KANARRAVILLE, Iron County Sandy Webster says his memories of lambing and herding sheep with his family are among his most cherished possessions. While life as a sheep rancher hasn't always been easy, it's the only one he has ever wanted.
That lifestyle is a part of southern Utah's heritage that he'd like to preserve, for generations to come.
"My grandpa homesteaded this land. His old cabin is still there, just over that hill," Webster says from his modest summer cabin's wooden front porch that overlooks red rock cliffs studded with soaring pine trees. "We just want to keep everything the same."
Sandy and his wife, Vicki, own 562 acres of spring-fed forests and rich meadows on Kanarra Mountain, adjacent to the Kolob section of Zion National Park. The area is home to the headwaters of several creeks that feed the Virgin River, a main source of water for nearby Washington County's growing population.
So when neighbor Dane Leavitt, whose family owns 513 adjoining acres on Kanarra Mountain, called seven years ago about an idea that would save the land from development and still allow property owners to bank some money off their investment, the Websters were ready to listen.
Leavitt said that years earlier, he heard about conservation easements, legal agreements that compensate landowners for giving up specific future development rights. Families would still own the land and could even sell it at a later date, but the conservation easement would forever be tied to the property.
Money to purchase the easements could come from any number of sources, including public funds, he noted. The ranchers would keep their land and also receive the money from the easements.
"I was quite impressed with the flexibility and what could be done with them," said Leavitt, a brother of former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt.
Dane Leavitt and the other ranchers got together about five years ago, formed the Kanarra Mountain Landowners Association and hired Brad Barber with the Oquirrh Institute to help move their idea forward.
The Nature Conservancy in Salt Lake City then became involved in what has come to be known as the Virgin River Headwaters Project. The conservancy has signed option agreements with five ranchers to purchase conservation easements on 2,423 acres for $3.7 million.
Twelve other ranchers have expressed an interest in protecting their property from development with conservation easements, bringing the total to as many as 17 property owners with 11,000 acres on Kanarra Mountain. Funding for the first five easements is not yet in place, although the Nature Conservancy is working to raise the $3.7 million from private and public sources. As much as $12 million is needed if all 17 ranches are to have the easements, said the conservancy's Utah director, Dave Livermore.
"In this era of rapid development and every man for himself, it is quite remarkable that a group of ranchers would want to work together in this way to protect the summer range they love," Livermore said.But some environmentalists say the Virgin River Headwaters Project is looking for additional money in all the wrong places.
A dangerous precedent?
Sen. Bob Bennett is seeking $2.8 million in federal Forest Legacy Program funds for the project, although there's no guarantee the money will be included in the Interior Department's 2007 budget.
Bennett, R-Utah, and Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, also are sponsoring the Washington County Growth and Conservation Act of 2006. The two lawmakers introduced the bill in Congress this past week.
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