WASHINGTON COUNTY – Washington County is a step closer to renewing its U.S. Fish and Wildlife permit for the Habitat Conservation Plan, having filed a formal application for the permit renewal, Habitat Conservation Advisory Committee board members heard at a regular meeting Tuesday.
The formal application was signed and mailed on Jan. 30, and the HCP committee is waiting for a written response, HCP Administrator Bob Sandberg said.
“The fact that the county has actually applied for renewal of the HCP and the take permit is an important thing, a very important thing,” he said.
The “take permit” is given to the county by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, allowing development to proceed outside of the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve in desert tortoise habitat in Washington County, Sandberg said.
Sandberg feels like good progress is being made on land acquisitions, and that chances are good that the permit will be renewed.
“We feel like we … worked very diligently to accomplish all of the commitments that the county had made in the HCP, so we feel like there shouldn’t be any major obstacles in being able to renew the HCP,” Sandberg said.
The county is trying to finish up acquisition and exchange transactions with owners of remaining privately owned property subjected to the HCP, as a February 2016 deadline looms for renewal of the HCP.
The Red Cliffs Desert Reserve was created by the HCP to protect the endangered Mojave desert tortoise and other species, while allowing development to continue in the rest of the county.
There are a handful of land owners with property still in the reserve, including developer Bob Brennan.
Brennan is one of three landowners with property remaining in the reserve. He owns about 800 acres in the Green Springs area subject to the HCP and within the borders of the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve.
The county and the HCP Advisory Committee have been seeking ways to exchange BLM land for the property remaining in the reserve.
Brennan’s proposed swap would involve multiple properties, including a controversial 1,200-acre parcel within the Sand Mountain OHV area in Hurricane, which experiences considerable off-road motorized recreation use. The proposal to trade land in the OHV area has proven contentious and is being contested by land users, including the Utah Public Lands Alliance.
Land exchange update
Sandberg gave an update on land acquisition efforts for the HCP at a Habitat Conservation Advisory Committee meeting Tuesday.
Several BLM properties are under consideration for land exchanges. Cultural inventories have been completed on the properties, to survey for archaeological and historical resources that might complicate or prevent BLM disposal of the parcels.
Preliminary information shows there are cultural resources present, at least on the surface of potential exchange properties.
Cultural resources on the surface, called “lithic resources,” can be catalogued, picked up and stored or given to a museum, Sandberg said, which is relatively easy and inexpensive. However, underground cultural resources are a different matter.
“If it’s determined that there are below ground features, mitigation involving excavation could be very expensive,” Sandberg said.
“It’s in the millions of dollars to complete all of the mitigation that would be required on all of those parcels. That’s obviously problematic as far as exchanges go,” he added.
Two parcels were discussed in depth at the meeting – one in Long Valley and the other a 1,200-acre parcel near Sand Hollow, in the Sand Mountain Open OHV Area. The potential encroachment into the popular off-highway vehicle area has become highly controversial and is being opposed by off-road advocates, including the Utah Public Lands Alliance.
“We’re still trying to proceed with the Long Valley parcel and the Sand Hollow parcel, and we’re still looking at whether there’s going to be any movement on any of the other parcels,” Sandberg said.
Long Valley is between the St. George Airport and the Washington Fields diversion dam on the Virgin River, west and north of Warner Valley, Sandberg said. It is on the last section of the Southern Parkway, which is currently under construction. It is estimated that the Long Valley exchange could be completed within a year or so, Sandberg said.
Trading the Sand Hollow parcel could take much longer. Besides the presence of cultural resources, there are other factors that could complicate the Sand Hollow exchange, Dawna Ferris-Rowley, BLM St. George Field Office National Conservation Area manager, said.
The BLM’s Resource Management Plan for the Sand Mountain OHV Area states that the area “…would be maintained in federal ownership,” Ferris-Rowley said.
To do an exchange, the BLM would have to amend that plan, which would require a formal process including an environmental assessment, she said.
To complete these potential land exchanges for parcels containing cultural resources, an archaeological mitigation plan will need to be formulated before a cost estimate for actual mitigation could be made.
At that point, appraisals could be done to determine the actual value of the proposed exchange parcels, in order to adequately compensate land owners.
“It has to be a value-to-value exchange, ” Sandberg said.
Will the slow progress of land exchanges prevent renewal of the permit?
Not necessarily, said Larry Crist, who represents the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the Habitat Conservation Advisory Committee.
There needs to “… be some kind of plan for the remaining land acquisitions,” Crist said.
The official application is in, and the USFWS will respond to it “soon,” Christ said, adding that this is just the beginning of the process, which may require some negotiation.
- Land use advocates ask Hatch to resolve land issues in tortoise habitat, eliminating Sand Mountain land swap
- Developer pursues land swap under Habitat Conservation Plan; OHV users argue to preserve Sand Mountain
- Land users angry about land swap, county may consider alternatives
- Hurricane council strongly disapproves BLM land swap, favors sand dunes ATV recreation
- Sand Mountain, OHV paradise or luxury development? 2 sides to proposed land exchange
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