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Poppies, soil, other quirks pose natural hurdles to development

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Under moonlight, the landscape looks like a sea of silver.

It moves like a wave, ebb and flow, brushing the coast and retreating.Shimmering in a translucent light, the water is made up of flowers: brilliant, crystal white Dwarf Bear Poppies that turn southern Utah's barrenness into a liquidlike ocean.

This sea is their only home.

The poppy - sometimes called the Bear Paw or Bear Claw poppy because it resembles an animal hand - is endangered, and its protection within this federal preserve outside St. George is one in a number of stumbling blocks for developers ready to capitalize on the alluring landscape and profit margins this ground offers.

"There are quirky things about building anywhere," said Larry Gore, an expert on soils and wildlife for the Dixie office of the Bureau of Land Management. "The main thing with the St. George area is that it has expanded so rapidly, people are running into the quirky things quicker.

"They're building in places they've never built before."

Washington County holds some of the state's most valuable land.

As the gateway to Snow Canyon, Dixie National Forest and Zion National Parks, it holds some of the richest scenery in the state.

With its 78-degree average high temperature and 10 golf courses, shopping centers and recreation hubs, it is a developer's dream - except for a few geologic, environmental and natural stumpers.

There are endangered flowers, endangered tortoises, endangered prairie dogs and two types of endangered fish.

There is gypsum soil that dissolves when wet and "blue clay" caused by a rock formation called "chinle" that absorbs water and expands up to three times its size, then shrinks back down.

Build a house on it when wet and the ground will shrink and collapse beneath the structure. Build when it's dry, and "it's literally strong enough to split houses in half when it expands," says Gore.

There are deep washes that channel thousands of gallons of rushing water when flash floods hit every few years.

There is the Hurricane Fault, an extension of the potentially devastating Wasatch Fault, which rumbled into action worth 5.8 on the Richter scale in 1992.

Geology and all her sister factors are tricky but not insurmountable, say officials with the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, who are working a half-dozen development projects on southern Utah lands.

"It's a consistent effort on the part of the trust lands," said Rick McBrier, who spearheads trust lands administration development in Washington County.

The administration works hard to coordinate with local governments, federal agencies, officials and environmentalists. The trust land spent the first half of the 1990s battling over land deemed protected for the Desert Tortoise, a threatened species.

Now McBrier and his colleagues have to stay on top of the goings-on of the Dwarf Bear Poppy: It only grows in the gypsiferous soils south of St. George.

He has to know the status of the Virgin River Chub and the Wound-fin Minnow that live in the Virgin River and its tributaries.

He has to pay attention to the way deep divots paint the red rock landscape and envision how rain that can fall as fast as an inch an hour will flush through property where the division is trying to build a huge planned coommunity that will be home for houses, churches, businesses and thousands of residents.

He has to know the hillsides and the thinly layered natural clay soil that can slip and slide under certain conditions.

"We have to plan. We have to plan for the natural movement of the water, for everything," McBrier said.