ST. GEORGE – A land exchange for property in Long Valley is moving forward and a trade for land in the Sand Mountain area that is open to off-highway vehicles is still on the table as the county Habitat Conservation Plan committee works to resolve the issue of remaining private land in the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve.
The Red Cliffs Desert Reserve was created 20 years ago to protect the endangered Mojave desert tortoise and other species while allowing development to continue in the rest of Washington County. The HCP was enacted 20 years ago and set aside the 62,000-acre Reserve in exchange for continued development in the rest of the county.
The Habitat Conservation Plan will expire this year, and Washington County submitted a renewal application in January 2015. U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials who oversee the process have said that the existing permit will remain in place even after the expiration date, as long as there are good-faith negotiations underway.
A handful of landowners still own 1,288 acres within the Reserve, and the remaining private property must either be purchased outright or traded for land of equal value. Developer Bob Brennan is the largest landowner, with about 800 acres still in the Reserve.
Funds for land purchases are hard to come by, although Larry Crist, who represents the U.S. Fish and Wildlife on the HCP committee, said he is working with state officials to secure more funding through Section 6 of the Endangered Species Act.
A controversial land exchange involving more than 1,000 acres in the Sand Mountain OHV area is still on the table, Crist said, although no decision has been made. Off-road users and land use group Utah Public Lands Alliance are opposing the potential land swap, vowing to use every legal means available to prevent any land from being taken out of the OHV area.
Six hundred acres of land in the Long Valley area could be exchanged for between 80 and 180 acres of Brennan’s land in the Reserve, national conservation area manager Dawna Ferris-Rowley said at a regular HCP committee meeting Tuesday. The final amount of acreage depends on the appraised value of the two properties.
The property exchange is undergoing an internal review of a draft environmental assessment along with archaeological surveys.
There are at least two prehistoric sites on the property that will require excavation, Ferris-Rowley said. In addition, there are two historic erosion-control sites from the Civilian Conservation Corps era which the Historic American Landscapes Survey will document before any development takes place.
While a small number of tortoises have been found in a small part of the Long Valley property, the area is not critical habitat. Rather, it is considered “potential habitat” by the HCP, with the blessing of the Fish and Wildlife Service, Crist said. Any tortoises found in the area will be relocated.
Recreational trail monitoring
In other business, the HCP committee heard a presentation by Briget Eastep, director and associate professor of outdoor recreation at the Outdoor Engagement Center of Southern Utah University, who is overseeing a project to monitor trails within the Reserve. Eastep and several SUU students have been checking trails for human-caused damage to ensure that desert tortoise habitat is not being harmed.
Most of the trails surveyed are in good shape except for a few places where damage and erosion is occurring, Eastep said. Recreation does cause some impact, but it is not severe and it is not getting worse, she said.
“We want to encourage people to continue to enjoy and respect the Reserve,” HCP administrator Bob Sandberg said. “It’s a win-win situation.”
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