With urban growth continuing to nibble away at Utah's most vital watersheds and wildlife habitats, a conservation group - with the help of Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. - has kicked off what it calls the largest land preservation and restoration campaign in state history.
The Nature Conservancy unveiled its Living Lands and Waters initiative Tuesday, laying out a program to target eight key areas around the state for critical lands protections through the use of property acquisitions, easements and other conservation tools.
Essentially, said Dave Livermore, the Nature Conservancy of Utah's executive director, "this is an effort to protect eight major watersheds. We're not out to protect every acre, but we want to focus on these areas."
This initiative is different, he told The Salt Lake Tribune's editorial board, because it marks the first real attempt in the state "to merge the natural world and the world we humans need to survive. We're not out to protect these lands from people. We want to protect them for people."
Giving the initiative a high-profile push: Huntsman, who pledged the backing of state agencies to help the conservancy reach its campaign goals. Huntsman also promised to seek "enhanced" funding for the state's LeRay McAllister Open Space Fund, which has never been fully funded and is currently languishing with a balance of just over $1 million.
"All of us have a vital economic interest in protecting these critical lands and water resources," he said during a speech to the Rotary Club in downtown Salt Lake City, noting the huge revenues tourism and recreation generate for the state. "And we can do this without killing the golden goose."
That goose, of course, is growth - economic and otherwise. But a new study also released Tuesday warned that without stepped-up conservation efforts, Utah is in danger of losing some primary assets - and the quality of life that residents enjoy.
The report, by the Salt Lake City-based Oquirrh Institute, notes that Utah:
l Is the fifth-fastest-growing state in the nation.
l Loses an average of 15,000 acres of agricultural land and open space yearly to development.
l Is ranked fifth in the nation for the highest number of species at risk of extinction.
l Has already lost 58 percent of the Great Salt Lake's historic wetland.
l Could lose 45 percent of its riparian areas by 2030.
"Growth is still an issue. It hasn't gone away," said Brad Barber, the institute's environmental management chief.
Last year, he noted, "was the largest absolute growth the state has ever experienced. If the trends continue, we'll develop another 308 square miles along the Wasatch Front by 2030. That's the size of New York City."
The Nature Conservancy's initiative in Utah is part of a larger national effort that has identified 240 "eco-regions" from coast to coast. The eight areas targeted in Utah are in parts of the state being pressured by growth, such as the Great Salt Lake watersheds and the Mojave Desert in Washington County. But remote areas, such as the Grouse Creek Mountains in northwest Utah, have also been identified.
Emblematic of the conservancy's initiative is the Selman Ranch in Cache County. There, the organization has raised $1.5 million for what is a nearly $4 million conservation easement. Once money is raised and the transaction completed, the 6,700-acre property will remain a working cattle and sheep ranch, with the Selman family still operating it and able to pass it down to its descendants.
"We want to stay in the ranching business," said rancher Bret Selman. "I want to see my grandkids ranching sheep. It's ingrained in us to protect this land. This will allow us to do that."
Public initiatives to protect open space have not fared well in Utah, with a ballot referendum to set aside $150 million for critical lands protection failing in 2004. That was due at least in part to skepticism on the part of ranchers and farmers.
But Leonard Blackham, commissioner of the Utah Department of Agriculture and Foods, said that opposition is beginning to subside as farmers and ranchers see the short- and long-term benefits conservation easements can offer.
"They still have mixed feelings about it, but they're starting to come around to the idea that the no-hands approach we've been using doesn't work. If they can maintain their viability and be profitable, this can be a good tool."