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Emigration Canyon • In a high-mountain meadow of yellow bouquets and soft-toned bluebells, Tom Johnson finds no difficulty stressing the significance of one of Salt Lake County's latest open-space purchases.

The canyon resident reaches out his hand and gestures toward the gentle slopes within the Killyon Canyon preserve, where red-rock outcroppings, a gurgling stream and white-trunked birch woods define a 268-acre expanse at the top of Emigration Canyon.

"This could have been a trophy home for a very wealthy person," said Johnson, who sold his more rugged portion of Killyon Canyon to the county for conservation. "It could have been a subdivision."

Because of a years-long conservation effort by Utah Open Lands, however, homes won't appear on those hillsides. Instead "this is going to be the backyard for generations to come," declared Wendy Fisher, the advocacy group's executive director.

Utah Open Lands staged a dedication ceremony Wednesday in a clearing about a 10-minute hike from the Killyon Canyon trailhead. The group unveiled a marker, designating the property as public space.

"This is a great day," Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker told a small gathering of open-space advocates. "There are very few places as special as the top of Emigration Canyon."

The land purchase represents a sometimes-complex financial partnership between private donors and government. Salt Lake County gave $900,000. Salt Lake City Public Utilities added $300,000. The state's LeRay McAllister Critical Lands Conservation Fund contributed $100,000. An anonymous donor threw in a final $500,000. And the two property owners kicked in a combined $500,000 in land value.

County Mayor Peter Corroon praised the purchase as protecting a potentially threatened parcel, at the top of a populated canyon, for "eternity."

"This was the doorstep for immigrants coming into the valley," Corroon said, "but it could have been the doorstep for development as well. It is a treasure, but it could have been a lost treasure."

The Killyon Canyon trail bustled Wednesday with nature lovers. Andy and Darlene McNeil, who live within walking distance, spent the morning climbing the canyon with their Chesapeake Bay retriever, Pearl. At times, the chocolate-colored pooch would dip into the stream. Other times, she would chase through the thick foliage out of sight.

McNeil said the threat of private development was real. The property had been platted for a subdivision. An appraisal suggested it could accommodate 29 homes.

"The potential for development never really has gone away," he said. "To preserve it is a great thing."

Standing in front of the freshly mounted Killyon Canyon marker, Corroon urged the continued protection of similar properties. Killyon was made possible partly by a 2006 voter-approved parks and open space bond.

"This is protected now," he said. "But we need to do our best to preserve these kinds of open spaces for future generations."

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Planning your trip to Killyon Canyon

The Salt Lake Tribune's Hiking Utah blog offers advice to plan your hiking trip to Killyon Canyon. ›