A desert boomtown comes to terms with its quiet neighbors

  • Red Cliffs Desert Reserve near St. George, Utah

    Map by Diane Sylvain
  • Desert tortoise in redrock desert near St. George, Utah

    Todd C. Esque photo/USGS
  • Hikers in Red Cliffs Desert Reserve watch desert tortoise

    Lin Alder photo

Note: a sidebar article accompanies this feature story: "Slow and steady."

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 county.

"It appeared that the proactive approach could be worthwhile," Hirschi says. He gave his support to a habitat conservation plan for the entire county.

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 Reno.

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 "wildfires."

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.

The 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 within.

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 successful.

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 species.

"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 habitat.

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 years.

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 roofs.

Is it worth it?

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 Plateau.

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 habitat.

"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 says.

As for housing developers, they continue to feel unduly constrained by tortoise protections. Required surveys for tortoises are expensive and time-consuming, they complain.

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.

"Without drawing 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."

The next debate

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 people.

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 burrows?

Will the county fence major dirt roads within the reserve to discourage off-road motorcycling?

Will the tortoises be able to avoid the stress that biologists believe contributes to respiratory disease?

"The potential impact of human uses is a very big thing," Alder says. "So perhaps (the reserve) isn't big enough."

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 prevent one."

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.

"The county 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."

Hirschi 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 dog.

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.

You can contact ...
* Fish and Wildlife Service Utah Field Office, 801/524-8009;
* Washington County Commissioners' office, 801/634-5700.