Will Utah’s High Desert Trail push rare tortoise closer to extinction?

BLM approves Washington County’s leg of the 700-mile OHV trail without an environmental review

(Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune) Washington County’s leg of the proposed High Desert Trail, a 700-mile continuous motorized route across western Utah, would pass through the Joshua Tree National Natural Landmark in Beaver Dam Wash National Conservation Area.

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The dream of a continuous motorized route across Utah’s West Desert is finally taking shape after 20 years of planning. But the proposed High Desert Trail’s first leg through Washington County could hit a roadblock over objections about how the Bureau of Land Management is handling its environmental review.

The section will cross public land that is critical desert tortoise habitat, designated to help recover the threatened species. But the BLM declined to study the OHV route’s impacts, prompting an appeal from environmental groups.

The Washington County leg passes through 77 miles of BLM land, as well as some state trust sections and Dixie National Forest. Most of the 112-mile segment would be on county-maintained class B roads that are already well traveled, according to Leslie Fonger of the Greater Zion Convention and Tourism Office.

Entirely following existing roads, the 743-mile trail would travel from Box Elder County near the Idaho border to a spot southwest of St. George. No new trail would be cut, although several staging and parking areas would be cleared.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

“It’ll end up with a name. There will be signage along it that says, ‘Go this way,’ which actually helps cut down and drastically reduce anybody exploring off route,” Fonger said. “This is a long distance. The type of users it attracts are not adrenaline explorers.”

The High Desert Trail’s complete reliance on existing roads is the main reason the BLM issued a “categorical exclusion,” or CX, exempting the project from analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Critics say that is a huge mistake and sets a bad precedent. The Washington County route passes through the Beaver Dam Wash National Conservation Area (NCA), set aside in 2009 to secure habit for the Mojave desert tortoise, a creature protected under the Endangered Species Act, according to Richard Spotts, a retired BLM planner living in St. George.

“We are seeing a piecemeal approach, even though this is one large connected trail system,” Spotts said. “They are lowballing it saying, ‘Oh well, this is just some signage and trailhead and not distinguishable from OHV use on existing roads.’ This is going to be heavily promoted by the Utah Tourism Office.”

While the idea for the High Desert Trail is hardly new, the Legislature only recently set aside $1 million to turn the vision into reality. That appropriation will pay for signage, restrooms and staging areas, at least one per county, according to Tara McKee, deputy director of the Utah Division of Outdoor Recreation.

“It is stringing together existing roads, but we are making sure we have all the proper permissions and all the approvals are ready to go before we are releasing money,” said McKee, who is overseeing how the state money would be spent. “But if counties need money now for environmental assessments and permitting they can use the money for that.”

The route passes through seven counties, with the southernmost, Washington, Iron and Beaver, farthest along in planning.

At the center of environmentalists’ concerns is the protected Mojave desert tortoise. The High Desert Trail would pass though some of Utah’s most important tortoise habitats, according to Kya Marienfeld, a field attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, or SUWA.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

“There’s so much controversy,” Marienfeld said. “There’s so much potential for harm to a variety of things that should have automatically disqualified this from being a categorical exclusion.”

Joined by the local group Conserve Southwest Utah, SUWA has formally appealed BLM’s decision to exclude the Washington County leg from the environmental analysis. The groups argue the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires an environmental impact statement for the entire 700-mile trail, instead of a county-by-county approach.

The BLM’s decision acknowledges that increased OHV traffic could cause harm and calls for monitoring at sensitive sites along the route, such as the Joshua Tree National Landmark.

“The BLM would develop appropriate mitigation measures and seek funding to address impacted resources,” the decision states.

Marienfeld cited this as proof BLM should perform a complete environmental study.

“You can’t do mitigation for a categorical exclusion,” she argued. “That means there’s an impact if you have to do mitigation.”

BLM was invited to comment for this story but did not provide a statement.

The HDT’s Washington leg enters the county near Enterprise, winds around the west side of the Pine Valley Mountains and hugs the Nevada state line before passing beside and through Beaver Dam Wash along the Mojave Desert Joshua Tree Road Scenic Backway.

Most of the 63,645-acre NCA is designated tortoise habitat and the route passes through areas with the highest densities of desert tortoise, yet there are no tortoise exclusion fences or crossing culverts, according to the BLM.

Signs designating the High Desert Trail’s route would be placed at 1-mile intervals and at major intersections.

The trail’s southern terminus is 1.5-acre parking area to be developed on state trust land inside the Red Cliff Desert Reserve, in an area that was specifically set aside for tortoises to offset the loss of habitat elsewhere.

“That site was chosen because it’s heavily impacted already and would not cause us to impact existing tortoise habitat on or off the reserve,” Fonger said.

But critics are not persuaded the project should proceed without further study.

“The focus is on piecemeal, site-specific mitigation, not on maintaining the ecological health and connectivity of these conservation areas,” Spotts wrote in an email. “The result is the continuing pattern of ‘death by a thousand cuts’ that keeps tortoises in Washington County on a rapid downward population path.”