It seems an unthreatening enough creature, its sleepy eyes peeking out from beneath a chunk of lava in the sand-blown desert of southwestern Utah.
But Utah's desert tortoise - a species the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says is on the verge of extinction - is threatening to shut down virtually all development in Washington County, Utah's fastest-growing county."We have to take the tortoise seriously," says Sen. Dixie Leavitt, R-Cedar City. "The federal government, in essence, has condemned all undeveloped property until we take care of the problem."
The problem, as Leavitt and other local officials see it, is the Endangered Species Act, which prohibits the destruction of any habitat of a species threatened with extinction. Even habitat located on private property.
And in a county that saw its population grow by 86 percent over the past 10 years, the tortoise finds itself smack in the middle of a tug-of-war between Washington County developers and an army of researchers and conservationists trying to prevent the animal's extinction.Aggravating the situation is the fact the best tortoise habitat surrounds the city of St. George, which saw its population grow by 117 percent over the past 10 years. Much of the land is private, while much more is owned by the state, which would like to sell the land to developers to bolster the School Trust Fund. The trust fund could lose an estimated $100 million, Leavitt says.
"The Endangered Species Act is one of the most powerful laws ever enacted by Congress, and people's initial reaction when they see the restrictions is almost universally the same: `Let's sue 'em,' " says BLM wildlife biologist John Payne. "But those that have tried have failed."
The lawsuit approach was Leavitt's initial response, and he still believes it is outrageous that the federal government can dictate the development of private lands without compensation to the landowner.
"It is an extremism that pits one value, people, against another value without much importance: minnows, tortoises, things like that," Leavitt said. "But it is the law, and the federal government has the power to stop everything. They did it in Las Vegas, and they are threatening to do it in Washington County."
The Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973 to protect animals on the verge of extinction. In part, it prohibited the harvesting of protected animals and prevented the destruction of their habitat, regardless of whether or not that habitat was privately owned or not.
The law was later amended to include plant species on the verge of extinction, and in 1982 the law was again amended, this time to allow for Habitat Conservation Plans - a concept in which certain habitat areas would be enhanced while other habitat areas would then be released for development.
Besides leaving property undeveloped, an HCP is the only option for a private or public landowner seeking to develop property that is also critical habitat for endangered species.
The nation's first Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) was implemented in Palm Springs, which spent $25 million to protect the endangered kangaroo rat. Las Vegas has already spent $4 million on an HCP for the desert tortoise, and another $6 million will likely be spent before that project is completed.
"It's such an expensive process it would seem there is not way a county with a small population base could even consider (an HCP)," said Washington County Commissioner Scott Hirschi.
"But with the growth we have, we can't just roll over and do nothing. The future of the county is at stake."
And it's not just the desert tortoise, Hirschi points out. Washington County is home to seven different endangered species, with two more species about to be added to the list. More than two dozen other species are candidates for the endangered species list.
It will cost Washington County about $400,000 just for the first phase of the HCP process. There are no estimates how much it will cost when all is said and done. The Legislature has appropriated a small amount of money to start the process, and the federal government and Washington County have also contributed.
What makes the Washington County HCP different than any other is that it represents the first voluntary plan anywhere in the United States, as well as the first HCP in an area with a relatively small population.
And it's also unique in that conservationists, biologists and local political officials are working together in an unprecedented spirit of cooperation to develop an adequate HCP. "Phenomenal cooperation," says Debbie Pietrzak, Dixie Resource Area manager.
While the future growth of Washington County is the most critical issue at stake, Leavitt recently cautioned Utah lawmakers that the tortoise issue will set precedence for land development in virtually every other part of the state.
"There are endangered species of one kind or another in every part of the state," he says. "If the federal government is really going to enforce the Endangered Species Act, it realistically could have a billion-dollar effect on development statewide."