BLM will acquire the stakes of Henry Mountains, but at what price?
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A massive land swap is underway that would capture almost all private property in the remote Henry Mountains in exchange for valuable public lands near Torrey and Toquerville, two of the most picturesque towns of the pioneer era in southern Utah.
South Dakota ranchers are offering to trade 2,680 acres scattered around the mountain range for federal ranch land they own bordering Capitol Reef National Park, as well as 2,033 acres west of Toquerville.
While the deal is touted as a way to protect the Henrys’ free-roaming bison herd, some environmental groups fear it will open up desert landscapes even more susceptible to development in the sprawl St. George area. rapidly.
“They want to get land in Washington County because development is exploding here and they are looking to diversify their portfolio and saw this opportunity to buy parcels elsewhere to arrange this exchange for developable land,” said Isabel Adler, director of the public lands program for Conserve. Southwestern Utah.
The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, or SUWA, opposes the trade because the Garfield County land sought by Sandy Ranch is in an area the county has proposed for wilderness designation, while components of Garfield County Washington border the Red Cliffs Desert Preserve, established as a protected habitat for the endangered Mojave Desert Tortoise.
These groups argue that the swap offers no net gain for conservation and would lead to ever-increasing encroachment on public lands.
The landowner proposing the deal is Bryce Lindskov, co-owner of the Lindskov Ranch established by his grandfather in southwestern South Dakota. About a decade ago, the Linkskov family acquired the 7,000-acre Sandy Ranch, located on Notom Road south of Torrey along the eastern edge of Capitol Reef.
The Sandy Ranch holds nearly 250,000 acres of federal pasture on either side of the national park. Those allotments include the western slope of the Henrys, where the Lindskovs also own isolated parcels that they now want to give to the Bureau of Land Management in exchange for 880 federal acres surrounding the Sandy Ranch headquarters, according to Andy Wiessner, the chief architect. of the agreement.
“The main goal is to protect the Henry Mountain bison herd,” said Wiessner, who works for the Western Land Group, a Colorado-based real estate company that specializes in complex land trades.
While the ranch holds grazing patches on the western slope of Henrys, owning land there is of little use for the ranching operation. Sandy Ranch has rarely raised cattle there in recent years due to the drought, and bison consume the forage grown on private ranch land there, according to Wiessner.
Among the country’s last mountain ranges outside of Alaska to be mapped, the Henrys are an 11,000-foot range rising between Capitol Reef and the Dirty Devil River. Wild bison have lived there since the early 1940s, when the herd was built from 18 animals transferred from Yellowstone National Park. The Henry Mountain bison, now numbering in the 400s, have since been exploited to establish feral herds elsewhere in Utah.
The proposed exchange has garnered support from scientists and wildlife advocates, who see it as a way to permanently protect one of the West’s most important wildlife habitats and herds of big wild game.
These bison have never interbred with cattle, so they are not only genetically pure, but also free of the bovine disease known as brucellosis, according to wildlife biologist Dustin Ranglack, a professor at the University of Nebraska who researched this as a graduate of Utah State University. student.
“Perhaps most importantly, the herd is truly free-roaming in a range that stretches along the western slopes of the Henry Mountains, from the Fremont River north to Glen Canyon. [National Recreation Area] to the south – a linear distance of approximately 50 miles…and a total range of over 300 square miles,” Ranglack wrote in a letter of support to the BLM. “The exchange would forever eliminate the possibility of subdivision and development of Sandy Ranch’s private lands (including the 1,000+ acre King Ranch pivot) in the future.”
The town of Toquerville, Washington County, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, and various wildlife organizations, such as the Mule Deer Foundation, Utah Wildlife Federation, and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (BHA), are also endorsing the trade. .
“If this land were to remain in private ownership, it could be developed for private retreats, homes or other recreational projects, which would not be good for wildlife,” wrote Perry Hall, chapter president. Utah from BHA, in a letter of support. “Although development in such a remote area seems unlikely in the short term, we note that since the advent of COVID there has been a rush of people seeking to purchase and develop remote land to ‘get away from everything'”.
The land the ranch would acquire would be used as irrigated pasture.
“For the past two years, Sandy Ranch has bought $500,000 worth of hay because it was too dry. They want to transfer their water rights from the western slope [of the Henrys] at ranch headquarters,” Wiessner said. “They want to grow more fodder there so they don’t have to buy hay.
Sandy Ranch intends to seek approval of the deal through congressional action rather than administrative proceedings with the BLM. Probably would require extensive appraisals to ensure the trade reflects fair market values.
An email to the office of Representative Chris Stewart, whose Utah district includes Garfield and Washington counties, was not returned.
Since the Henry Mountains swap plots are worth more than the acreage the ranch would receive in Garfield County, Wiessner asks the BLM to include additional federal land in the deal. The land the Lindskovs want is in Washington County, just west of Toquerville, miles from their ranch.
“We looked at BLM land about a year ago, and Saint George seemed like the logical place to find surplus BLM land,” Wiessner said. He arranged the Washington County side of the deal in consultation with BLM St. George Field Office Director Kieth Rigtrup, who died suddenly a few months ago.
“There aren’t too many other places where we can find BLM plots that are suitable for disposal that don’t have high wildlife value,” Wiessner said.
Since Washington County land is so valuable, Sandy Ranch would likely have to pay the BLM several million dollars to make up the difference in value. According to Wiessner, this proceeds would go into a pool of cash that the BLM would use to acquire stakes inside the Red Cliffs reservation.
The public land selected for the exchange is just west of the future Toquerville Parkway, a 4.5-mile four-lane highway currently under construction. The $18 million project is designed to allow millions of motorists to bypass Toquerville’s historic residential core when traveling to and from Zion National Park.
Under an April 8 agreement with the Washington County Water Conservancy District, Sandy Ranch would sell the northernmost 400 acres to the district for its Toquer Reservoir project and related pipelines and waterfront park. Lake. The Water District recently obtained a right of way for this land from the BLM, but would prefer to be the outright owner.
While the remaining land would not be useful for ranching, it would do for prime commercial and residential real estate development if in private hands, raising red flags for environmentalists. They do not dispute the conservation value of ridding the Henrys of private property, but do question the need to sacrifice open lands that are becoming increasingly scarce and valuable as Washington County continues to expand.
“We are not thrilled that the BLM is giving up the lands it manages for wilderness and natural areas,” said Neal Clark, field attorney for SUWA. “It’s like buying BLM land outright that’s not for sale, which will make them millions of dollars. You can find BLM land elsewhere, instead you’ve settled in the fastest growing place in the state. The more I look at it, the more suspicious I become. Why does this ranch need land in Washington County? It’s because they want to sell to developers.
The swap plots almost adjoin a portion of the Red Cliffs Preserve, known as Area 4, which has been used successfully to transfer turtles from habitat elsewhere that has been lost to development, according to Adler .
Development here would increase pressure to cut new roads and utility lines through this sensitive land. The existing Babylon Road through Zone 4 is already considered a high-speed arterial.
“With this continued creep into public lands, it’s going to give the county one more reason to keep developing roads and encroaching on international conservation areas and destroying habitat for endangered species,” Adler said. .