February 13, 2009

Tortoises threaten town's economy

Pahrump Valley Times

Once again the desert tortoise raises its leathery head and aims its beady little eyes toward Pahrump, threatening to stop all building and development, according to Al Balloqui, economic development director for the town.

It's incredible that such a docile, cautious creature can create chaos by taking a single tenuous step over an imaginary boundary line in the desert.

However, Balloqui told town board members Tuesday evening if the permitting process to protect the desert tortoise isn't completed, it is within the power of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to shut down all development projects.

"We have to comply with federal law," said Balloqui, who admitted to the board members and those gathered at the community center he is not a big fan of the desert tortoise.

In an interview before the meeting, he explained, "We received a $700,000 HUD grant to fund the fairground project. That money could be in jeopardy if the county and FWS do not come to an agreement."

Reportedly, FWS could not only quash the town's aggressive plans to find sponsors and financing to construct a new fairground complex, but also stop the planned expansion of the county courthouse.

Additionally, not going forward with adopting a townwide plan to protect the habitat of the desert tortoise would further complicate the arcane processes that have already stopped many businesses from investing in Pahrump. It would also add substantially to the fees companies must pay to expand or build any type of facility.

Even private property owners can be charged with a felony misdemeanor, accompanied by a $25,000 fine, for disturbing an acre or more of land without a conservation plan in place.

Balloqui asked the town board to write a letter to the county commission urging it to move forward by having the most recently completed draft of a habitat conservation plan for the desert tortoise presented to the FWS by Julene Haworth, who completed the draft at no cost.

Haworth's is the third such plan completed for the county over the past few years. The first plan was paid for with a $250,000 grant. The second plan cost $45,000. Neither was adopted.

According to Balloqui, the commissioners approved Haworth's draft of the plan on July 15, 2008, but balked at paying her a fee to complete the project, which would cost the county from $30,000 to $40,000.

The draft written by Haworth was approved for the entire Pahrump Regional Planning District. If adopted, individual property owners would not be saddled with responsibility for developing their own federally mandated habitat conservation plans and paying the associated fees.

Balloqui told the board Haworth would be the most logical person to present the plan to FWS, as she could answer questions on every facet of it.

Town board member Vicky Parker said she was not comfortable requesting the commissioners select a certain contractor, although she did support the plan. The board argreed with Parker, voting 4-1 to write a letter of support without mentioning Haworth. Member Mike Darby voted nay.

Under penalty of law, all properties and land measuring one acre or more must be surveyed by a desert tortoise biologist approved by the FWS within 30 days prior to land clearance for development. There are many other processes that must be followed and fees required under the Endangered Species Act.

"We just have to get this done so we can move on," said Balloqui.