 13,000 acres of private land. Although Hirschi's colleagues in
county and city government were skeptical, they signed off on the
plan to avoid stricter federal enforcement.
county agreed to manage the reserve, allowing recreation but
excluding new homes; it also paid $160,000 to buy out ranchers'
federal grazing allotments. The county agreed to charge developers
outside the reserve $250 for every acre developed, plus .02 percent
of each new home's value, and to funnel the money to the Bureau of
Land Management to buy the private land within the reserve. To
date, the fund has raised more than $10 million, but another $100
million is required to secure the reserve. The agency also plans to
trade public land outside the reserve for private land
In exchange, developers can build in
tortoise habitat outside the reserve, as long as the county clears
the land of tortoises before the development begins. Over the last
three years, the county has cleared 1,000 acres for development,
moving more than 100 tortoises to new areas, reserve manager Bill
Mader says. No one knows whether the transplants will be
For Topham, now a high school
principal, the reserve has become a vast outdoor classroom. St.
George students have a place to observe a rare species and study
the unique landscape of southwestern Utah. If more people take an
interest, he believes, the county may learn enough about the
tortoise's needs to manage the reserve for the benefit of the
"It's not going to happen without a
bunch of education," he says. The reserve's growing recreational
uses - from picnicking to rock climbing - have the potential to put
thousands of newcomers in touch with tortoise
And the newcomers keep pouring in.
Washington County's population was just 45,000 when the tortoise
was listed in 1988, more than double the population from 10 years
before. Now, the county numbers around 80,000 people, and the
Governor's Office of Planning and Budget in Utah says the
population may hit 180,000 within the next 20
While much of the desert will succumb to
rock gardens and cul-de-sacs, many hope that the tortoise reserve
will give new residents of Washington County at least one vista
free of stucco walls and tile
Is it worth
Many people who participated in the process
think they gave up too much to reach a settlement. "We're
definitely asking ourselves, "Is it worth it?" "''''says Lin Alder,
program officer for the St. George office of the Grand Canyon
Trust, a conservation group active on the Colorado
Through May of this year, the Bureau of
Land Management had traded 10,680 acres of public lands for 4,544
private acres. Yes, those private acres were key to the
population's survival, Alder says. But the lopsided ratio is
cutting into existing and potential tortoise
"It pains me to see far too many houses
being built in "take" areas," Alder says. But without the plan, he
says, "We would be much worse off."
"Some of the
benefits are indirect," he says. "The community as a whole has
taken a big, deep breath and is thinking more about how development
occurs. Without the fight over tortoises, there would be houses
sprawling across the (reserve) right now."
Another of the area's traditional environmental
watchdogs is silent about the tradeoff. The Southern Utah
Wilderness Alliance, which participated in the early habitat
conservation plan meetings, has stopped tracking the issue since
the reserve was established, staff attorney Heidi McIntosh
As for housing developers, they continue to
feel unduly constrained by tortoise protections. Required surveys
for tortoises are expensive and time-consuming, they
Without the reserve, though, developer
Milo McCowan believes he would have faced steep fines and maybe
even jail time for disobeying the Endangered Species Act. He might
have built on protected habitat without knowing it - and without
understanding the consequences.
a line in the sand, you have no idea whether you're in violation,"
he says. Under the plan, "the animals were protected. The
developers were protected."
But no one is quite sure if the animals
are really protected, since it's still not clear how the reserve
will be managed. There's a growing sense that what's crucial to the
tortoise is how, where and when the reserve is used by
Will riders and hikers be allowed to
stray off trails into tortoise habitat during spring and fall, when
more animals are likely to be out of their
Will the county fence major dirt roads
within the reserve to discourage off-road
Will the tortoises be able to avoid
the stress that biologists believe contributes to respiratory
"The potential impact of human uses is a
very big thing," Alder says. "So perhaps (the reserve) isn't big
Though the incidence of respiratory
distress in the tortoises remains relatively low, Utah Division of
Wildlife Resources biologist Rick Fridell reports an apparent
increase over the last few years. "We've not seen a (population)
decline, but a sensible recreation plan could be important to
The county will soon reassemble
interest groups, public officials and biologists to establish
recreation guidelines for the reserve, and reserve manager Bill
Mader is hopeful. "We're committed to making the reserve work, not
just for tortoises but for biodiversity in general, and for
recreation," he says.
Some question the county's
willingness to manage the reserve for the benefit of the species,
and say the county is too focused on making money from the new open
space through increased tourism.
doesn't care about the tortoises, and they keep pushing on the
(Fish and Wildlife Service) and the state and everyone else (to
loosen the restrictions)," says Bob Williams of the Fish and
Wildife Service. "The Service needs to stand tall and say a deal's
a deal on both sides of the fence."
worries that the recreation debate will tear apart a fragile
alliance. The reserve now has many unlikely supporters, but he
remembers the widespread anger over the conservation plan that
ousted him from his county commissioner's office after one term,
and he fears it hasn't gone away.
Although he now
says that "the preserve is a wonderful thing," he doesn't describe
the habitat conservation plan in the same way. He recently advised
commissioners of nearby Iron County to stay out of the process, and
counseled them to let the federal government take the heat for the
Endangered Species Act listing of the Utah prairie
Williams, on the other hand, stands by the
process, and he says the Washington County habitat conservation
plan was the best that the biologists could negotiate. "We believed
that it had a good chance of preserving that population of the
desert tortoise," says Williams. "I just hope the hard fight that
occurred doesn't get wasted."
Brandon Loomis is a reporter
for the Salt Lake Tribune.
* Fish and
Wildlife Service Utah Field Office,
* Washington County Commissioners'