Washington, DC — Federal funds to protect the Mojave Desert tortoise in Utah were misused by local Utah officials to plan a freeway and construct a building, according to a former top county employee. Those charges, detailed in correspondence released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), are under federal investigation.
For more than 14 years, William Mader oversaw the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, a 62,000-acre expanse in southern Utah set aside to provide habitat for the desert tortoise, a federally listed threatened species. Mader, a PhD wildlife biologist, worked for Washington County, Utah, until he was removed in late 2008 in a dispute over the County Commissioners’ diversion of funds and violations of a federal permit.
Recovery of the desert tortoise has been a high federal priority, with more funds devoted to the reptile than to some more charismatic species such as the bald eagle, gray wolf and grizzly bear. In letters sent to federal agencies and congressional appropriators, Mader outlines widespread misappropriation by county commissioners of funds for desert tortoise habitat:
- $50 million to acquire desert tortoise habitat was instead earmarked by the county for a freeway slated to cut through the last viable tortoise population in the state;
- $200,000 of money for a tortoise Habitat Conservation Plan was transferred to the Utah Department of Natural Resources to construct a building in Washington County; and
- Other funds were transferred out of habitat conservation funds without public notice.
In addition, Mader struggled against official opposition to enforce county ordinances that protected tortoises from being killed. In the complaints, Mader calls for greater public oversight and transparency in Washington County management of Red Cliffs. His charges have been referred to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for investigation and a financial audit.
Mader’s disclosures come at a time when federal spending in the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve is slated to grow. In 2009 legislation, Congress created a National Conservation Area (NCA) within the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve. The law directs BLM to develop a long-range management plan “to conserve, protect, and enhance …the ecological, scenic, wildlife, recreational, cultural, historical, natural, educational, and scientific resources” of public lands within the NCA.
“Conservation partnerships are an important tool but they are not a license to steal,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “As the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area comes into being, it is important that BLM determine that taxpayer investments are used for the intended purposes and not siphoned away for political payoffs.”