The desert tortoise is probably unaware of the controversy that surrounds him and the pains that governments and individuals are taking to protect him.

And he's likely oblivious to the wrath that such protection is creating in people who own and use the land on which the hard-shelled creature crawls.But had the tortoise wandered into a recent round of federal hearings, which ended Thursday in St. George, he might have wished he were back in the Mojave Desert, burrowed comfortably beneath some rock.

It's not that people don't like the animal per se, they simply don't like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's plan to designate 6.6 million acres of land as "critical habitat" for the slow-moving reptile.

Critical habitat offers additional federal protection to the tortoise, which has enjoyed a high degree of protection since it was listed as an endangered species in 1990.

In Utah, the FWS proposes to designate 137,200 acres of federal, state, private and Indian land as critical habitat. About 63,000 acres are north of St. George, a prime area targeted for real-estate and other development.

During Thursday's hearing, most of the three dozen speakers opposed the plan, saying it is unnecessary, an infringement of private property owners' rights and a breach of contract on the part of the federal government.

"We feel we are being oppressed by a federal government and bureaucracy that is taking away what we've had for generations," said Jerry Spillsbury, Las Vegas, who is part owner of 520 acres northwest of Hurricane, Washington County.

Spillsbury's land, which was settled by his great-great-grandfather, is being considered for inclusion in a national conservation area, which would require Spillsbury and his relatives to exchange their land for federal lands that are not critical habitat.

That proposed exchange and the national conservation area are part of the Habitat Conservation Plan proposed by a Washington County committee of local developers, politicians and environmentalists.

The HCP, which has been in the works for several years, would allow the county to develop some areas of critical habitat, thereby destroying tortoises, in exchange for measures elsewhere that would help the tortoise to recover from its endangered status.

As part of the national conservation area, which would be managed with strict federal protection, the HCP proposes that the federal government exchange Bureau of Land Management lands for much of the 28,000 acres of state school trust lands that fall within the critical habitat.

Scott Hirschi, director of the Utah Division of State Lands and Forestry, reminded the FWS Thursday that the U.S. government has a "solemn agreement" with the state not to interfere with the school trust lands, which were deeded to Utah under statehood.

Other speakers included farmers and ranchers concerned that the critical habitat designation would curtail their use of the federal land.

Norm Tom, a Piute Indian who runs cattle on a reservation in southern Nevada, said the critical habitat and other bureaucratic activities on the land foreshadows the fall of the nation. Washington County Commissioner Jerry Lewis said the FWS must give greater weight to the economic impacts of critical habitat designation.

The only speaker Thursday to favor critical habitat was Cordell Peterson, who said that without the federal Endangered Species Act, the native animals of Utah "wouldn't stand a chance."

Peterson, a biologist, said in an interview after the hearing that the act is actually benefiting Washington County because it's forcing officials to plan development more sensibly. It is also helping to preserve open spaces around St. George.

Written comments on the critical habitat are being accepted until Oct. 29. A final rule is expected by Dec. 15.