Why a conservancy nonprofit purchased a 320-acre plot of land in Bears Ears

The 320-acre Cottonwood Wash property in Bears Ears National Monument. The Wildlands Conservancy purchased the property on July 14, setting up a new conservation easement.

The 320-acre Cottonwood Wash property in Bears Ears National Monument. The Wildlands Conservancy purchased the property on July 14, setting up a new conservation easement. (Frazier Haney)

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BLUFF, San Juan County — Frazier Haney says he felt an "incredible importance" the first time that he visited the 320-acre Cottonwood Wash property in southeast Utah.

Haney, executive director of the Wildlands Conservancy, traveled from California to visit the land's private owners who were getting ready to put the land out on the market at the start of 2022. The property's "stunning" cliffs and cottonwood trees that align a stream that runs through the canyon left him in awe.

It was also the beginning of a 16-month process to protect the very land on which he was standing. That journey came to an end this month as the California-based conservation nonprofit closed on a $2.15 million agreement to purchase the land, setting up a new conservation easement that will open the land up to visitors and Native American ceremonies.

"We're just thrilled," Haney told KSL.com on Tuesday. "It seems like a property that really needs us because ... there's no real way — certainly not an easy way — for it to become a part of the national monument. So for us to step in as a private entity and raise private funds to buy the property and conserve it, it seemed like the perfect solution."

The Wildlands Conservancy eyed the property because it's a large piece of land tied to Bears Ears National Monument; however, since it's private land it wasn't included in the 2016 designation of the monument. The organization views it as an "important parcel of private land."

That's why they jumped at the chance when it went on the market. The organization collected donations from more than 250 individuals and foundations to help cover the cost, which also includes a fee the private owners imposed to keep the land off the market to allow it more time to secure the money to buy the land, Haney said.

The nonprofit closed on the deal on July 14, though it was formally announced Monday. Work is now underway to create a cultural conservation easement for "well-managed public access" and ecological restoration.

The easement will also allow "right of access for ceremony and plant gathering" while ending any potential development. To that end, the Navajo, Hopi, Ute Mountain, Ute Indian and Zuni Pueblo tribes — known as the five tribes of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition — will co-manage the property in the future.

Anthony Sanchez, Jr., head councilman and Bears Ears commissioner for the Zuni Pueblo Tribe, welcomed the purchase, explaining that region helps connect members of the five tribes to their ancestors who have called the region home for thousands of years.

"The Cottonwood Wash property is an important part of the greater Bears Ears landscape," he said in a statement Monday. "Not only does it hold beautiful scenery, but also instills in time the cultural significance of learning and connection we have as Pueblos. Protecting these connections ensures that our children can have the whole experience, echoing our continuous existence since time immemorial, thereby allowing the protection of our cultural and spiritual values."

Meanwhile, Haney views the Wildlands Conservancy's purchase as a "new standard" for private land conservation in Utah. The nonprofit acquired 23 properties across the West for conservation easements over the past 28 years prior to its first Utah location.

He said he hopes the nonprofit is able to acquire other private scenic natural spaces in Utah that can be conserved or lead others to consider conservation easements in the future.

"We want to do both," he said. "We want to find other properties that would be a good fit for us and for what we think is a good model, and we'd also like to inspire others to do the same."

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Bears Ears National MonumentUtahEnvironmentOutdoorsEastern Utah
Carter Williams is a reporter who covers general news, local government, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com.


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