Letter to the Editor: Will the BLM help or harm threatened Mojave desert tortoises?

A desert tortoise browses in the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Washington County, Utah, date not specified | Photo by John Kellam, courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management, St. George News

OPINION — In 1990, the Mojave desert tortoise was officially listed as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act.

However, despite nearly three decades of legal protection, most tortoise populations sadly continue to decline. Under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies have an affirmative duty to use their authorities to further the conservation and recovery of the tortoise and other listed species.

Since much of the tortoises’ range-wide habitat is located on BLM-managed lands, the decisions that BLM managers make play a crucial role in determining whether tortoise conservation is actually occurring. The BLM acknowledges the need and its obligation for tortoise conservation, but is the agency effectively “walking its talk”?

To help answer this question, it is important to evaluate what options were available to BLM managers in considering proposed actions and whether those managers chose wisely in only approving projects that would advance or at least not hinder tortoise conservation.

Here in Washington County, the BLM recently earned justified praise for completing a positive willing seller acquisition of tortoise habitat in the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area. Five million dollars of public Land and Water Conservation Fund monies were used to acquire this 113 acres.

Sign marking the entrance to the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Washington County, Utah, Aug. 29, 2015 | File photo by Julie Applegate, St. George News

But putting this 113 acres in perspective, the BLM currently is considering options that may squander an opportunity to protect over 4,000 acres of tortoise habitat in Washington County and that could destroy over 7,000 acres of tortoise habitat in nearby Clark County Nevada. There are two BLM National Environmental Policy Act documents that describe these issues out for public comment.

BLM Utah has an Environmental Assessment for the proposed Utah Test and Training Range Land Exchange. This is a comprehensive exchange of various land parcels between the BLM and the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration. The exchange is intended to expand the Utah Test and Training Range for military purposes and is required by a recently enacted federal statute. However, the BLM and SITLA have discretion in determining which specific parcels are proposed for this exchange.

In applying its discretion, the BLM only evaluated one proposed action alternative with a specific list of parcels. The good news is that that alternative includes up to 4,370 acres in Washington County, primarily six SITLA inholdings within the BLM Red Cliffs National Conservation Area. The bad news is that, for unknown reasons, the BLM proposes that these Washington County SITLA parcels only be exchanged “if needed for value equalization purposes.”

So despite the obvious benefits for the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area and tortoise conservation, these SITLA parcels are in a lower, conditional tier and may or may not be used in the eventual exchange. The Environmental Analysis does not evaluate any options to change this conditional status to elevate the importance of exchanging these parcels.

Those of us who care about the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area and tortoise conservation should strongly request that the BLM revise its proposed action to ensure that these Washington County SITLA parcels are actually exchanged. If the BLM can properly spend $5 million to acquire 113 National Conservation Area acres, it should use its discretion in this exchange process to ensure protection for over 4,000 acres in the conservation area.

A Mohave desert tortoise, Santa Clara, Utah, March 5, 2016 | File photo by Julie Applegate, St. George News

BLM Nevada has a Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed Gemini Solar Project. Solar energy development and tortoise conservation are both very necessary and important, and both can and should be accomplished with sensible planning. Unfortunately, the BLM has managed to put both into needless competition. Contrary to strong public scoping comments, this BLM Draft Environmental Impact Statement only considers action alternatives that would destroy over 7,000 acres of good quality tortoise habitat.

The BLM ignored requests to include obviously less-destructive alternatives in this Draft Environmental Impact Statement, such as using other locations with previous land disturbance or where tortoises are absent or less dense. The BLM proposes experimental mowing of some vegetation as partial mitigation, but tortoise experts are skeptical and believe that high tortoise mortality is probable.

As such, this is an especially egregious example of BLM managers having tunnel vision, ignoring public scoping comments, shirking better National Environmental Policy Act alternatives and focusing their discretion in a manner that would seriously harm tortoises. Those of us who care about tortoise conservation, honest National Environmental Policy Act and sensible land use planning should strongly request that the BLM either reject this project or add less-damaging alternatives to its National Environmental Policy Act analysis.

There are many continuing and increasing threats facing tortoises and their habitats, and the cumulative effects constitute “death by a thousand cuts” and why most tortoise populations keep going downward.

The BLM Utah Test and Training Range Environmental Assessment and proposed land exchange is a major opportunity to advance Red Cliffs National Conservation Area and tortoise conservation, but only if BLM officials seize it. The BLM Nevada Gemini Solar Draft Environmental Impact Statement and proposed action alternatives are a major threat to tortoises and only BLM officials can remove that threat.

When these decisions occur soon, the BLM will demonstrate whether it is fulfilling its Endangered Species Act duty and “walking its talk” on Red Cliffs National Conservation Area and tortoise conservation.

Submitted by RICHARD SPOTTS, St. George.

Letters to the Editor are not the product of St. George News, its editors, staff or news contributors. The matters stated and opinions given are the responsibility of the person submitting them. They do not reflect the product or opinion of St. George News and are given only light edit for technical style and formatting.

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