The Nature Conservancy has purchased a 7,583-acre ranch that controls public access to state and federal land in the Book Cliffs and says it will transfer title to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

The purchase of the Cunningham Ranch was completed Monday afternoon, and the site will be preserved as one of Utah's best remaining wildlife habitat areas, says the conservation group. The ranch is in the southeastern part of the Book Cliffs.The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, a hunters group that works to protect elk habitat, donated $50,000 to the division so the agency could receive matching federal funds in the purchase. "I believe it will become one of the most outstanding wildlife areas in the United States," said Tim Provan, the division's director.

"I hope that future generations will one day look back and acknowledge the wisdom and foresight we've shown here today."

The Cunningham family held grazing permits and operated a commercial hunting business nearby. The Nature Conservancy and the division have been negotiating with the family since the early 1980s over purchase of the property, including grazing privileges on state and Bureau of Land Management land, ranch buildings and cabins, water rights and part of the mineral rights.

"This is a project where everyone is a winner," said Chris Montague of the Nature Conservancy. "The rancher is paid a fair price for his property and grazing privileges on the open market and is able to make good on his desire to relocate to another ranching property.

"Conservationists and hunters get improved and protected prime wildlife habitat. The county has a slight increase in its tax base, and the Utah public gains permanent, guaranteed access to one of the state's most impressive wildlife areas."

Over the next six months, in two separate transactions, the property's title will be transferred to the Division of Wildlife Resources. Meanwhile, the Conservancy will work with the division and the BLM to reallocate more of the range forage to wildlife, and to start rehabilitating riparian areas and rangeland damaged by drought.

Bob Munson, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, said the project is one of the most exciting that the group has been involved with. "It is really a great feeling to be able to help protect such fine country for future generations," he said.