Save the tortoise!

United States Department of the Interior
Bureau of Land Management
West Mojave Habitat Conservation Plan
2601 Barstow Road
Barstow, California 92311
(760) 252-6080

In Reply Refer To: CA 062.97

RE: Reasonableness of Fort Irwin Tortoise Panel Report
From: William Haigh, West Mojave Plan Project Manager
Date: 15 March 2000

To Whom It May Concern.

Attached is the Final Report (Report) of the Fort Irwin Tortoise Panel (Panel). The Panel met on January 18 and 19, 2000 and February 18, 2000 to address the issues raised in Washington on December 9, 1999 by representatives of the Departments of the Interior and the Army. The purpose of this cover memorandum is to assess the reasonableness of the Panel's proposals, and to identify potential concerns likely to be raised by public land users, local, jurisdictions, and other parties currently working with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to prepare the West Mojave habitat conservation plan.

Nine of twelve Panel members endorsed the Report's conclusion: that it's proposed conservation strategy would ensure the long-term survival and recovery of the desert tortoise in the West Mojave Recovery Unit. While the strategy may be effective from a strictly biological perspective, other issues have a bearing on its reasonableness. These include the following:

  • Ray Bransfield of the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), Becky Jones of the California Department of Fish & Game (CDFG) and Kristin Berry of the United States Geological Survey, Biological Resources Division (BRD) did not endorsed the Reports conclusions.
  • BLM has made commitments to involve local government and the public in West Mojave planning. If the strategy is imposed with no opportunity to modify it, there will a perception that BLM, FWS and Army cut a "deal " behind closed doors, which could destroy the credibility of both BLM and the West Mojave Plan.
  • Strong opposition is likely, especially on the part of public land users and the counties.
  • The proposal will cost in the neighborhood of $400 million.

A discussion of each of these points follows.

Failure of FWS and CDFG Panel Members to Endorse Report

Panel members Ray Bransfield of FWS, Becky Jones of CDFG and Kristin Berry of BRD did not endorse the findings of the report. Bransfield's opinion is that the conservation strategy misses the mark. although disease and ravens have been a major reason for the tortoises' decline, the Panel's strategy, in his opinion, focuses too much on habitat loss, which is far less of a factor. He is concerned that the strategy, for all its commitment of resources, won't work: it will not ensure the long-term survival and recovery of the tortoise. He states in his reasons for not endorsing: "The panelists did not, to my mind, provide any scientific rationale as to why their proposal to offset the efforts of the expansion would remove the jeopardy. " His opinion is important because he is the Ventura field office biologist who has been most intimately involved in all prior tortoise biological opinions and jeopardy findings.

Jones concluded that the number of tortoises that could be lost due to expansion would have to be considered "a jeopardy." Her views warrant consideration because she is the CDFG field biologist most commonly tabbed with the task of deciding whether California section 2081 incidental take permits should be issued to developers and local governments for projects on private lands, and her views concerning the status of the tortoise after an expansion could have an effect on the ability of the West Mojave Plan member agencies to obtain programmatic section 2081 permits.

Berry, one of two BRD panelists, stated that she remains "doubtful that the proposed mitigations will be effective in counteracting the loss of tortoises and habitat and that recovery can still occur. " She was concerned about a lack of sufficient scientific information, the precedent the loss of tortoises and habitat would set, and other socio- and political factors.

Credibility of the West Mojave Planning Process

BLM, together with local cities and counties, is developing a regional habitat conservation plan (HCP) for the tortoise and 105 other sensitive plants and animals which would provide programmatic incidental take permits to the cities and counties in the West Mojave region, and a programmatic biological opinion to BLM. Local government, public land user groups, environmental organizations, urban developers, affected state and federal agencies including the BLM) and others with a stake in the future of the West Mojave are working together as a West Mojave "Supergroup " to prepare the plan.

An open process has been the highest priority of the Supergroup. That is why the Supergroup, collectively, is developing the plan, rather than placing its creation in the hands of BLM or any other single entity. This is because the Supergroup, particularly public land users, fears deals cut behind closed doors and imposed on them without input. In view of this, BLM pledged to participate in the process in a very open manner and has acted in accordance with that pledge during the last few years. BLM has developed a high level of credibility and trust with the Supergroup by taking this approach. This credibility is likely to be essential to completing the HCP, which will depend on negotiations conducted by all parties in good faith.

