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Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News
Sandy Webster talks about the importance of the heritage of his 562 acres in southern Utah. "We just want to keep everything the same," he says.

KANARRAVILLE, Iron County — Sandy Webster says his memories of lambing and herding sheep with his family are among his most cherished possessions. While life as a sheep rancher hasn't always been easy, it's the only one he has ever wanted.

That lifestyle is a part of southern Utah's heritage that he'd like to preserve, for generations to come.

"My grandpa homesteaded this land. His old cabin is still there, just over that hill," Webster says from his modest summer cabin's wooden front porch that overlooks red rock cliffs studded with soaring pine trees. "We just want to keep everything the same."

Sandy and his wife, Vicki, own 562 acres of spring-fed forests and rich meadows on Kanarra Mountain, adjacent to the Kolob section of Zion National Park. The area is home to the headwaters of several creeks that feed the Virgin River, a main source of water for nearby Washington County's growing population.

So when neighbor Dane Leavitt, whose family owns 513 adjoining acres on Kanarra Mountain, called seven years ago about an idea that would save the land from development and still allow property owners to bank some money off their investment, the Websters were ready to listen.

Leavitt said that years earlier, he heard about conservation easements, legal agreements that compensate landowners for giving up specific future development rights. Families would still own the land and could even sell it at a later date, but the conservation easement would forever be tied to the property.

Money to purchase the easements could come from any number of sources, including public funds, he noted. The ranchers would keep their land and also receive the money from the easements.

"I was quite impressed with the flexibility and what could be done with them," said Leavitt, a brother of former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt.

Dane Leavitt and the other ranchers got together about five years ago, formed the Kanarra Mountain Landowners Association and hired Brad Barber with the Oquirrh Institute to help move their idea forward.

The Nature Conservancy in Salt Lake City then became involved in what has come to be known as the Virgin River Headwaters Project. The conservancy has signed option agreements with five ranchers to purchase conservation easements on 2,423 acres for $3.7 million.

Twelve other ranchers have expressed an interest in protecting their property from development with conservation easements, bringing the total to as many as 17 property owners with 11,000 acres on Kanarra Mountain. Funding for the first five easements is not yet in place, although the Nature Conservancy is working to raise the $3.7 million from private and public sources. As much as $12 million is needed if all 17 ranches are to have the easements, said the conservancy's Utah director, Dave Livermore.

"In this era of rapid development and every man for himself, it is quite remarkable that a group of ranchers would want to work together in this way to protect the summer range they love," Livermore said.

But some environmentalists say the Virgin River Headwaters Project is looking for additional money in all the wrong places.

A dangerous precedent?

Sen. Bob Bennett is seeking $2.8 million in federal Forest Legacy Program funds for the project, although there's no guarantee the money will be included in the Interior Department's 2007 budget.

Bennett, R-Utah, and Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, also are sponsoring the Washington County Growth and Conservation Act of 2006. The two lawmakers introduced the bill in Congress this past week.

The proposed legislation would sell off about 25,000 acres of public lands and use the proceeds for various conservation and growth-related projects in the county. The original draft of the bill included the Virgin River Headwaters Project as one of the benefactors of the public-land sale.

But the final version of the bill introduced in Congress includes no mention of the project. Various environmental groups, including the Nature Conservancy, had criticized the draft bill after it was unveiled in March. The Nature Conservancy cited "unacceptable water developments," among other worries.

Barber, of the Oquirrh Institute, said he believes that contributed to the Virgin River Headwaters Project being dropped from the bill.

"It's unfortunate, but I think the Nature Conservancy's position on the bill probably had something to do with it," Barber said.

Utah representatives with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and the Sierra Club said they are wary of selling public lands to fund private conservation projects.

"While it's been said that some of the proceeds will go toward private conservation efforts, there's no guidance on where the money would go and no prioritizing of projects," said Scott Groene, executive director of SUWA. "In general, we're leery of selling public lands to meet other needs. We would prefer that Congress appropriate funds separately to fund those needs."

Lawson LeGate, senior Southwest regional representative of the Sierra Club, said the authors of the bill are "in grave danger of overreaching" in their attempt to solve a problem.

"It's a big mistake for the authors of this bill to try and buy off various members of the community," said LeGate. "From our perspective, it sets a dangerous precedent. If elected officials can succeed at using our federal public lands for their own pet projects, you can bet that officials in other states will try it."

But the Nature Conservancy has no qualms about the proposed funding mechanism and remains hopeful that the project will succeed.

"Private land conservation is an appropriate thing to be paid for with legislation of this type," said Amanda Smith of the Nature Conservancy. "We very much support this method, if the public lands are appropriately sold. Much of what needs to be attained with the conservation easements has a lot of public value."

Preserving the land

Livermore said protecting the Kanarra Mountain ranches from development would reduce threats to vital watersheds, provide a buffer for Zion National Park and preserve crucial wildlife habitat, all of which are beneficial to the public.

"Due to the growth of St. George and Las Vegas, there is increasing pressure in this area from second-home development," says Livermore. "We will never have another chance to protect the Kanarra Mountain region. Escalating land prices alone will put the area out of reach."

The Websters, like other southern Utah families with large land holdings, know that real estate is selling for astronomical prices here. But few of these landowners are anxious to divvy up their land for sale to the highest bidder.

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"Most of these families own this property from homesteading days," Leavitt said during a recent bumpy drive past the Leavitt family cabin and on to the Webster place for a visit. "These people have deep, deep ties to the land."

Leavitt knew if the property owners didn't find a way to protect their land from future development, it was "only a matter of time before this mountain was cut up into 20 acre parcels and sold off."

The Websters say they wanted to preserve the land for their children and grandchildren, although their beloved ranching way of life may disappear over time.

"I'm a rancher, but it will probably end with me," Sandy Webster says. "I'm the last generation that could do it and make a living. You just can't do it anymore."

E-mail: nperkins@desnews.com