Letter to the Editor: Applause needed for cooperation on Utah Test and Training Range Land Exchange

OPINION — Conserve Southwest Utah participated in the Bureau of Land Management comment period on the Environmental Analysis for the Utah Test and Training Range Land Exchange.

Located in Utah’s West Desert, UTTR is the largest military base in the nation. To accommodate its expansion, BLM and Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration – or SITLA – land trades are necessary.

The comment period closed Sept. 6. Six parcels of SITLA land located inside the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area are being considered in the exchange as value equalization parcels.

Kyle Pasley, SITLA deputy assistant director of planning and development, says that “the properties that SITLA holds within the Red Cliffs NCA are an integral part of helping to facilitate state wide exchanges that can further the mission of SITLA to fund public education while enabling the BLM to facilitate more effectively their mission of conservation and recreation.”

SITLA lands in the Red Cliffs NCA support the highest density population of threatened Mojave desert tortoise anywhere in the species’ range with 19.6 tortoises per square kilometer. Densities in other tortoise recovery units range between 1.3 and 9.4 tortoises per square kilometer. The Gila monster, kit fox and common chuckwalla are a few of the other sensitive species dependent upon these lands for survival.

As the Conserve Southwest Utah Land program manager, I view the Utah Test and Training Range Land Exchange as a positive opportunity for SITLA acres in the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area to be traded to BLM to ensure permanent protection for resource values, including threatened and endangered species and recreation.

Some of our community’s favorite trails cross these SITLA acres. Portions of the popular Church Rocks and Prospector mountain bike trails, the stunning Elephant Arch and the three-toed eubrontes dinosaur tracks on the Dino Cliffs Trail are all located on SITLA parcels inside the Red Cliffs NCA. This land should be at the top of the list in future exchanges.

Beautiful portions of the Cottonwood Canyon Wilderness can be accessed via the Mill Creek Trail on SITLA land in the Red Cliffs NCA.

Nonfederal inholdings, like SITLA’s, and private inholdings that remain in the Red Cliffs NCA must be purchased or exchanged out of the area. Over 20 years have passed since the Washington County Habitat Conservation Plan was established that requires this exchange or purchase.

Conserve Southwest Utah Board Member Lisa Rutherford emphasizes the need to take advantage of every opportunity to resolve the issue of nonfederal inholdings inside the Red Cliffs NCA. She notes that Washington County “is one of the fastest growing counties in the nation and our state.” Rutherford said:

The parcels under consideration in the UTTR exchange are at the heart of the county, so thought should be given to the growth pressures on these areas. Although SITLA and other non-federal land owners in the Red Cliffs NCA have not exercised their option to take their land out of the HCP and set up their own plan for development, they have the right to do that and some owners have mentioned that at public meetings. With SITLA having the largest parcel in the value equalization parcels, their activities could have great impact on our county.

SITLA’s mission is to administer trust lands prudently and profitably for Utah’s schoolchildren and other trust beneficiaries. They are the largest nonfederal inholder in the Red Cliffs NCA, and to meet their fiduciary obligations SITLA needs these acres to be traded out. As many as 4,202 acres could be used to equalize imbalances in the larger UTTR exchange.

Conserve Southwest Utah is hopeful that a large number of SITLA acres in the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area will be traded in this exchange and that these acres will be prioritized in future exchanges because of their strong conservation value and importance to local residents.

We applaud BLM and SITLA for working cooperatively on UTTR and future land exchanges that will advance conservation and protection of the ecological, wildlife, recreational, natural, scenic, cultural, historical, educational and scientific values the Red Cliffs NCA was designated to protect.

BLM will review comments received on the UTTR Land Exchange Environmental Analysis and publish a final decision in the near future. Conserve Southwest Utah will provide an update on the number of acres traded out of the Red Cliffs NCA when this information becomes available.

Submitted by SARAH THOMAS, Conserve Southwest Utah.

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