City passes resolution supporting controversial desert tortoise habitat expansion bill

A live Mohave desert tortoise is displayed at an open house for a proposed Habitat Conservation Plan expansion bill that would add nearly 7,000 acres of land west of St. George to protected tortoise habitat in exchange for a right-of-way through the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve for a northern corridor route. St. George, Utah, March 28, 2018 | File photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Community members showed up in large numbers at St. George City Hall Thursday to express frustration about a controversial tortoise habitat expansion bill making its way to U.S. Congress that no one in the general public has been allowed to see.

Citizens attend a St. George City Council meeting during which the council approved a resolution supporting the proposed Desert Tortoise Habitat Conservation Plan Expansion Act, St. George City Hall, St. George, Utah, April 5, 2018 | Photo by Joseph Witham, St. George News

Despite the public outcry, the St. George City Council approved a resolution in support of the Desert Tortoise Habitat Conservation Plan Expansion Act, which would expand the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve by about 6,900 acres west of Bloomington and south of Santa Clara in exchange for a right-of-way for a new east-west northern corridor through a portion of the reserve’s existing boundaries.

Read more: County officials propose legislation to expand tortoise habitat for northern corridor route

“We are treating ourselves poorly. I don’t think we need an east-west corridor,” St. George resident Craig Booth said during the meeting’s public comment period. “It is across the ground where the deer and the antelope play, brothers and sisters. We will ruin it with a northern corridor.”

Booth was joined by several other St. George residents in expressing apprehension for the implications of the congressional bill.

“Why is the county in a hurry to get through congressional legislation,” city resident Richard Spotts asked. “I believe the rush is to take advantage of a very tilted political climate and try to ram through a one-sided wish list and not go through the normal process of objective scientific analysis, objective evaluation of feasible alternatives and meaningful public involvement.”

Of chief concern to most of the people who commented was the fact that no one besides government officials has yet been allowed to see the bill, which was proposed by the Washington County Commission with support from U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart.

“We would like more of the language,” rock climbing enthusiast Tyler Webb said. “We want to just see the legislation to make sure that it has our trails and our rock climbing areas that we all go to – mountain biking – as far as our future access to it.”

Webb said he generally supports the idea of the bill but urged the council to table approving the resolution until everyone could see the bill in its entirety.

“I can tell you that we helped write it with the county and Washington City,” Mayor Jon Pike said in response to Webb. “We wouldn’t support it, and we would withdraw our support if it didn’t have the language that you just requested.

Pike noted that the city was not authorized to share the bill’s language and interested parties will need to wait until the legislation is introduced in Congress.

County officials have released a description of the bill, outlining what they hope to achieve. In addition to expanding the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve into a newly dubbed “Zone 6,” the bill would renew the now-expired Habitat Conservation Plan, preserve existing utility and grazing rights, allow for recreation to continue on designated trails, including hiking, biking, horseback riding and limited off-highway vehicle use, among other provisions.

Map showing the proposed location of a new northern corridor route within the boundaries of the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve in Washington County | Image courtesy of Washington County, St. George News | Click on image to enlarge

The provided description belies the fact that bill drafters are still hashing out specifics, environmental lawyer Jamie Carpenter said, a concern echoed by Spotts, who worked as a congressional lobbyist for four years.

“I know that when dealing with legislation, the devil is in the details,” Spotts said. “You really need to see the actual legislation, not the talking points.”

Read more: Point/Counterpoint letters: St. George resident, mayor face off on Desert Tortoise Habitat Conservation Plan Expansion Act

Councilman Jimmie Hughes said the city did its due diligence in helping draft the proposed legislation to benefit the widest range of residents and uses possible and that anyone who has concerns about the bill going forward needs bring them before congressional representatives.

“There’s some stuff that’s not known yet,” Hughes said. “Congress gets this bill – it could be chopped to pieces. We can’t control that.”

Ultimately, he said, the bill’s establishment of a right-of-way to build a proposed east-west corridor is a major need for the rapidly growing community.

“We’ve got to have adequate transportation routes,” Hughes said. “I feel like it would be a dereliction of our duty if we don’t promote those areas that are available and have them on the planning books.”

But messing with a long-established conservation plan in the name of building a new road is the wrong approach, Booth said.

“I was here 30-plus years ago … when we all met over a number of long, argumentative meetings to arrange for the desert tortoise habitat,” Booth said. “A large, disparate group of people came together … and finally hammered out a compromise.

“We are now back, 30 years later, to break our word.

St. George resident Craig Booth speaks to city officials at a City Council meeting, St. George City Hall, St. George, Utah, April 5, 2018 | Photo courtesy of Community Education Channel, St. George News

“We promised that that would be the desert tortoise habitat. Don’t let your legacy – your individual legacy – be to your grandkids, ‘I helped build that road across the northern corridor.’ Your grandkids will be ashamed of you.”

Councilwoman Michele Randall said that had she been on the City Council decades ago, residents likely would have argued against building some of the major transportation routes in existence today, such as Red Hills Parkway and the Southern Parkway.

“I’m not in favor of just shutting the door and shutting everybody out,” Randall said. “We have a beautiful place that people come to enjoy.”

