ELBERTA, Utah County Every morning before sunrise, Clair Huff slips into his blue jeans, pulls on his boots, grabs a baseball cap and heads out the door to work with his charges. As a full-time missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he's shed the traditional dark suit, white shirt and tie.
His responsibilities don't include teaching people about church doctrine, improving their health or distributing food and clothing to disaster victims.
In fact, he doesn't deal with people much at all. His flock is literally that . . . a continually changing group of feathered friends: pheasants, geese, chukkars, doves and ducks. Instead of knocking on doors, he spends his time bush-
whacking in the thick brush along the southwest shores of Utah Lake, looking for the perfect place to nurture his birds by planting numerous stands of corn, rye and other grains.
For more than two years, he and his wife, Beth, have been serving God in a most unusual way.
They operate a private hunting preserve owned by the LDS Church.
"I don't know of any other missionary doing what I'm doing," he says, pointing to a row of several hundred cedar trees he planted as a future wind break on the wind-swept acreage that stretches out in every direction. After spending an entire career as a wildlife biologist, including his latest stint as assistant director of operations for the state Division of Wildlife Resources, Elder Huff seems uniquely qualified for the volunteer job description he's taken on: turn this 11,000-acre piece of desert into a revenue-generating hunting preserve.
To do so, the Huffs left their new home in Draper more than 26 months ago to live full time in an isolated aluminum siding home miles from the nearest human inhabitant near the southwest shore of Utah Lake. Working 18 hour days, particularly during the hunting and planting seasons, is not uncommon for the couple, whose retired peers may have difficulty understanding the attraction of the unrelenting labor.
They've served longer than the traditional two-year missionary stint, but while the church looks for a suitable replacement biologist, the Huffs will stay at least until November, when the majority of the hunting season is over.
In a way, he says, the two missionaries have become a part of the landscape itself. The only visible sign that sets Elder Huff apart from the few scattered ranchers in the area is the black missionary name tag he wears on the pocket of his plaid work shirt.
He admits he was reluctant to take on such a monumental task at first. "And it's been tough for (his wife), but we're making it work. We don't see many people out here, except during hunting season. Then we run the checking station," where hunters come to gain admittance to the private preserve, and where they must register the number of birds and other wildlife they take when they leave.
With thousands of birds flocking to the property in search of food, particularly during the fall hunting season, hunters stand a prime chance of "harvesting" their limit. But they pay dearly for the privilege.
Only a few pheasant and goose-hunting permits are sold each year, with hunting aficionados paying as much as $1,500 for the opportunity to hunt what is fast becoming an exclusive "club" for "members only." Once a hunter ponies up the cash to secure a permit, he's not only guaranteed a permit for the following year, but his chance to draw the prime target areas on the preserve improve along with his seniority in the exclusive group.
"All of our hunters are from Utah, many of them doctors, dentists and attorneys from Payson north to Ogden, including Park City," Elder Huff said.
The flatlands also provide an additional advantage for the well-heeled hunting crowd a 2,600-foot landing strip where private aircraft can whisk hunters in and out of the remote preserve, saving them the long and lonely drive.
It is from the air that hunters can best see the vastness of the acreage they will explore, set amid additional thousands of acres of LDS Church farmland that stretches to the horizon on the south and west. Creating the type of habitat that will sustain a vibrant wildlife population alongside a huge agricultural operation would traditionally mean a clash between individual farmer and rancher. But because the church owns both operations, employees are working together to ensure that both the farms and the game preserve co-exist in a way that benefits everyone, Elder Huff said.
For example, runoff from the farm's irrigation operation is directed toward the game preserve, boosting the growth of both native plant life and more than 600 acres of dry-farm grain scattered throughout the property. Large holding tanks that are no longer used for farming now provide high-profile watering holes throughout the game preserve, attracting not only birds but rabbits, coyotes, deer and even antelope.
While the focus is on pheasant and other bird hunting, permit holders may also take limited amounts of other wildlife on the preserve during the appropriate season, Elder Huff said.
As noxious weeds and brush are controlled and scattered grains are introduced, the wildlife population on the preserve will continue to grow, boosting the number of hunting permits that can be issued to "harvest" the wildlife.
"Just like the farm derives revenue from harvesting crops, the preserve is designed to produce revenue when hunters harvest the wildlife here," Elder Huff said.
He realizes the concept isn't popular with everyone particularly when the cost of hunting on the preserve is prohibitive for all but the most well-to-do.
"Hunting and guns are a big issue, and some people question whether hunting should even happen at all," Elder Huff acknowledged. "But the fact is, there are between 14 and 18 million hunters in America, and many more than that number that own guns. This is recreation for a lot of people. Some enjoy this as much as others enjoy camping in the mountains."
Consequently, there is a ready market "for the kind of hunting experience we provide here." Church land managers see it as a legitimate way to make thousands of acres of land productive that would otherwise lie fallow for lack of water, he said.
The preserve, known as Westlake Farm Commercial Hunting Area, is managed by the LDS Church's Farm Management Co., the same group that operates the adjacent farming operations and grain silos. The for-profit farming and ranching company is overseen by the church's Presiding Bishopric.
The church owns thousands of acres of farm and ranch land throughout the West, including the Deseret Land and Livestock Co., a private big-game hunting preserve scattered over 200,000 acres in northern Utah. Hunters from around the country vie for a limited number of elk and moose permits there that cost as much as $8,500 each.
Complete with a formal hunting lodge for housing and meals, the hunts are guided by a local outfitter. And while there's no guarantee that a hunter's bullet will find its mark, hunting on the preserve is so popular, there's a six-year waiting list to buy a permit.
Elder Huff is optimistic that the operation will turn a profit for the first time this year.
"This is a very viable habitat, and if they continue to invest the profits back in and find an innovative manager to run it, there's the potential to boost the number of permits we issue up to a maximum of about 250 someday."
And as the habitat, and consequently, the number and variety of wildlife improves, the price of the permits would logically go up as well, he said.
"Imagine if we got to the point that we could boost the price (of each permit) to $2,000 or $2,500. Times that by 250, and it doesn't take a lot to understand that this could be a very profitable operation."