Should the Panel's strategy be imposed on the region without opportunity for negotiation and modification by agencies, local jurisdictions and other stakeholders, it would almost certainly be seen as a "deal " cut by Army and Interior, a breach of faith that is at odds with the open process that BLM has pursued to date. It would significantly impair our ability to serve as an honest broker during plan negotiations, and would (perhaps fatally) damage the trust necessary to complete the plan.

The BLM, through the West Mojave Plan, has sought to bring all factions under one roof, in a fully democratic process. An imposed "deal " could shatter the political consensus that is beginning to emerge among Supergroup members, dividing them from one another. They may continue to trust individual planning team members but -- however they may like us personally -- they will seek to protect their own turf. Public land users would be pitted against one another in a competition for the remaining level of permitted use of the public domain: should the limited use of the lands be granted to OHV recreation? Mining? Development? Moreover, stakeholders with something to lose, such as public land users and the counties, could be pitted against those who might gain from the proposal, including cities, local developers, and some environmentalists.

Finally, the Panel's Report does not address species other than the tortoise. The West Mojave Plan is addressing 105 special status plants and in addition to the tortoise, most importantly the California-listed Mohave ground squirrel. The development of a conservation strategy for this animal is a high priority for Kern and Inyo Counties, and the cities of Palmdale and Lancaster, which are significantly impacted by the existing, and time-consuming, section 2081 incidental take permitting process. Should the Beholders consensus be lost due to the imposition. of the Panel's report, another loser would be the opportunity to fashion a comprehensive Mohave ground squirrel Strategy, and "no surprises " assurances for many other species.

Implications for Public Land Users

The Panel Report proposes the establishment of a tortoise reserve composed of more than 1.4 million acres of public lands within which would be imposed "reserve level " management including a very restrictive vehicle access network, withdrawal of all lands from mining entry and termination of all cattle and sheep grazing. These restrictions are significantly greater than those currently proposed by the West Mojave Plan. Public land users don't want to lose use of the land; even the "working desert " proposed by the plan has led many individuals to publicly accuse the BLM of trying to implement a second Desert Protection Act (a very hot button fear among those groups). 'he implication of the Panel's proposal on each of these groups is discussed below.

Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation: As part of the West Mojave Plan, BLM is engaged in developing a network of designated vehicle access routes that meet both recreation and biological needs. Even in the absence of the Fort Irwin expansion, the reduction the number of open vehicle routes in critical tortoise habitat and other sensitive biological areas is a controversial issue. For example, a February 22, 2000 "subcommittee " meeting in Ridgecrest drew over 100 attendees, on two days notice. The strategy proposed by the Panel calls for far more draconian reductions in the density of vehicle access routes within the reserve and will be correspondingly more controversial.

This raises issues beyond those posed by individual OHV enthusiasm. The State of California, Department of Parks and Recreation, has invested large sums in developing, cooperatively with BLM, an OHV network in the Rand Mountains. This area lies within the proposed tortoise reserve and additional OHV use restrictions would probably be necessary under the Panel's strategy.

U. S. Borax: This large mining corporation has extensive claims covering several sections which are located along the western edge of the proposed reserve. Borax apparently is very interested in developing those claims in the relatively near future. The tortoise reserve is inconsistent with this development.

Other Public Land Users: Portions of the proposed reserve are currently used by the filming industry. These uses could be curtailed. Filming, however, is an important source of revenue for several desert communities: the City of Ridgecrest, in particular, has made efforts to attract filming to nearby portions of the desert. In addition, livestock grazing concerns have in the past been of importance to the counties: in the case of cattle grazing more as an issue of protecting a rural culture than preventing a significant economic impact. Finally, the area is widely accessed by rockhounders using motorized vehicles. This use, again, would be curtailed leading to some opposition.


