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After years of negotiations and environmental reviews, the Bureau of Land Management is finalizing deals with two Washington County developers to acquire parcels inside a desert tortoise conservation zone and it won't be cheap.
James Doyle had long hoped to build a resort on land he owns outside St. George, but the rug was pulled out in 1989 when the Mojave desert tortoise was listed as a protected species, and his land was later incorporated into the 61,000-acre Red Cliffs Desert Reserve. Last week he sold a 9-acre sliver of his remaining 274 acres for $690,000, according to BLM spokesman Christian Venhuizen.
In a separate transaction, Brennan Holdings LLC will trade an 84-acre piece of its 788 acres just north of St. George for a larger parcel of BLM land in Long Valley east of the city, according to a decision signed last week by the BLM's St. George field office manager Brian Tritle. This announcement triggers a 45-day protest period, after which the exchange will be consummated. It is also subject to a review by the Utah governor.
These deals hardly put to rest long-running controversies over private inholdings in the area, but they do advance a prolonged effort to compensate owners whose real estate was tucked among swaths of public lands set aside for desert tortoise and open space valued for nonmotorized recreation.
"It's baby steps. Any of these inholdings that can be gotten out of there is progress. BLM is doing the county a big favor by handling these exchanges," said Susan Crook, program director for Southwest Utah National Conservation Lands Friends, which advocates for the preservation of Washington County's scenic public lands.
For its part, the county is paying for the cultural surveys on the 605-acre Long Valley piece, which are legally required before the BLM can trade it.
Over the years, the BLM has acquired 6,500 acres inside the tortoise reserve, which is bound by the Pine Valley Mountains to the north and surrounded by the cities of Ivins, Santa Clara, St. George, Leeds and Washington in Utah's fast-growing southwest corner. It is believed to harbor about 15 tortoises per square kilometer. In 2009, much of the reserve was incorporated into the congressionally designated Red Cliffs National Conservation Area.
Acquiring inholdings gets more costly with every passing year as development pressure mounts in Washington County.
The federal government could get a much better deal for these properties if it bought or traded for them in their entirety. But that kind of money is not available, so the BLM is tackling the acquisitions in a piecemeal manner. For example, the 788-acre Brennan property appraised at $24 million, or about $30,000 per acre. Because of limited resources, BLM can only offer up its 605-acre Long Valley parcel for trade at this time. According to an independent appraisal, this BLM property is worth only as much as 83.587 acres of Bob Brennan's land. The cost to BLM under this scenario is about $130,000 per acre.
"We thought [Long Valley] would appraise higher because it's on the Southern Parkway on the way to the airport," said Joy Wehking, a realty specialist in the BLM's Utah office.
So far, BLM has acquired 6,500 acres inside the reserve, but several hundred private acres remain, held by 10 landowners large and small. Those with the largest inholdings are Brennan, Doyle and Allan Carter, who collectively own 1,200 contiguous acres in the reserve, according to Wehking. Because these parcels abut St. George subdivisions, this land would be extremely valuable if it could be developed.
Thanks to a 1996 law Congress passed at the behest of Utah's then-Rep. Jim Hansen, such land must be valued without regard to its inclusion in critical tortoise habitat in any federal buyout. In other words, BLM must fork over full value at current prices, even though these parcels can never be paved.
"That was a gimme to the developers," Crook said. "We are happy to see any exchanges. We know there is a huge cost, but that is not BLM's fault. That's on our elected leaders."
In past Red Cliffs transactions worth $4 million, Carter and Brennan have donated acreage to the BLM equal to half the amount they sold.
Brian Maffly covers public lands for The Salt Lake Tribune. Maffly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 801-257-8713. Twitter: @brianmaffly