The Mojave desert tortoise is a seemingly harmless creature that moves at a molasseslike pace and prefers to spend most of its life burrowing under rocks to avoid the searing desert heat of southwestern Utah.
But for the past three years - since the desert tortoise was officially listed as an endangered species - the sleepy-eyed reptile has been the target of hatred and ridicule from many in Washington County.To listen to locals, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's attempts to preserve the tortoise's habitat have shut down new construction, thwarted economic development and made growth in Washington County nearly impossible.
"Without a doubt it has affected economic growth," said state Rep. Met Johnson, R-New Harmony. "Developers have just quit because they can't deal with the regulations imposed by Fish and Wildlife."
Some developers have pulled up stakes, but a publication recently released by the Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the University of Utah indicates that new construction in Washington County has been growing at more than 20 percent a year - rates double and triple those in most other areas of Utah.
For example, in 1990, the year the tortoise was listed as endangered, 805 new dwelling units were constructed in Washington County, almost double the number constructed the year before. Last year, there were 1,266 new dwelling units constructed with a combined value of $118 million.
"The numbers clearly demonstrate the desert tortoise has had little impact on growth in Washington County, and claims to the contrary reflect the lies that have been perpetuated about the negative impacts of the Endangered Species Act," said Ken Rait of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
Gary Macfarlane, conservation director of the Utah Wilderness Association, agrees, calling the desert tortoise a scapegoat for anti-environmentalists. "The tortoise is not getting in the way of anything," he said. "The reason the tortoise is in such trouble down there is because of that kind of massive growth."
Former Washington County Commissioner Scott Hirschi, who now directs the Division of State Lands, acknowledges that some pro-development forces in southern Utah have overstated the impacts of the desert tortoise.
But he also argues that any tortoise-induced curtailment of growth in the county will certainly happen in future years as the last parcels of non-habitat are gobbled up by land developers. Because desert tortoise habitat must be protected under the Endangered Species Act, growth will cease once non-habitat lands are gone.
"Development is dependent on a number of elements to stay viable," Hirschi says. "The most obvious in Washington County is water. There has been adequate water to support current growth, but if the people supplying water are not out developing water today for tomorrow's needs, when tomorrow comes development stops. It's the same situation with land. As people use up unencumbered lands, the next step is to push into lands encumbered by threatened and endangered species."
Conservationists seem to agree that much of Washington County's difficulties are rooted more in inadequate planning stretching back more than a decade. "They are suffering the same boom-town symptoms as Jackson Hole and Aspen," Macfarlane says. "We now see Park City going through the very same thing, and they are now trying to preserve their open spaces."
The problem, pro-development forces say, is that by restricting growth as has been done in Park City and Aspen, property values soar beyond the reach of average Utahns who look to St. George for retirement.
"Will the building boom continue? Absolutely," Johnson said. "But the John Does will no longer be able to afford to live here. It will become a place only for the elite."
A committee composed of federal, state and local government leaders, businessmen and conservationists has been working toward a compromise that would protect tens of thousands of acres of southwestern Utah as desert tortoise habitat in exchange for releasing other tracts of land to development.
The linchpin in the plan is that it must be approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has already rejected the committee's first recommendation. Last week, the Fish and Wildlife Service recommended 137,200 acres of Washington County as "critical habitat" for the desert tortoise - nearly double what the committee has recommended for tortoise habitat.
That has Johnson seeing red. "We can live with the desert tortoise down here," Johnson said. "We can't live with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They don't come to the bargaining table as honest brokers."
Others involved in the negotiations remain optimistic. "If we really want to protect the tortoise, then we have to find a compromise," says Alyson Heyrend of the Nature Conservancy.
"I am optimistic that things are happening . . . that will allow a compromise," agrees Ted Stewart, director of the state Department of Natural Resources.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has designated millions of acres in Arizona, California, Nevada and Utah as critical habitat for the desert tortoise. The Utah population of the Mojave desert tortoise is considered the most viable of any in the United States.
Construction 1989 1990 1991 1992 91-92 % change
New dwelling units 482 805 1,048 1,266 20.8
Value of new
residential construction $31,938 52,914 76,303 95,725 25.5
Value of new
nonresidential construction* $16,621 14,697 17,715 16,113 -9.0
Value of total construction*
*Dollars in thousands $54,871 71,505 101,380 118,075 16.5