Counties tend to have interests in rural development, and have a high level of concern with projects affecting their constituents. Military programs have tended to generate strong support from county government; in fact, in 1999 a San Bernardino County resolution supported the concept of a Fort Irwin expansion. At the same time, Kern, Inyo and San Bernardino Counties are sensitive to projects which would adversely affect their constituents. Kern County's Supergroup representative was specifically hired to serve as a liaison with, and a voice for, public land users. In 1995 San Bernardino County established its Industry Advisory Council, composed of public land users, in response to the West Mojave planning process, with the goal of ensuring that the County's ranching, mining, recreation and development interests are dealt with fairly in the planning process. Actions which threaten public land users have certainly triggered concerns on the part of the County in the past. The Panel's program would place the County in the middle of constituents adversely affected by the proposal, and the County's more general support of military installation programs.

Moreover, Inyo, Kern and San Bernardino counties are members of the "Quad State Coalition ", a group composed of counties from four states which oppose the listing of the tortoise. I am informed that this group is still actively considering the possibility of litigating the provisions of the Desert Tortoise Recovery Plan and this effort is certainly likely to receive renewed consideration if a draconian solution is imposed on the public lands. The Panel's program is likely to energize this group, as its members may be angrier with the tortoise (perceive as the "pusher" of the program) and the Endangered Species Act than with the Army.

One of the most important public land interests of San Bernardino County is the development of the proposed Venture Star Rocket Launch Facility. One of three sites being considered by Lockheed for "Venture Star" lies within the proposed tortoise reserve (the other two are located in Florida and Texas). The Mojave site is considered the front-runner due to its nearness to Lockheed's "Skunk Works" plant in Lancaster. The facility includes up to five rocket launch towers, a three mile long runway, a large base complex, an access road and a water pipeline scattered over a 36 square mile site. San Bernardino County and local cities are aggressively pursuing this project due to the 2,000 high-quality jobs it would bring to the region. Their efforts are supported by the California Department of Trade and Commerce, which has actively lobbied for placement of the facility in this area. The management program proposed for the reserve would preclude siting Venture Star in this region, due to the huge acreage of land disturbance that the project would require.

Kern County has also tended to take a strong line when its constituents could be affected. I have been informed that the County would strongly oppose any further reductions of livestock grazing within the recovery unit. In addition, the County is closely watching the progress of BLM's route designation effort; I have been told that recreationists have been contacting the County Board of Supervisors in large numbers concerning BLM's proposed vehicle access network. Both of these concerns are likely to be aggravated by the Panel's report.

Other Military Bases

A large portion of the Panel's proposed reserve is within the low-level flight corridor identified for use by aircraft operating out of Edwards Air Force Base. The Panel did not identify any measures incompatible with use of the reserve by low-flying aircraft. The potential for conflict exists, however, if tortoise life history studies identified by the Panel indicate, for example, that noise has a significant impact on tortoises.

Cities, Urban Developers and Environmental Groups

By contrast to counties and public land users, urban developers and cities could conclude they have something to gain from letting the Army foot the bill for the creation of well-financed tortoise reserves on public lands, giving urban build-out a "green light." This would be especially true for some of the cities more remote from the base, such as those in the Victor Valley.

Environmental groups, like many of the Panel members, could appreciate the infusion of money and short-term implementation of the Recovery Plan through reserves with restrictive management controls. I can state from personal communication with environmental group leaders, however, that the Army's credibility on this issue is not high. More extreme groups are likely to view Interior's adoption of the proposal as a "sellout."

Cost of Proposal

Private Land Purchase: The greatest single expense of the Panel's program would result from its call for the immediate purchase of substantially all of the 460,000 acres of private lands within the DWMAs. To put this in comparative terms, BLM and Edwards Air Force Base have been engaged in a very successful Land Tenure Adjustment (LTA) program since the late 1980s. Mike DeKeyrel of BLM's Barstow Office indicates that since listing of the tortoise a decade ago, the LTA program has acquired approximately 53,000 acres, Of this land about two-thirds was acquired from holders of relatively large parcels of land, the remaining third consisting of small parcels. The panel's report calls for the acquisition of nine times as much land, much of it from much smaller (and thus more numerous) landowners, in a fraction of the time.

DeKeyrel indicates that acquisition on the scale proposed by the Panel is possible, with sufficient staff, funding, a realistic acquisition schedule and acreage target were established, DeKeyrel assumes that larger parcels would be acquired first; as the, program proceeded a higher percentage of smaller properties would be targeted. Transaction costs would rise as parcel size decreased, due to higher prices per acre, more frequent title issues, and the like. Based on BLM s experience with the LTA and El Mirage acquisition programs (the latter involving two full-time employees seeking to purchase 13,000 acres over a three year schedule), DeKeyrel estimates that a staff of half a dozen persons, dedicated full time to land acquisition, and well funded, would have a reasonable chance of acquiring 80 to 85 percent of the 460,000 acres within a five-year period.

