At the Utah State Arboretum, man's gentle manipulation of his natural surroundings is providing a haven for horticulture and humans alike.

The arboretum has been around for 27 years, scattered throughout the University of Utah campus. But farsighted men and women prepared for the additional parking lots and buildings that are needed by setting aside 147 acres of land in the University's Research Park as a botanical garden of the future.The area, known as Red Butte Gardens, is still in its infancy. It will eventually include 12 separate gardens ranging from alpine to oriental with room for even more.

The Red Butte addition is open for public viewing daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with a guided tour each Wednesday at noon. Tours can be arranged for other times by calling the arboretum office at 581-5322.

The exhibit is also productive long after the visitors have left, helping scientists learn about the resident species and develop ways to help them thrive.

"Understanding the relationship of plants to animals to man, can help us in the 21st century," said Arboretum Director Richard Hildreth. "A very active garden that will be not only beautiful but informative will also allow the opportunity for hands-on activities."

Those activities include research that determines what plants can survive the local climate and the development of new species for residential use as well, Hildreth said.

"We can determine what prospers in the shade or sun, what can take the heat and cold, and if acid or alkaline soil is best," said Hildreth. "Another experiment can tell us which species are more drought tolerant."

But research aside, most visitors come to view the garden for the pure aesthetic beauty. As the first section nears completion, it reflects the magnificence of what is yet to come.

The completed area features an aquatic display with waterfalls and ponds abounding in vegetation. On the outside edge of the nature trail that winds around the water is a conifer garden with native species and others from as far away as Siberia.

As visitors continue down the path, a spectacle of color unfolds, with the reds, purples and blues of common flowers in full bloom. Here, the mix of annual and perennial varieties are captured on canvas by some of the many artists who frequent the garden. "They seem to love the ever-changing scene," Hildreth said.

Farther up the trail, a woodland garden is taking shape. Beneath the shade of relatively young oak trees, native and exotic plants that thrive in the shade are quickly spreading their beauty.

Back near the entrance, a lone building serves dual capacity as greenhouse and conservatory. Included in the future plans is a permanent conservatory that will provide habitat for species that can't survive the relatively cold local climate. The displays will show off plants of the tropics, mediterranean and warm desert.

The speed of the project's expansion depends upon the availability of funding, largely generated through private contributions. Also holding up the growth is the planned extension of Wakara Way, which will bisect the property, but will also provide a main access route for visitors.

Hildreth hopes to attract 250,000 visitors annually when the project is finally completed. He sees the current plans as being finished within 15 years, but "in some ways, a garden is never finished."

The garden is already a busy place, with educational and other groups touring it frequently. In addition, the arboretum offers horticulture classes and a summer concert series.

Serious botanical enthusiasts can join the Friends of the Arboretum guild, and enjoy membership benefits that include a quarterly newsletter and preferred reservation to use the garden for special events like weddings. Hildreth sees the potential uses for the site as virtually unlimited.

And like his ever-growing garden, he also sees no limits to expansion. His sights are set on an eventual link with Hogle Zoo, Fort Douglas, Pioneer State Park, and the museums of Fine Arts and Natural History, forming a series of attractions known as Emigration Visitors District.