HURRICANE – What began last Tuesday as a meeting with officials about the broader picture of maintaining access to public lands quickly turned into a debate about a proposed land swap involving a 1,200-acre chunk of the Sand Mountain off-highway vehicle area, a move opponents believe would open the floodgates to development in the area.
Washington County Commissioner Victor Iverson invited Utah Public Lands Alliance members and others in the off-road recreation community to a meeting at the county building with Rep. Chris Stewart and learn how Stewart can help. However, Stewart was late to the meeting due to other commitments, and only able to stay a few minutes.
Meeting attendees took the opportunity to express their anger and frustration about the proposed land swap, continued loss of access to public lands and broken promises from local and federal officials.
“Thirty years ago we were guaranteed and promised an open OHV area, and we’re still fighting for it,” said Milt Thompson, owner of Dixie Four Wheel Drive, a St. George business.
Iverson stated again and again that the county has a legal responsibility to facilitate the land trade.
“We’re trying to get through the renewal process without a major rewrite of the HCP (Habitat Conservation Plan),” Iverson said. He also said that if the proposed Sand Mountain exchange does happen, it will be the last one in that area.
The county’s HCP was established in 1996 to deal with the threat of county-wide problems due to the presence of the endangered Mohave desert tortoise. The agreement set aside habitat for the desert tortoise and other species, while freeing up the rest of the county for development. The agreement created what is now the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve. The HCP agreement will expire and face renewal in 2016, and the county is under pressure to make progress towards completing any lingering land trades before the deadline.
Since 2010, after a bankruptcy settlement, Bob Brennan has owned approximately 800 acres near the Green Springs area of Washington City, which is slated to be part of an exchange for the 1,200 acres on Sand Mountain.
Off-road representatives repeatedly asked why another piece of property couldn’t be offered to Brennan, and later questioned why no other alternatives are being considered.
Jeff Bieber is president of the nonprofit Desert RATS. “We’re not looking for a lose-lose situation, we’re looking for a win-win,” he said.
There were originally seven entrances to the OHV trail systems on Sand Mountain, said Gil Meacham, president of UPLA, but construction of the new Southern Parkway cut off two of the seven entrances. Those two trail closures are causing problems for business owner Laurie Clay, of ATV and Jeep Adventure Tours.
“Now we have to trailer our clients all the way around,” Clay said. “We lost $28,000 last year because of loss of access. The ranchers are upset about it too.”
People don’t realize this is one of two places that has dirt, desert, sand dunes and swimmable water, Clay said, adding that she is “150 percent opposed” to the land swap.
“We’re not willing to lose more land,” Clay said. “We’ve seen the loss of use due to the Sand Hollow lake and golf course.”
Landowner and off-road enthusiast Stacey Eaton expressed frustration over the county’s refusal to consider options other than the 1,200 acres in the Sand Mountain off-highway vehicle area. While Brennan deserves to be compensated, Eaton doesn’t understand why Brennan is being offered his first choice of land for exchange.
Eaton owned land in the preserve, and went through the HCP land exchange process himself starting in 2002. He owned 100 acres with surface and mining rights in Babylon Valley, located between Leeds and Toquerville. Eaton said he provided a list of 10 properties he was willing to trade for, but was turned down on every one.
“In my exchange, my choices were all shot down,” Eaton said. “You’re giving this guy (Brennan) his first option? That is extremely offensive to me.”
Eaton suggests taking Brennan’s land out of the HCP, and letting Brennan do with it what he wishes. The HCP boundaries have been changed a number of times, and this option was brought up when Eaton’s negotiations came to an impasse, he said.
“Take his (Brennan’s) property out of the reserve,” Eaton said. “It can be done. Start focusing in a different direction.”
The HCP agreement is set to expire in February 2016. Management of the reserve will continue as it normally has since its inception if it is renewed; otherwise, the stability the HCP has provided could devolve into chaos. Even if complications delay approval beyond February 2016, the permit is still eligible for renewal as long as negotiations continue in good faith between the county and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
As the debate continued, Iverson said he would meet with Eaton.
“I’ll make an appointment with ourselves and Bob Sandberg, the director of the HCP,” Iverson said. This will give Eaton and Iverson an opportunity to explore the option. However, Iverson said, he can personally commit to looking into other options besides the Sand Mountain land swap, but could not commit on behalf of the entire County
Present at the meeting were several members of the United Public Lands Association; the Desert Roads and Trails Society, known as the Desert RATS; business owners already impacted by the Southern Parkway, and others.
Iverson holds Washington County Commission Seat B by appointment of the commission in July when Denny Drake resigned. He is running for the seat against Democratic challenger Paul Van Dam in Tuesday’s midterm election.
Stewart represents the people of Utah’s 2nd Congressional District. and also sits on the Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies. He is currently running for re-election against Democrat Luz Robles, Independent American Wayne Hill, Constitution Party candidate Shaun McCausland, unaffiliated candidates Warren Rogers and Bill Barron, in Tuesday’s midterm election
Stewart called Iverson “one of the good guys.”
“He’s in a tough position,” Stewart said of Iverson. “He’s come in new, to a 20-year situation. The good news is that the federal government is not making this decision. We have someone local,” he said with his hand on Iverson’s shoulder.
After the meeting, Meacham said:
We were allowed to express our opinions regarding what should have happened before. We would like to see the county look at other options because we can’t replace these trails if lose them, or lose the quality of the trails by building right next to them.We will continue to work with the county to find a satisfactory solution. We are 100 percent opposed to the land swap.
The Utah Public Lands Alliance was formed in early 2014 to represent public land users in their efforts to keep public lands open to multipurpose use. It is a nonprofit organization whose officers and board of trustees come from varied backgrounds and hold in common the interest of recreation in Utah and the surrounding areas. In its mission statement, UPLA states: “We believe that working as an alliance between the many different users of public lands cooperatively will help us maintain access and recreational use of these lands for our generations to come.”
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