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Sandy Webster is a third-generation rancher from Kanarraville who, until this month, had a lot of anxiety about the growth and development occurring between Cedar City and St. George near the Kolob Section of Zion National Park.

Not any more.

Webster and four other ranchers, including the brother of former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, have signed options with the Utah Nature Conservancy for the environmental organization to purchase conservation easements on their ranch lands. Under terms of the deal, the cattlemen will continue running livestock operations on their property, but the land will be preserved as open space in perpetuity.

"I'm a livestock guy," says Webster. "We just wanted to keep the pristine nature of the place and not see it subdivided into a million houses. I love the property the way it is. It's the way it's meant to be."

The transaction, which encompasses 2,500 acres, is the initial installment of what Utah Nature Conservancy Director Dave Livermore hopes will be a collection of easement agreements with 17 ranchers who collectively own 11,000 acres in the area - most of it on the Kolob Plateau - effectively serving as a barrier to development next to the park.

And it marks yet another example of how conservation groups and ranchers and farmers are teaming up throughout the West in a way that serves each other's interests - and keeps the wide open spaces open.

"This is a great example of conservation from the ground up and people coming together to preserve wildlife and a way of life at the same time," says Livermore. "This is really all about the grass-roots vision of these land owners. We're simply working with them to help them achieve that vision.

"This is just a beginning. We've still got a lot of dollars to raise," he adds, estimating a total price tag of between $12 million and $15 million. "But we're excited about this first step."

Perched roughly halfway between southern Utah's two largest cities, Kanarraville and its surrounding area has become a magnet for those who don't like the 20-minute commute in either direction. Ranchettes are already beginning to dot the landscape in the Interstate 15 corridor. Developers are now eyeing the land up above.

"It's become a feeding frenzy," says Webster.

Initially approached about the easement concept by fellow rancher Dane Leavitt, Webster says he immediately liked the idea and worked with Leavitt to get their neighbors on board. The deal has been in the works for the past six years.

For Webster and the others, one of the most important aspects of the agreement is that it provides a way for them to keep their ranches in the family and pass them down to the next generation.

"This is a good tool," says Webster. "We can preserve the ground and do with it what we always wanted to do. None of us wanted to see it split up. We want the next generation to have a chance with it. We thought this would be a good way to keep it all together."

Livermore points to Kolob Plateau's varied wildlife habitat, and its importance as a watershed - it's home to the Virgin River's headwaters - as the reason for his side's interest in the deal.

"We're not against development per se, but certain areas should be protected," Livermore says. "This is another way to do it - in a partnership with some of the greatest land stewards in the West."