SALT LAKE CITY — The Bureau of Land Management has been granted an extension by a federal judge to finalize its land use plans for Washington County so the two can try to reach a compromise over a contested northern corridor transportation route.
The federal agency can miss the court-ordered June 30 deadline for its resource management plan and instead shoot for Dec. 31 in hopes the additional six months will result in the BLM implementing changes sought by the county.
U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups granted the extension last week after a congressional subcommittee convened a rare oversight hearing last January in St. George. At the hearing, the BLM was blasted over its draft plan the county said ignored its desires.
The panel included participation by Reps. Jason Chaffetz, Chris Stewart and Rob Bishop, R-Utah, and was chaired by Rep. Tom McClintock, R-California, chairman of the federal lands subcommittee, who said the BLM seemed to be the "poster child of bad behavior."
At the time, Washington County elected officials said the plan was so damaging to their region's ability to grow they were contemplating a lawsuit if the BLM didn't make substantive modifications.
In an effort to address some of those concerns, Washington County leaders have been meeting with the BLM over the past couple of months and hope to arrive at some compromise, said Washington County Commissioner Alan Gardner.
The county supported the extension for the BLM to produce a finalized plan — with a new deadline for the end of 2016 set in a motion granted last week by Waddoups. The parties are required to submit status reports to the court on their progress.
James Doyle, a private landowner who has 274 acres locked up in the Red Cliffs Desert Tortoise Reserve covered by the BLM's land use plans, opposed the delay.
Doyle's attorney, Brett Ekins, said his client has never been compensated by the federal government for his land being rendered useless and finalization of the plan might move along the process.
"It has been a series of failures and mistakes by the federal government and the county as far as trying to get Mr. Doyle compensated," Ekins said.
At one point, Doyle owned 2,000 acres that he finalized the plans and permits for development of an upscale golf course and surrounding community.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service added the desert tortoise to the Endangered Species list in 1990 and by 2006 multiple entities, including Washington County and the federal government, established the 62,000-acre Red Cliffs Desert Reserve to protect habitat for the desert tortoise. The reserve includes the land owned by Doyle.
"At some point, enough is enough. The BLM was supposed to have the plan done by order of Congress in 2012 and now the court has ordered them to have it done by 2016," Ekins said. "At some point somebody needs to hold the BLM accountable to meet these deadlines."
Ekins said that Doyle, 78, has had to sell all but 274 acres of his property to meet the debts of creditors and he doesn't want to wait another decade or more for compensation.Comment on this story
"It has been 25 years now," Ekins argued in a brief filed before the court. "Doyle had reasonably hoped that the development of a management plan for the (reserve) would perhaps facilitate a breakthrough in the stalemate. The (defendants) say they need more time in order to address everyone’s concerns, but there will always be another concern to address in the development of a management plan. Indeed, a management plan would never be finalized if it were put on hold so every last concern could be addressed."
Despite the ruling granting another six months to the finalize the plan, Ekins said he and his client did take some small comfort in Waddoups' admonition that no further delays will be allowed.
Doyle is also suing Washington County over the taking of his property without compensation and has legal action pending in Washington, D.C., before the Court of Federal Claims.