BLM Acquires Henry Mountains Interests, But At What Price?

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A massive land swap is in the works that would take almost all private holdings in the remote Henry Mountains in exchange for valuable public land near Torrey and Toquerville, two of southern Utah’s most scenic pioneer towns.

South Dakota ranchers are proposing to trade 2,680 acres scattered across the mountain range for state land contiguous to the ranch they own and bordering Capitol Reef National Park and 2,033 acres west of Toquerville.

A Colorado rancher is proposing to trade 2,680 acres scattered across the Henry Mountains of southern Utah for state land adjacent to the Torrey ranch he owns and up to 2,033 acres near Toquerville.

While the deal is touted as a way to protect the Henrys’ free-roaming herd of bison, some environmental groups fear it would open up even more sensitive desert landscapes for development in the fast-expanding St. George region.

“They want to buy land in Washington County because development is exploding here and they want to diversify their portfolio and saw this opportunity to buy parcels elsewhere to organize this exchange for constructible land,” said Isabel Adler, Conserve’s public land program director Southwest Utah.

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) opposes the trade because the land Sandy Ranch is seeking in Garfield County is in an area the county has proposed for designation as wilderness, while portions of Washington County are ceded to the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, which has been established as a protected habitat for the endangered Mojave desert tortoise.

These groups claim that the swap offers no net benefit for conservation and would lead to increasing encroachment on public lands.

The landowner proposing the deal is Bryce Lindskov, co-owner of Lindskov Ranch, founded by his grandfather in southwest South Dakota. About a decade ago, the Linkskov family acquired the 7,000-acre Sandy Ranch, located on Notom Road south of Torrey on the eastern edge of Capitol Reef.

Sandy Ranch has nearly 250,000 acres of state pasture on both sides of the national park. Those allotments include the Henrys’ western slope, 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 around the Sandy Ranch headquarters, according to Andy Wiessner, the deal’s chief architect.

“The main push for this is protecting the bison herd in the Henry Mountains,” said Wiessner, who works for Western Land Group, a Colorado-based real estate firm that specializes in complex land deals.

While the ranch holds grazing lands on the western slope of Henry’s lands, owning land there is of little use for cattle ranching. According to Wiessner, the Sandy Ranch has hardly kept any cattle there in recent years because of the drought, and the bison consume forage that is grown there on the ranch’s private land.

One of the country’s last mountain ranges outside of Alaska to be mapped, the Henrys is an 11,000-foot chain that rises between Capitol Reef and the Dirty Devil River. Wild bison have lived there since the early 1940s when the herd was formed from 18 animals translocated from Yellowstone National Park. The Henry Mountain bison, now in the 400s in number, have since been tapped to establish feral herds elsewhere in Utah.

The proposed swap has garnered support from wildlife scientists and advocates, who see it as a way to permanently protect one of the most important wildlife habitats and herds of wild big game in the West.

These bison have never interbred with cattle, so not only are they genetically pure, but they’re also free of the bovine disease known as brucellosis, according to wildlife biologist Dustin Ranglack, a University of Nebraska professor who researched this as a Utah State University graduate student .

“Perhaps most importantly, the herd truly roams freely in a range that stretches along the western slope of the Henry Mountains from the Fremont River in the north to Glen Canyon [National Recreation Area] to the south – about 50 miles as the crow flies…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 future subdivision and development of Sandy Ranch’s private property (including the crucial 1,000+ acre King Ranch).”

The City of Toquerville, Washington County, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, and various wildlife organizations such as the Mule Deer Foundation, the Utah Wildlife Federation, and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (BHA) also support the swap.

“If this land remained privately owned, it could be developed for private retreats, homes or other recreational projects, which would not be good for wildlife,” wrote Perry Hall, chair of the BHA Utah chapter, in a letter of support. “While development in such a remote area seems unlikely in the short term, we note that since the emergence of COVID there has been an onslaught of people looking to buy and develop remote land to ‘get away from it all’.”

The land the ranch would acquire would be used for irrigated grazing land.

“Over the past few years, Sandy Ranch has bought $500,000 worth of hay because it was so dry. They want to transfer their water rights from the West Slope [of the Henrys] over to ranch headquarters,” Wiessner said. “They want to grow more forage there so they don’t have to buy hay.”

Sandy Ranch intends to seek approval of the deal through congressional action rather than administrative procedures with the BLM. It would likely require extensive valuations to ensure trading reflects fair market values.

An email to Rep. Chris Stewart’s office, whose Utah district includes Garfield and Washington counties, was not answered.

Since Henry Mountains’ exchange lots are worth more than the acreage that the Garfield County ranch would receive, Wiessner is asking the BLM to include additional states in the deal. The land the Lindskovs want is in Washington County, just west of Toquerville, miles from their ranch.

“We were looking 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 Kieth Rigtrup, the BLM’s St. George field manager, who passed away suddenly a few months ago.

There aren’t many other places where we can find disposal-grade BLM plots that don’t have high wildlife value,” Wiessner said.

Because Washington County land is so valuable, Sandy Ranch would likely have to pay the BLM millions of dollars to make up the difference in value. Those proceeds would go into a pool of funds that the BLM would tap into to purchase interests within the Red Cliffs Reservation, Wiessner said.

The public land selected for the exchange lies west of the future Toquerville Parkway, a 4.5-mile four-lane highway currently under construction. The $18 million project aims 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 for the proposed Toquer Reservoir and associated pipelines and lakeside park to the district. The Water District recently secured right of way to this land from the BLM, but would rather own the land outright.

While the remaining lands would not be useful for ranching, they would lend themselves to prime commercial and residential property development if privately owned, raising red flags for environmentalists. They do not deny the protective value of freeing the Henrys from private property, but question the need to sacrifice open land, which is becoming increasingly scarce and precious as Washington County continues to expand.

“We are not pleased that the BLM is giving up land it manages in favor of wilderness and natural areas,” said Neal Clark, a field attorney for SUWA. “It’s like buying outright BLM land that isn’t for sale, which will bring them millions of dollars. You can find BLM land elsewhere, instead you’ve settled into the fastest growing spot in the state. The more I look at this, the more suspicious I become. Why does this ranch need land in Washington County? Because they want to sell to developers.”

The exchange parcels almost border a portion of the Red Cliffs reserve known as Zone 4, which Adler says has been used successfully for translocating turtles from other habitats lost to development.

Development here would increase pressure to cut new roads and utility lines through these sensitive areas. The existing Babylon Road through Zone 4 is already being considered as a high-speed thoroughfare.

“This continued encroachment on public lands will give the county another reason to continue upgrading roads and encroaching on international protected areas and destroying habitat for endangered species,” Adler said. BLM Acquires Henry Mountains Interests, But At What Price?

Joel McCord

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