HURRICANE — After an early morning rain, the desert sky above the Cottonwood Trail is moody, a mix of bone-white and charcoal clouds that hug the Pine Valley mountains and illuminate the desolate stretches of red rock and yellow grasses.
Tucked in the industrial park on old Highway 91 near 5500 West, the turnoff to the Cottonwood trailhead would be easy to miss, lending visitors the slight thrill of discovering a hidden gem. The dirt road to the trailhead is less than a quarter-mile and crosses beneath two highway underpasses before circling around where there are pull-off spots for vehicles.
Cottonwood Trail is situated within the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area and is administered by the St. George Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management. BLM Public Information Officer Christian Venhuizen told St. George News the current lot for the trailhead holds, at most, 14 passenger vehicles and two trailers, with more than 15,000 people visiting the trail annually, including local residents and those from outside Washington County.
“Currently, the number of users of the trailhead regularly exceed the parking capacity and result in people parking outside of the parking lot and in the vegetation,” he said.
To this end, the BLM is proposing to make improvements to this trailhead, and a draft environmental assessment has been prepared to evaluate potential impacts. Some of the intentions for the improvements noted in the draft are “to enhance visitor safety, improve the quality of visitor experiences and protect public land resource values.”
A public review and comment period is open now through March 19.
The draft was developed by consulting multiple groups and organizations to identify the best possible facility design, construction strategy and restoration effort, Venhuizen said. As part of the process, the BLM considers the quality of the recreation experience – including safety, traffic and amenities like restrooms – and the condition of the trails and surrounding habitat.
The proposed action includes the following:
- Expansion and improvement of the current parking surface to accommodate approximately 50 passenger vehicles and 10 equestrian truck-trailers.
- Installation of a new wood 3-rail fence to delineate the parking area and equestrian parking spaces.
- Installation of new features, including a vault toilet restroom, range fence, tortoise barrier fence, mountain bike rideover and bike repair station.
- Relocation of existing vehicle gate and equestrian-friendly stepover.
- Rehabilitation of the existing parking area outside the proposed improvements.
The timeline for the proposed action would be late October through December. The construction period was chosen in order to create the least impact on migratory birds, desert tortoises and other wildlife and to also avoid the busiest visitation periods.
A main catalyst for these improvements, as noted in the draft, has to do with the rapid growth of St. George and the exponential increase of visitation to the Cottonwood Trail.
The BLM would also rehabilitate a total area of 4.6 acres in order to fully offset the 0.8 acres of permanent impacts to Mojave desert tortoise critical habitat from the proposed action and would include the removal of invasive Russian thistle and the planting of 500 creosote shrubs.
If rehabilitation efforts were successful, this acreage would benefit critical habitat in the long-term by improving the quality of current fire-damaged habitat that is unlikely to return to native shrubland without rehabilitation, according to a BLM press release.
Other indirect positive effects are expected because the rehabilitated area would create “fertile” islands. These islands would act as seed banks from which native plants could disperse to surrounding fire-damaged lands. This rehabilitation could also decrease the risk of future high intensity wildfire through the reduction of fine fuel loads from annual brome grasses.
Venhuizen said it’s important for people to know that public comments do matter. But the relevance of comments has to do with “the why” and should provide as much detail and specificity as possible.
“We go out for public comment to get input regarding how people use the lands, regarding what they see as the science that needs to be studied,” Venhuizen said, adding that they are seeking “substantive comments.”
“The more detail they provide to us, and the more they dive into their explanation as to why they feel one way or another – whether it’s for or against or ‘Here are some ideas you haven’t looked at’ – that’s what we’re looking for.”
The proposed budget for the all improvements is $150,000, Venhuizen said, and if awarded, the contractor would have 60 days to complete the project.
“This proposal will help restore nearly 5 acres of habitat damaged during a 2005 fire,” he said. “Less than an acre of land would be used to expand the parking lot in an effort to keep visitors from parking in the vegetation.”
Conserve Southwest Utah Land Program Manager Sarah Thomas said in an email to St. George News that their main concern doesn’t necessarily deal with the proposed changes to the Cottonwood trailhead but rather how these efforts seem to contradict the actions being taken regarding the proposed Northern Corridor highway.
“One project would make accessing the exquisite 11,700-acre Cottonwood Canyon Wilderness easier for hikers and equestrians seeking a wilderness experience,” she wrote, referencing the proposal regarding the Cottonwood trailhead. “The other (the Northern Corridor) would devastate this same wilderness with traffic noise, increased risk of wildfire, visual disturbance and litter.”
The proposed Northern Corridor would be located about 1 mile from the southwestern boundary of the Cottonwood Canyon Wilderness.
“Building this highway would undermine the Cottonwood Trailhead improvements and BLM efforts to preserve high-quality recreation and access to wilderness in one of the fastest growing metro areas in the nation,” Thomas added.
The 14-day public review and comment period for the draft environmental assessment began March 6 and ends March 19.
Comments can be made online here or
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