Written by Julie Applegate
St. George News
ST. GEORGE – The Bureau of Land Management has released proposed resource management plans for two national conservation areas; the plans affect more than 100,000 acres of public land in Washington County and have been controversial.
The draft versions of the management plans for the Red Cliffs and Beaver Dam Wash national conservation areas stirred heated debate during the public comment period which ended in October 2015.
County, municipal and transportation officials believe the plans go too far in restricting land use, while conservationists favored more restrictive elements of the plans.
While county officials and others have not had a chance to fully review the proposed plans, Deputy Washington County Attorney Celeste Maloy expressed both appreciation and concern.
“We are so grateful for the participation of thousands of concerned citizens as well as local, state, and congressional elected leaders,” Maloy said.
“We asked for the public to comment last fall and the public responded,” Maloy said. “We asked for support from elected officials, and they stepped up as well. Our collective efforts paid off in some really positive ways.”
Early on in the process, county officials weren’t satisfied with the level of input they were being allowed on the resource management plans, Maloy said.
“Without a doubt, the communication and understanding between the county and the local BLM have improved during this process. We consider that a win. Local BLM staff listened to our concerns when we reacted to the draft plan.”
From an initial look at the plans, Maloy said, some of the changes from the initial draft to the proposed final plan released Tuesday are significant improvements; however, other issues addressed in the resource management plans will take continued work.
“For example, BLM’s final position on the Northern Corridor is disappointing. With all of the dialog between the county, cities, and federal agencies on that issue, we had hoped to have a more clear option to meet our future transportation needs,” Maloy said.
The county will continue to pursue all legal and political avenues to protect Washington County’s interests, she said.
Transportation officials are concerned that the resource management plans will prevent a long-planned Northern Corridor through the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, which includes the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, home of the endangered Mohave desert tortoise.
The draft resource management plan for the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area did not list the county’s optimal route in its “preferred” alternative.
A 90-day public comment period, which began July 16, 2015, was extended past the original Oct. 15 deadline to Nov. 16 after local officials demanded more time. A series of BLM open houses were held to help inform the public about the resource management plans.
The two national conservation areas are the first in Utah and were created by the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, known as OPLMA, to “conserve, protect, and enhance … the ecological, scenic, wildlife, recreational, cultural, historical, natural, educational, and scientific resources” of the public lands, according to a BLM statement.
The Red Cliffs National Conservation Area comprises 44,859 acres and is located just north and adjacent to much of the population of Washington County.
Red Cliffs provides important habitat for the threatened desert tortoise and many unusual plant species in the intersection of the Colorado Plateau, the Great Basin and the Mojave Desert. This area includes a stretch of the Virgin River and a number of popular trails.
The Beaver Dam Wash National Conservation Area covers 63,478 acres and is located in the southwest corner of Utah. The area contains many native plants and animals which have evolved into unique species, some found nowhere else on earth.
Beaver Dam Wash includes the northernmost range Joshua trees and riparian areas that are important stops for migratory birds; the area is also known for remote recreation opportunities such as hiking, rock climbing, horseback riding and wildlife viewing.
A proposed amendment to the St. George Field Office resource management plan has also been released. The proposed amendment addresses two primary management issues: identification of areas where biological conservation is a priority and modifications of the off-highway vehicle area designations to prepare for the development of a comprehensive travel management plan.
The publication in the Federal Register of the Notice of Availability by the Environmental Protection Agency of the proposed plans will initiate a 30-day protest period. That is expected to happen Friday, Bureau of Land Management Color Country District spokesman Christian Venhuizen said.
However, copies of the proposed final plans were provided Tuesday to give the county and others more time to review and respond to the documents, he said.
Anyone who participated in the planning process and who has an interest that is or may be adversely affected by the planning decisions may file a protest within 30 days of that publication, BLM information states.
The protest period is not the same as the public comment period, Venhuizen said.
“This is a slightly different period … we’re not looking for public comment,” he said. While the public is invited to review the documents, the official public comment period has passed.
However, the resource management plans cannot be finalized by Records of Decision until all the protests are resolved, Venhuizen said.
The Governor’s Consistency Review began last week and gives the Governor’s office a minimum of 60 days to review the resource management plans before the records of decision are signed, Venhuizen said.
The proposed plans and amendment, along with a final environmental impact statement, are available to view or download from the BLM’s ePlanning website here.
Copies of the documents are available for inspection at the Interagency Public Lands Information Center, 345 East Riverside Drive in St. George, and the BLM Utah State Office Public Room, 440 West 200 South, Suite 500 in Salt Lake City. The documents are available during from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, except on federal holidays.
All protests must be in writing and mailed to one of the following addresses:
- U.S. Postal Service: BLM Director (210), Attention: Protest Coordinator, P.O. Box 71383, Washington, DC 20024–1383.
- Overnight Delivery: BLM Director (210), Attention: Protest Coordinator, 20 M Street SE, Room 2134LM, Washington, DC 20003.
Before including your address, phone number, email address, or other personal identifying information in your protest, you should be aware that your entire protest — including your personal identifying information — may be made publicly available at any time. While you may ask the BLM in your protest to withhold your personal identifying information from public review, the BLM cannot guarantee that it will be able to do so.
For additional information, please contact Keith Rigtrup at 435-865-3000.