Total cost of acquisition is estimated to be $297,200,000. This figure assumes the purchase of 80 percent of the 460,000 acres of private lands within the Panel's proposed reserve, or 368,000 acres. Land prices in the region range from approximately S200 to $400 per acre in more remote region, to about $400 per acre in the region north of highway 58 (Superior-Cronese DWMA), and higher values south of highway 58, reaching up to between $1200 and $1500 per acre north of El Mirage Dry Lake. The BLM California Desert District uses a figure of $700 per acre when accepting funds from proponents who are required to compensate for projects in tortoise critical habitat but desire to do so by provision of a monetary equivalent rather than purchasing lands themselves. For 368,000 acres the dollar cost would be $257,600,000. To this must be added closing costs, title insurance and other fees; a working estimate of $100/acre is used, or $36,800,000. Finally, the costs of supporting a seven-person staff, working full time on acquisitions for five years, would be approximately $2,800,000.

Both Kern and San Bernardino counties have been reluctant in the past to support large-scale private land purchases, due to concerns about decreasing the county tax base. They have indicated that any such purchases must be on a willing buyer - willing seller basis. This fear perhaps could be allayed through an immediate in-lieu tax payment to the local government but this possibility has yet to be raised with local government. In addition, if lands are not purchased, San Bernardino County is very sensitive to the imposition of restrictive management policies on private inholders.

Total Cost: The estimated cost of complete and full implementation of the Panel's strategy is $404,700,000. Derivation of this cost is presented below. Please be aware that this estimate is based upon a very crude, first cut analysis; it has not been developed through a rigorous economic study.

  • Land Acquisition Costs: $297,200,000. See above for derivation of costs.
  • OHV Route Restoration: $11,000,000. Estimated cost of a five-year program covering training and funding of restoration personnel, as well as support crews, over five years.
  • Law Enforcement Rangers: $24,000,000. This would fund two rangers for each of the four DWMAs over. 30 years.
  • Fencing: $8,500,000. Fences adjacent to expansion area, OHV open areas, roads, and urban interfaces. This figure does not include $1,000,000 cost of highway 395 fencing, expected to be borne by the California Department of Transportation and the Federal Highways Administration
  • Retirement of Livestock Grazing Allotments: $4,000,000.
  • Mineral Withdrawal: $1,000,000.
  • Tortoise Studies: $10,000,000. Life history, demography, physiology and disease studies over 25 years.
  • Tortoise Adoption Center and Health Program: $5,000,000. Ten year term, $500,000 per year.
  • Pilot Translocation Study and Tortoise Removal: $9,500,000. Two million for initial studies, 7.5 million for subsequent tortoise relocation.
  • Independent Scientific and Stakeholder Advisory Group: $4,500,000. Assumes annual budget of $150,000 over 30 years.
  • Incidental 30-year Monitoring and Actions: $30,000,000.


The reasonableness of the Panel's proposal must be judged in light of the obvious conflicts that would result from the establishment of such a large reserve with the restrictions on public use identified by the Panel's report. It is clear that many public constituencies in this region will be severely impacted and strong opposition is likely.

Our best guess is that it will take at least three to four months for local interests to sort this issue out politically. Should events force the Army's April 1999 expansion proposal upon us, I believe that the Panel's recommendations should be considered through the West Mojave planning process, with opportunity for appropriate modification by local government and stakeholders, rather than having them imposed upon the Supergroup. Such consideration could provide a forum for the political "sorting out " to occur. It would also further those mandates established by FLPMA and NEPA to maximize public involvement. Modifications of the Panel's approach could be made, through agencies and stakeholders, which would ensure that the strategy accomplishes the same goal (long-term survival of the tortoise) while being less impacting on other programs and public land users. Boundary adjustments and modifications of management prescriptions offer an opportunity to reduce the impact of the proposal on particular interests or projects. If successful, the planning process could offer an opportunity to develop regional "buy-in" to the strategy, and a sense of local "ownership" of the approach.

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