ST. GEORGE – A bill introduced in Congress that would transfer the popular Sand Mountain off-highway vehicle area to Washington County appears to do nothing to resolve a long-standing conflict between off-roaders and a developer who wants to build in the area.
The Southern Utah Open OHV Areas Act, designated S. 837 and H.B. 1961, was introduced April 5 in both the House and Senate by Rep. Chris Stewart and Sen. Orrin Hatch.
While the bill proposes to transfer 20,000 acres to the county for use as a dedicated off-road area and trade out State Institutional Trust Lands Administration parcels, an area disputed in a proposed land exchange has been excluded from the bill.
Developer Bob Brennan has targeted land within the off-highway vehicle area in exchange for property he owns within the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, which was set aside for the threatened desert tortoise and other species.
If the exchange were to happen, houses would be built on hundreds of acres within the off-highway vehicle area.
Washington County Commissioner Victor Iverson said the bill does not address Bob Brenan’s exchange one way or another.
“If that exchange is to ever happen it will be due to action by Department of Interior, not Washington County,” Iverson said.
Brennan is one of a handful of remaining landholders within the reserve who must be compensated for their property with cash or trade for land of equal value. Brennan recently acquired 600 acres in Long Valley in exchange for 83 acres in the reserve.
Brennan has been petitioning Washington County officials for an exchange. The original proposal was for 1,200 acres in the Sand Mountain off-highway vehicle area; later the request was reduced in size.
The possibility of a development within Sand Mountain is being met with vigorous opposition by land use groups and off-road advocates including the Utah Public Lands Alliance, who threatened to use “every conceivable legal means” to prevent any land exchange involving the off-highway vehicle area.
Off-roaders maintain that so much off-road access has already been lost in Washington County that any further reduction is unacceptable, and they continue to oppose any land exchange in Sand Mountain.
While the proposed transfer of the off-highway vehicle area to the county sounds like a good idea at first, Utah Public Lands Alliance President Gil Meacham said, a closer look shows the area of Brennan’s proposed land trade would remain under Bureau of Land Management control – and leave the door open for exchange.
“It kind of muddies the water because we’re carving out this one area of BLM land,” Meacham said.
“It’s misleading to say it would not affect the existing Sand Mountain Special Recreation Management Area – except that it would get the SITLA (State Institutional Trust Lands Administration) land out,” Meacham said in response to statements from Hatch’s office.
The current resource management plan for the BLM St. George Field Office specifically set aside the Sand Mountain Special Recreation Management Area in 1999. The plan clearly designates almost the entire Sand Mountain area as an “open” off-highway vehicle area.
Currently, to make any changes to the Sand Mountain area, BLM would have to amend the resource management plan, Meacham said. However, that could change if the land is transferred to the county.
“It seems to me like it (the proposed bill) is more of an end-run around the RMP (resource management plan),” Meacham said.
The bill would not protect the disputed part of the off-highway vehicle area, but would surround it with county land. The excluded BLM land looks to be approximately 650 acres, not Brennan’s most recent exchange proposal of 200 acres. And that makes Meacham “really nervous.”
The resolution of inholdings inside the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve is the responsibility of the federal government, not the county, Iverson said.
“If the bill passes it will guarantee that all acreage transferred to the county under this bill will be protected as open ride recreation use,” he said. “OHV users can be assured that no part of the BLM land that is given to the county under this bill will ever be sold.”
Like other land transferred from the BLM for state parks and other public uses under the Recreation and Public Purposes Act, it could only be used and managed for the purpose that the land is transferred for, Iverson said.
However, language in the bill states that school trust lands traded out of the area could be designated for off-road use, or “for any other public purpose consistent with” the Recreation and Public Purposes Act.
In Washington County, many schools, golf courses, parks, fire stations, cemeteries, libraries and even a BMX track were built on land acquired under the act. Santa Clara City is applying for a similar land transfer for an outdoor sports park.
If the bill passes, ownership and management of the Sand Mountain off-highway vehicle area will transfer to the county, Iverson said. Plans are for a close working relationship with Utah State Parks with local input protected by the county management.
“The county will set up a management plan that will include the county, the City of Hurricane, Utah State Parks and citizens user groups,” Iverson said.
The bill, if passed, would provide for the exchange of land owned by the State Institutional Trust Lands Administration. Land within the off-highway vehicle area would be traded for BLM-owned land in Warner Valley.
“SITLA has been acquiring land in Warner Valley from BLM in two prior land exchanges,” SITLA assistant director and chief legal counsel John Andrews said. The exchanges proposed in the bill would be a continuation of that.
“We are supportive of the concept,” he said. Warner Valley has development potential in the very long term.
The bill has been referred to the House Committee on Natural Resources and to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.