Announced last January following the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) Board of Trustees’ approval, this deal involves SITLA, The Nature Conservancy, two federal agencies, several county commissions, and the Cedar City, Parowan, and Wayne County airports. This complex, public-private, project will benefit multiple parties, including assistance moving the federally endangered Utah prairie dog closer to delisting.
Impetus for the transaction began when Cedar City, Parowan, and Wayne County airports experienced maintenance issues and public safety concerns due to the presence of the Utah prairie dog, a federally protected species under the Endangered Species Act.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reached an agreement to allow ongoing development of these airport properties for the next 20 years. To offset the impacts to prairie dogs on these properties, the FAA agreed to provide $800,000 to acquire replacement habitat elsewhere.
SITLA stepped in at the request of the affected parties and offered to sell 800 acres of prairie dog habitat located on Johnson’s Bench in Garfield County approximately five miles northwest of Bryce Canyon National Park. This trust land parcel was sold to The Nature Conservancy using the FAA funds allocated for this purpose.
According to SITLA Director Kevin Carter, the subject property is heavily impacted by a federally protected species, which will severely limit SITLA’s ability to generate meaningful revenue other than through this sale.
“We’re pleased this sale benefits local cities and counties by completing mitigation requirements for their airports, as well as lending to potential delisting of this federally protected species,” stated Carter. He added the sale also benefits Utah school students as the $800,000 SITLA received for the sale was deposited into the State Permanent School Fund, adding to the $1.65 billion endowment. Interest from this fund is distributed annually to all public schools in Utah.
In addition to the funds, the USFWS is providing SITLA with 1,000 Utah prairie dog mitigation credits as the 800-acre parcel is far larger than what was needed for the mitigation agreement. The mitigation credits can be used on SITLA land or may be sold to land owners, developers, utilities, or others who want to build on or otherwise use prairie dog habitat.
“This project is about finding solutions that work for both people and nature,” said Elaine York, the Conservancy’s West Desert Regional Director. “The Conservancy is pleased to work with partners on this purchase, and take an important step toward recovery for the prairie dog, a native species whose survival affects all of us.”
The Nature Conservancy, with a 29-year track record of collaborative conservation projects in communities throughout Utah, will work to improve the property’s prairie dog habitat, and will pay property taxes to Garfield County for this parcel.
Another benefit of this sale is the potential to assist with recovering and delisting this species. Because The Nature Conservancy now owns the property, the resident prairie dogs and their habitat are added to recovery goals.
“The completion of this sale and transfer of the property to The Nature Conservancy is an example of the importance of collaborative conservation. The Johnson Bench land sale was successful due to the collaborative efforts of multiple partners, and the resulting transaction protects habitat that is very important for the Utah prairie dog,” said Laura Romin, Deputy Field Supervisor for the USFWS Utah Field Office.
“The protected habitat will help us achieve recovery goals for the species by directly protecting an existing prairie dog colony and providing important habitat connectivity with populations on adjacent federal lands. Continuing to work together on Utah prairie dog conservation is the most effective and efficient means to recovery of the species.”
The listing of the Utah prairie dog has had far reaching impacts for private landowners and public land managers. The areas where prairie dogs are federally protected include hundreds of thousands of acres in Garfield, Iron, Beaver, Sevier, Piute, Kane, Wayne, and a small portion of Washington counties.