The Nature Conservancy, a private conservation group involved in preserving natural habitat throughout the world, has purchased 690 acres of wetlands within half a mile of downtown Moab.

The purchase of the "Moab Slough" was announced Tuesday afternoon. Buying the four parcels of land allows establishment of a nature preserve on the site, which will be named in honor of the late Scott M. Matheson, former Utah governor."Scott was a great friend of the conservancy," said Dave Livermore, director of the organization's Great Basin Field Office in Salt Lake City. "We have always admired his balanced, rational approach to conservation in this state, and he leaves behind an incredible preservation legacy."

The conservancy's scientists will develop a comprehensive management plan for the preserve, including an inventory of all bird, animal and plant species. The area is believed to host more than 150 bird species, including endangered peregrine falcons and bald eagles.

"In addition to being the only naturally occurring wetlands on the Colorado River in Utah, the Moab Slough is also a critical staging area for the endangered Colorado squawfish and dozens of species of raptors, songbirds, waterfowl and shorebirds," said spokeswoman Alyson Heyrend. Tracks of the recently reintroduced river otters have been seen there.

Chris Montague, director of Utah Projects for the conservancy, said much of southeastern Utah makes up what could be called an "ocean" of desert, 4.6 million acres in size. Although rivers flow through the region, "wildlife can take only minimal advantage of the sparse plant communities along their edges.

"The Moab Slough is the only high-quality wetland complex in this vast part of the state of Utah."

The purchase was facilitated through a combination gift and interest-free loan of $450,000 from the George S. and Dolores Dore Eccles foundation, said the conservancy officials. It is the largest philanthropic gift in the history of conservation in Utah, Livermore said.