ST. GEORGE – Washington County officials are outraged by a recently released Bureau of Land Management draft resource management plan which they say betrays the language and direction of a 2009 bill and has the potential to negatively impact every resident in the county, changing the Southern Utah lifestyle forever.
“To me, this is an 1,100-page minefield,” Ivins Mayor Chris Hart said, “The pages of this document … are laced with improvised explosive devices that are going to blow up in the faces of the residents of Washington County.”
“I’m livid, angry,” Commissioner Victor Iverson said.
“I think really what we’re dealing with is a complete betrayal by the (BLM) St. George City field office – a betrayal of the spirit and letter of the 2009 lands bill, a betrayal of the county’s right to be a cooperating agent, and a betrayal of commonsense and good land management practices,” Iverson said.
Commissioners and local mayors feel betrayed by the BLM’s failure to consult with local officials and by the restrictive proposals contained in the draft resource plans. Officials expressed their outrage and disappointment at a special Washington County Commission meeting and press conference Thursday.
County officials are demanding an extension of the comment period for the draft plans, which is set to expire Oct. 15, and say litigation will be filed if a 90-day extension is not granted. To that end, the commmissioners passed a resolution at the special meeting, demanding the BLM grant an extension to allow time to fully address the potential negative impacts that would result from implementation of the plans as currently drafted.
The draft plan threatens transportation plans, municipal water rights, grazing and many types of recreation, including rock climbing, mountain biking, geocaching, target shooting and ATV and off-road use, among others, officials say.
The Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 was a collaborative effort between the county, municipalities, state and federal governments and conservation groups. It was passed by Congress and intended to resolve conflicts between wilderness and lands use in Washington County.
The Act created the Red Cliffs and Beaver Dam Wash national conservation areas, and instructed the Bureau of Land Management to write resource management plans for the two NCAs, Iverson said.
“The plans do not reflect the spirit or, in a lot of cases, the letter of the lands bill,” Iverson said.
Language in the 2009 bill specified that a northern corridor through the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area be designated and recreational activities be preserved.
“When the focus completely shifts and just becomes about preservation and control, then it really goes away from the language of the lands bill,” Iverson said.
County officials also said they feel betrayed by what they see as the failure of the BLM to fulfill its statutory obligations to coordinate planning efforts with local land use plans under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act.
“So much of what is contained in this document has never been talked about,” Hart said. “Not with my city, not with cities much larger than we are, not with the county to any significant extent.”
While city and county officials have generally had a good relationship with the BLM St. George Field Office, Iverson said, they were shocked and angered as more details of the draft management plans have emerged through weeks of research by county officials, including the Washington County Attorney’s Office.
Water, recreation and northern corridor
The management plan could affect anyone who hikes, bikes, camps, climbs, ranches or even drives in Washington County, officials said, by restricting access, claiming water rights and eliminating the possibility of a northern corridor.
“If we fail to assert enough influence on those who have created this draft, and get some of these provisions changed, our lifestyle here is going to be changed forever,” Hart said.
“It’s such a critical document for this county,” Commissioner Zachary Renstrom said. “This will have extreme impacts on everything. Even mountain biking, it’s going to cut off mountain biking to huge areas.”
Everyone who travels in a vehicle east to west or west to east in the county should be concerned about the lack of a northern corridor in the management plans, Hart said.
If a traffic loop around the county that includes a northern corridor is not completed, the county is looking at an “untenable situation,” Hart said, because east-west traffic would be limited to choke-points on St. George Boulevard and Red Hills Parkway.
“And it was specifically, specifically written into law as a part of the Omnibus Lands Use bill that that corridor was going to be created, a preferred route designated,” Hart said; “and as a Metropolitan Planning Organization, we’ve had that in our plans for well over 20 years, since long before the predecessor to this document.”
“Just the very idea that maybe one individual, one entity, one local office of a giant bureaucracy is going to have the prerogative of canceling out the right of our residents to travel conveniently in the county – unacceptable,” Hart said.
City of St. George Mayor Jon Pike expressed grave concern over water rights, which could affect municipal wells which tap into the the Navajo aquifer which lies underneath much of the Red Cliffs NCA.
“In both national conservation areas, they are proposing that they buy up all of the water rights: surface water, ground water, all point sources that are within the NCAs, and that they don’t authorize any uses that would export water from the NCAs,” Deputy Washington County Attorney Celeste Maloy told the county planning commission Tuesday.
“They wouldn’t even have to buy it, they just take it, by removing the ability to get at it,” Pike said.
“I think (the draft plan) is not, really, so secretly designed to limit growth,” Pike said. “It affects our water supply, it affects our transportation.”
Another endangered species?
Officials are particularly concerned about sections of the draft management plan that propose endangered California condors be introduced into the two national conservation areas in the county.
Language in the draft management plan states that condors already in the county are part of an experimental population and so are not subject to the full protection of the Endangered Species Act.
However, if condors are introduced into the county’s national conservation areas, they will be fully protected, the same as the desert tortoise.
Down the road, this could lead to many more restrictions, Iverson said, as condors have a very large home range. The Center for Biological Diversity has already sued Arizona and California over the use of lead bullets within the condor’s range.
Shooting and the use of lead bullets could eventually be at risk, Iverson said, and although the BLM would say it can’t happen, his years of experience in land use issues tell him otherwise.
“I could see this very quickly spiraling out of control,” Iverson said.
While Washington County and municipal officials plan to comment on the draft plan, it is also important for county residents to get involved.
“All of our citizens need to join with us in making extensive comments on this plan,” Iverson said. “This plan, as far as the way I’ve been reading it leaves no user group unharmed.”
“Their comments will count, and do count,” Iverson said.
County officials are planning to set up a Web page to help residents submit comments to the BLM, and point out parts of the draft plan that may be of concern.
The County Attorney’s Office offers these suggestions for commenting:
Effective comments refer to specific details of the draft NCA RMPs or draft amendment. They address substantive issues, such as the accuracy of BLM’s information sources; provide new information; or suggest reasonable alternative courses of action.
All comments will be considered during BLM’s decision-making process, but only substantive comments will be addressed in the Proposed NCA RMPs and Proposed RMP Amendment/Final EIS. We need comments that not only state a preference for certain management actions but also include the reason for that preference.
Written comments on the recently released draft management plans for the Beaver Dam Wash and Red Cliffs national conservation areas are being accepted through Oct. 15.
Comments will be accepted by letter or email until Oct. 15. The most useful comments are those that contain new technical or scientific information relevant to the proposed action, the BLM said a news release.
Comments should be as specific as possible. Comments that contain only opinions or preferences will not receive a formal response but may be considered in the BLM decision-making process.
Please reference “NCA RMPs” when submitting comments to:
BLM-Utah St. George Field Office
Attn: Keith Rigtrup
345 East Riverside Drive
St. George, UT 84790
Before including an address, phone number, email address or other personally identifiable information in any comments, be aware that the entire comment — including personal identifying information — may be made publicly available at any time. Requests to withhold personal identifying information from public review can be submitted, but the BLM cannot guarantee that it will be able to accommodate those requests.
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