The men and women meeting in the shade of cottonwoods didn't look much like an environmental group. Most were in their late 40s or older. Expensive cars lined the grass by the ranch house.

It was a private session, and I was asked to wait a few minutes until it was over. So I sat on the wooden steps of the home's porch - a new rock house built in an old, elegant, simple style, a replica of an 1860 home on the same ranch.The 10 men and women continued their meeting at a long table, laughing sometimes, speaking intently, the trees' shadows moving across piled papers, maps and the white tablecloth.

This was a board meeting of one of the country's newest environmental groups, the Grand Canyon Trust.

The trust is a vigorous conservation group taking aim at Utah and other states of the Colorado Plateau, that huge chunk of canyon country and desert that surrounds the Four Corners. It is headed by politicians, educators, financiers and researchers. The trust promises to play a role in the future of Utah's natural resources.

The ranch had a mild, relaxing atmosphere. I could hear the Virgin River's burbling. A patch of flowers bordered the porch. A riding mower had left swirls across the giant lawn. Three or four miles to the north, spectacular red monoliths of Zion National Park swept into the sky.

Stewart Udall padded barefooted away from the table and sat on the steps beside me. One of the country's most distinguished conservationists, he was the secretary of the Interior Department for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Recently, he has been a leader in the fight to win compensation for nuclear fallout victims.

"We've been in existence two years," he said of the trust. "We're a young organization. We're trying to get our feet on the ground."

The group's headquarters is in Washington, D.C., but it was founded by then-Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt and to some extent its base remains in Phoenix.

Babbitt, Udall and Chase Peterson, president of the University of Utah, are among its directors.

Although it's the new kid on the block among environmental organizations, the trust is already embroiled in tough conservation battles.

The trust was largely responsible for new restrictions that the Federal Aviation Administration announced in May, limiting sightseeing flights over the Grand Canyon. Airborne sightseers must now keep out of four "flight free zones," and the planes and helicopters must fly at a higher altitude elsewhere at the park.

Also this year, the group was accepted as a "friend of the court" in a suit filed by Utah Power & Light Co. and a coalition of 150 cities, challenging the operation of Glen Canyon Dam. The U.S. District Court trial is scheduled to start Nov. 29 in Salt Lake City.

The trust is concerned about water releases from the dam, timed to coincide with power demand, that are sometimes so violent that they scour out beaches, strand fish and rip out riverside wildlife habitat.

Grand Canyon Trust is a bit of a misnomer because the group has environmental concerns throughout the Colorado Plateau.

In mid-September, the trust directors gathered in Springdale at the 2,000-acre ranch of one of the group's chiefs, James Trees.

That morning, Udall, his fellow trust director Bert Fingerhut and I had climbed to Angel's Landing within Zion National Park.

Fingerhut, a retired stock mogul, was full of stories and bubbled over with his great love of nature. He is senior vice president and a limited partner in Odyssey Partners, a private investment partnership.

He recited a mnemonic formula invented by a friend to remember the succession of rock formations in much of southern Utah: "Many Canyon Walls Know No Capitalist Exploitation." Going up from the lowest sandstone, that's Moenkopi, Chinle, Wingate, Kayenta, Navajo, Carmel and Entrada.

He also had one for the Grand Canyon's staircase, going from the top down, but it was longer and I made no attempt to memorize it.

With homes in New York City and Aspen, Colo., Fingerhut likes to lead Sierra Club trips to the Colorado Plateau.

Although he is 68, Udall wasn't puffing much as he ascended the steep formations, going up 1,800 feet in about 2 1/2 miles. He told stories of his tenure at the Interior Department and his work to establish Canyonlands National Park.

One of these recollections was at the expense of a former Utah governor who wasn't impressed with the idea of setting aside Canyonlands.

Referring to the beautiful sandstone spires of Canyonlands' Needles District, that governor opposed locking up these formations in a national park that might some day be needed as building stone.

The statement provoked national backlash that helped demolish opposition to the park.

From Angel's Landing, we could see the rugged gorge of Zion Canyon, lightly hazy from the West's forest fires. Lounging on the cracked, floor-like top, Udall and Fingerhut studied a map of Zion.

The hike had barely slowed these two. I had the impression they and the rest of the group were prepared to go a great many miles farther to protect the magnificent landscape of the Colorado Plateau.

Next: An interview with Udall.