Following comments from the public, the council voted unanimously to approve the resolution in support of the proposed congressional legislation.

“It’s showing our support for something, frankly, we believe strongly that is a need for the future of Washington County,” Pike said, “and some will disagree, but as you look at the transportation needs over the next 10 to 30 years, I believe it’s clear we will need that. Otherwise, we will have gridlock on our other routes.”

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Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.

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  • Death Valley April 6, 2018 at 7:49 am

    The Good ol’ Boys Club at it again. If they actually cared about this, they’d let people see what’s in the legislation. My guess is it would cause such an enormous uproar that it would be resoundingly defeated. The Northern Corridor is going to be a massive disaster and they know it. That’s why they’re hiding their plans. These people are underhanded and sneaky. I guess that’s what voters want because these shysters keep getting re-elected. Pretty pathetic.

    • great success April 6, 2018 at 10:03 am

      True, true, true. Vote AGAINST Chris Stewart and these others in upcoming elections.

      • mesaman April 6, 2018 at 8:36 pm

        Say what? Is Chris Stewart a member of the “good old boys club”? I don’t think so. Maybe your passion for Hildebeast broke through your thinly veiled comment.
        But that’s not the focus of this article. We must have a corridor on all four sides of the metropolitan area of St George-Washington-Santa Clara if we are going to welcome another 100 thousand newbies into our midst. It’s all part of the great, huge, enormous, gigantic plans for the future; the corridors, the Lake Powell Water, and the burgeoning growth that we MUST have. I wonder whose Idea this great growth plan was? And I wonder if we are doomed to become the Las Vegas of Utah?

  • No Filter April 6, 2018 at 8:04 am

    Of course they passed it, the entire city council and mayor are developers and getting a payout for passing this bill. When will you guys learn to stop electing these people to run your city? Looks like the road will finally be built on the north side of town. Soon after that they will find a way to push out the tortoise and then build more houses. Your going to need that pipeline now to get water to all the people moving into town. Good thing I won’t be here to see it, I am getting out why I can.

    • statusquo April 6, 2018 at 8:25 am

      Good point. The officials who are building this road were elected by the majority of the citizens. My guess is the majority of the citizens also support the current decisions these officials are making. It is the minority who are making all the noise. Being in construction for 30 years I can say with assurance that a road can easily be built without significantly impacting the tortoise population.

  • Craig April 6, 2018 at 8:23 am

    Refusing to allow the people to know what is actually happening is very wrong.

  • PatriotLiberal April 6, 2018 at 8:42 am

    I lack the information to agree or disagree with this bill. That said, I think it’s horrible that they are not letting the public see it. I have to say, I’m not surprised by that though given that politicians (but especially conservatives) have a long history of back-room, closed door deals that benefit no one except themselves.

    Remember this, dear voter, when election time come around.

  • PogoStik April 6, 2018 at 9:11 am

    But are there any tortoises in the new areas to be swapped?

    • beacon April 6, 2018 at 11:34 am

      Pogostik, yes there are tortoises in the land under consideration for Zone 6. In fact, that should make us wonder, if there are tortoises there and the habitat is so good, why was the area not considered for the Reserve in the mid-90s when the Reserve was created? If it was considered, why was it rejected? The tortoise density in Zone 6 is not as good as the density in Zone 3 (where the road would be built) back in 1999. Only fires in 2005 have cut those density numbers, and fires can just as easily affect Zone 6 in the future. For council member Michelle Randall to says we don’t want to stop people from coming here is so ridiculous. Stopping a $110 million road through the Reserve will not stop people from coming here. What we need is leaders better than Randall who are able to think outside the box and come up with better ideas for handling our transportation needs. As for the recreation in the area, which County Commissioner Renstrom and others use as an example of how people and tortoises can coexist with no problem, how will that play out in the future? Currently, there are tortoises there in spite of the heavy recreational use, but as the county grows and even more people are allowed to recreate there with little control, how will the tortoise population be affected then. Or, will the county come back later with new rules after they’ve been able to convince current recreational users that nothing will be done to inhibit their use of the area? Those who recreate in the Zone 6 area would do well to communicate with the U.S. Congressional members, now that Washington County cities are throwing themselves under the Northern Corridor bus, and let say “no” to the NC and yes to protecting our existing Reserve, while at the same time protecting their ability to recreate in the areas to the west of St. George. Those areas which are SITLA may at some point be developed and recreation limited, but that remains to be seen. It’s been open for a long time so far.

  • Gary April 6, 2018 at 9:50 am

    Not sure why anyone believes that these elected officials listen to anyone after they are elected. Best way to prevent this is to vote them out.

  • Walter1 April 6, 2018 at 11:32 am

    As usual the same old top down politics that have prevailed in Dixie for so long. The people are not listened to. Its all theater. Developers and landholders own the local government. People must stop electing these good old boys over and over again. Dixie as we have have known it is dying at the thrown of greed. What true Legacy their has been is being sold for a few pieces of silver. Sad! Don’t forget to vote! Time is running out.

  • utahdiablo April 6, 2018 at 9:19 pm

    Most folks don’t bother to go to their public city council meetings, which the developers count on….case in point – all the daily rentals popping up everywhere taht have been green lighted over the last year….but even more funny is you all think you have a voice in your future.

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