ST. GEORGE — Community members showed up in large numbers at St. George City Hall Thursday to express frustration about a controversial tortoise habitat expansion bill making its way to U.S. Congress that no one in the general public has been allowed to see.
Despite the public outcry, the St. George City Council approved a resolution in support of the Desert Tortoise Habitat Conservation Plan Expansion Act, which would expand the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve by about 6,900 acres west of Bloomington and south of Santa Clara in exchange for a right-of-way for a new east-west northern corridor through a portion of the reserve’s existing boundaries.
“We are treating ourselves poorly. I don’t think we need an east-west corridor,” St. George resident Craig Booth said during the meeting’s public comment period. “It is across the ground where the deer and the antelope play, brothers and sisters. We will ruin it with a northern corridor.”
Booth was joined by several other St. George residents in expressing apprehension for the implications of the congressional bill.
“Why is the county in a hurry to get through congressional legislation,” city resident Richard Spotts asked. “I believe the rush is to take advantage of a very tilted political climate and try to ram through a one-sided wish list and not go through the normal process of objective scientific analysis, objective evaluation of feasible alternatives and meaningful public involvement.”
Of chief concern to most of the people who commented was the fact that no one besides government officials has yet been allowed to see the bill, which was proposed by the Washington County Commission with support from U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart.
“We would like more of the language,” rock climbing enthusiast Tyler Webb said. “We want to just see the legislation to make sure that it has our trails and our rock climbing areas that we all go to – mountain biking – as far as our future access to it.”
Webb said he generally supports the idea of the bill but urged the council to table approving the resolution until everyone could see the bill in its entirety.
“I can tell you that we helped write it with the county and Washington City,” Mayor Jon Pike said in response to Webb. “We wouldn’t support it, and we would withdraw our support if it didn’t have the language that you just requested.”
Pike noted that the city was not authorized to share the bill’s language and interested parties will need to wait until the legislation is introduced in Congress.
County officials have released a description of the bill, outlining what they hope to achieve. In addition to expanding the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve into a newly dubbed “Zone 6,” the bill would renew the now-expired Habitat Conservation Plan, preserve existing utility and grazing rights, allow for recreation to continue on designated trails, including hiking, biking, horseback riding and limited off-highway vehicle use, among other provisions.
The provided description belies the fact that bill drafters are still hashing out specifics, environmental lawyer Jamie Carpenter said, a concern echoed by Spotts, who worked as a congressional lobbyist for four years.
“I know that when dealing with legislation, the devil is in the details,” Spotts said. “You really need to see the actual legislation, not the talking points.”
Councilman Jimmy Hughes said the city did its due diligence in helping draft the proposed legislation to benefit the widest range of residents and uses possible and that anyone who has concerns about the bill going forward needs bring them before congressional representatives.
“There’s some stuff that’s not known yet,” Hughes said. “Congress gets this bill – it could be chopped to pieces. We can’t control that.”
Ultimately, he said, the bill’s establishment of a right-of-way to build a proposed east-west corridor is a major need for the rapidly growing community.
“We’ve got to have adequate transportation routes,” Hughes said. “I feel like it would be a dereliction of our duty if we don’t promote those areas that are available and have them on the planning books.”
But messing with a long-established conservation plan in the name of building a new road is the wrong approach, Booth said.
“I was here 30-plus years ago … when we all met over a number of long, argumentative meetings to arrange for the desert tortoise habitat,” Booth said. “A large, disparate group of people came together … and finally hammered out a compromise.
“We are now back, 30 years later, to break our word.
“We promised that that would be the desert tortoise habitat. Don’t let your legacy – your individual legacy – be to your grandkids, ‘I helped build that road across the northern corridor.’ Your grandkids will be ashamed of you.”
Councilwoman Michele Randall said that had she been on the City Council decades ago, residents likely would have argued against building some of the major transportation routes in existence today, such as Red Hills Parkway and the Southern Parkway.
“I’m not in favor of just shutting the door and shutting everybody out,” Randall said. “We have a beautiful place that people come to enjoy.”
Following comments from the public, the council voted unanimously to approve the resolution in support of the proposed congressional legislation.
“It’s showing our support for something, frankly, we believe strongly that is a need for the future of Washington County,” Pike said, “and some will disagree, but as you look at the transportation needs over the next 10 to 30 years, I believe it’s clear we will need that. Otherwise, we will have gridlock on our other routes.”
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