Commentary: Lee and Stewart bills hurt Washington County desert tortoise reserve

(Photo courtesy of Kelly Kelso) A federally protected Mojave desert tortoise ventures across the open at Red Cliffs National Conservation Area near St. George. Controversy is brewing over a transportation corridor Washington County officials want to build across the tortoise reserve in the conservation area.

Congress seems awash in bills to undermine environmental laws, laws that resulted from serious problems in this country and which have helped protect citizens and the threatened and endangered species that inhabit this planet with us. Two bills – S.3297 and H.R. 5597 – make it appear by their title that the intent is to expand sensitive habitat in Washington County, Utah. Nothing could be further from the truth.

These bills titled “Desert Tortoise Habitat Conservation Plan Expansion Act, Washington County, Utah” run by Sen. Mike Lee and Rep. Chris Stewart work to undermine the threatened Mojave desert tortoise, native to southwestern Utah and other areas in Arizona, California and Nevada, by forcing a multi-lane highway through the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve tortoise habitat, most of which is Red Cliffs National Conservation Area.

One would hope there’s good reason for this assault, but the highway won’t even solve the county’s transportation problems. Although Stewart has said this will be a win for his constituents, informal polls show that anywhere between 63 percent and 75 percent of area residents do not support the road idea.

Many of the bills that are attacking environmental laws claim that economic concerns should receive more consideration, and state and local governments should have more control. Certainly the two bills mentioned cannot use these excuses since Washington County has been growing an average of 6 percent over many decades, including the 90s when the reserve was established, and the county has considerable control over the reserve’s management. Were local leaders in the 90s unaware of the growth and made a poor decision to establish the reserve? No, they knew where the area was headed and agreed in good faith to protect the area while allowing growth in the rest of the county. And as many Salt Lake City residents who travel south have seen, that growth is readily apparent!

What the two bills do is basically upend a process – the Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) – that has been in place for over twenty years. The bills were developed in an opaque, closed-door process led by the county. Using the Reserve’s HCP that is up for renewal as a vehicle for achieving their goal, they conceived this backroom plan whereby they engaged Lee and Stewart to carry their message to D.C., upending the habitat plan renewal process – a plan devised in the 90s under NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) and ESA (Endangered Species Act) with public input.

While leaders weep over current and looming traffic problems, they ignore the fact that land use decisions have driven many of the problems. Viable alternatives for dealing with transportation have been ignored in their single quest for one route that will not solve transportation problems. They have attempted to lure the recreational community into the fight by offering to protect a heavily-recreated area to the west of St. George in exchange for the highway, promising the moon to recreationists with very little in the bills to back up those promises.

Using legislative decrees to deal with the situation does not honor those who over 20 years ago developed the HCP and worked to preserve an area while helping the economy of Washington County flourish. The area under assault is more than just a place to protect the Mojave desert tortoise and other threatened and endangered species. It is an area of importance to the local Shivwitz Band of the Paiute Tribe and holds other historical and archaeological importance. The expansive views and the feel of wilderness close to an urban center considered the fastest growing area in the nation should be preserved and other transportation options explored more diligently.

Paul Van Dam served as Utah’s attorney general, Salt Lake County district attorney and currently serves on board of Conserve Southwest Utah in his retirement.