Public encouraged to attend open house on proposed desert reserve land swap

Undated file photo of a desert tortoise by John Kellam, courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management, St. George News.

ST. GEORGE – As a possible way to offset impacts to the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve that would be created by the proposed northern corridor, county officials have proposed a land swap that would expand the reserve in the wilderness area between Santa Clara and Bloomington.

Mountain biking aficionado Jay Bartlett descends a Southern Utah trail, St. George, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of Jay Bartlett, St. George News

The land swap, and elements of possible legislation to be recommended to Utah’s congressional delegation to sponsor, is the subject of an open house that will be held at the Dixie Convention Center Wednesday from 5-7 p.m.

The area in question has been found by biologists to have a high-density of desert tortoises, despite the fact is it also heavily used by outdoor enthusiasts – particularly mountain bikers.

Any deal that would allow such a land swap has to keep recreational use of the area intact, Washington County Commissioner Zachery Renstrom said.

“It’s a great place to recreate,” he said, adding it’s also an area that supports a thriving desert tortoise population.

The purpose of the meeting is to get public input from those who may be concerned about a potential land swap while also becoming educated on the details, Renstrom said.

“Come and get the details and give us input,” he said. “We’re really trying to get input before we present anything to Congress.”

Some of the land between Santa Clara and Bloomington that would be impacted by the land swap is currently overseen by the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, or SITLA, Renstrom added, and could be sold for development in the future.

The land swap, which SITLA supports, Renstrom said, would help keep the land open to recreational use.

The Washington County Commission discussed the land swap idea during a Sept. 26 meeting.

Desert tortoise on hills adjacent to Bear Claw Poppy Trailhead, Bloomington area of St. George, Utah, April 26, 2013 | Photo by Joyce Kuzmanic, St. George News

Read more: County supports creating more desert reserve to offset northern corridor impacts

During the meeting, Cameron Ragnon, director of Washington County’s Habitat Conservation Plan, reported that surveys of the area found over 400 desert tortoises spread across 30,000-plus acres.

“It appears to be very outstanding habitat for the desert tortoise,” Ragnon said at the time, 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.

If the land swap is ultimately approved, it would allow for the needed mitigation for creating the northern corridor, a roadway that would cut through the desert reserve to connect Interstate 15 with Red Hills Parkway.

A new alignment for the proposed northern corridor that was approved by the Washington County Commission during its Sept. 18, 2017, meeting. | Photo courtesy of Washington County, St. George News

State and county road plans consider the northern corridor to be a crucial part of future transportation infrastructure in Washington County, particularly as it the county continues to grow.

Read more: Planners: Congestion inevitable, but northern corridor would help

“I look at it as a win-win situation,” Renstrom said of the proposed land exchange.

Conservation and environmental groups are against the proposed roadway due to potentially negative impact it could have on the reserve and the tortoise population.

Read more: Letter to the Editor: Evidence speaks for itself on Northern Corridor

Comments from advocates of outdoor recreation groups, as well as all interested parties are being sought at the open house. All are encouraged attend to view maps and learn more about the proposed expansion bill.

Event details

  • What: Open house on the proposed desert tortoise habitat conservation expansion bill.
  • When: Wednesday, March 28. 5-7 p.m.
  • Where: Entrada Room, Dixie Convention Center, 1835 S. Convention Center Drive, St. George.

Email: mkessler@stgnews.com

Twitter: @MoriKessler

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

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5 Comments

  • statusquo March 27, 2018 at 8:55 pm

    Not sure of the exact boundaries of the proposed 7000 acre land swap, but there was a large tortoise spotted on the Rim Runner Trail near Cove Wash just yesterday by a riding friend of mine.

  • utahdiablo March 27, 2018 at 9:50 pm

    Come one, come all, Sitla will be serving Turtle Soup…anything to sell more southern Utah land and to overbuild….Regardless of what you may think? You do not have a voice as to controlling Greed

  • holger March 28, 2018 at 7:16 am

    That map is very telling. Just measure the distance from exit 13 to red hills parkway using both the proposed new route versus the current interstate/route. The northern corridor is the same distance, maybe a little longer.

    The fix is in, the greedy developers are pushing the northern corridor just out of spite now. St George is about to kill the goose that lays the golden egg.

  • beacon March 29, 2018 at 3:46 pm

    Unfortunately, the new Reserve administrator, Cameron Rognan, is no real protector of threatened and endangered species. He’s more a protector of his own species and position. This comment is very telling, “It appears to be very outstanding habitat for the desert tortoise,” Ragnon (sic) said at the time, 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.” Rognan fails to mention that in 1999 the tortoise density in Zone 3 (the heart of the Reserve) was around 27 tortoises per square kilometer. Drought and fires in 2005/2006 reduced those numbers, as could easily happen also in the heavily-recreated proposed Zone 6. This is the kind of “pull-the-wool-over” the public’s eyes that has been going on for the last several years in a desperate attempt to get the proposed Northern Corridor – a road they want, but which won’t solve our transportation problems. They also fail to mention the Western Corridor planned very near or through proposed Zone 6, a road which will put the Reserve/NCA back in the same situation as now: fighting to preserve the Mojave desert tortoise from the overwhelming human encroachment it faces and from which it has few champions and certainly not our leaders!

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