Is Best Friends losing friends? Kane County officials push back against Utah animal sanctuary.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Best Friends Animal Sanctuary is located in Angel Canyon, atop the Vermillion Cliffs, outside of Kanab.

By any measure, Best Friends Animal Society is a “a Utah success story, self-made and homegrown,” in the words of its CEO Julie Castle. Thirty-six years after establishing its famed pet sanctuary outside Kanab, the nonprofit organization has mushroomed from “almost nothing” into a global brand with millions of members.

As many as 37,000 guests a year visit the sanctuary on a former ranch in Angel Canyon, where the society employs 425 people full time and supports several Kanab businesses.

But that growth has come at a cost in terms of soured relations with many in Kane County who view the society’s animal-welfare mission and promotion of tourism with swelling suspicion.

Best Friends’ recent acquisition of 1,637 acres of state trust lands has brought tensions to a boiling point with the county exploring legal options. This land was the site of a proposed sand mine that divided the community, with Best Friends siding with the project’s opponents, while elected leaders backed the mine.

“It is the big company coming in and buying all the land like an environmentalist land baron,” fumed Kanab Councilwoman Celeste Meyeres. “I feel like a sharecropper in my own town.”

Meyeres and other elected officials in Kane County signed a letter sent to Best Friends, complaining the sale would take the land out of “beneficial” use and block access to areas used for hunting and outdoor recreation. The April 24 letter warned of “greater public alarm and distrust, which is already significant.”

The officials alleged Best Friends may be improperly using a county-backed “conduit bond” to fund the purchase and demanded the organization either cancel the sale or make the land’s minerals available for extraction.

Best Friends will not likely agree to either demand because it bought the land from the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration to protect the animal sanctuary’s groundwater sources from any future mining. Nor did Best Friends tap proceeds of its conduit bond, approved by the county to support capital improvement in the sanctuary, to finance the purchase, states a letter Castle wrote in response.

But the organization did invite county leaders in recent days to help craft a plan for managing the newly acquired land. Best Friends intends to accommodate community use of the land, Castle said, as long as it doesn’t harm the sanctuary.

“We aren’t going anywhere and they aren’t going anywhere, so we may as well work together,” Castle said Friday. “We are looking for an opportunity to demonstrate that we didn’t purchase this land to shut people out. ... My interest is not just for the management plan itself, but it will force us to sit down and talk and understand each others’ points of view. This could represent the start of a great working relationship with the locals.”

‘Respect for our values’

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Best Friends saves thousands of animals every year as the nation's largest no-kill sanctuary, near Kanab.

The dispute may focus on a land deal, but it reflects a larger unease with Best Friends’ growing influence in the southern Utah county, where it has become a major economic driver, tourist destination and the biggest employer.

While the society has done much to elevate economic activity in Kane County and boost its national redrock profile as “the greatest earth on show,” its West Coast connections and hiring practices are viewed, fairly or not, as a threat to Kane County’s agricultural traditions dating back to Mormon pioneer times. Critics such as Meyeres are concerned that “a vast majority” of the sanctuary’s employees are hired from out of state.

“They don’t have an appreciation for the locals and respect for our values and traditions. We are the most reliably conservative county in the state if not the nation,” Meyeres said. “The people who work there embrace Best Friends’ agenda, which is environmentalism and animal advocacy.”

In her interview, Meyeres made clear she was speaking for herself, not for the Kanab City Council, but some of her views were mirrored in an April 21 Kane County Commission meeting in which officials aired their opposition to Best Friends’ bid to expand its property holdings.

(Photo courtesy of Celeste Meyeres) Kanab City Councilwoman Celeste Meyeres opposes a major land acquisition by Best Friends Animal Society outside her southern Utah town in Kane County.

"I am excited when people come to live in Kanab. I'll give them every benefit of the doubt," Meyeres said. "It's when they clamp down on the values and liberty of others that I bristle."

Meyeres herself moved to Kanab to work at the sanctuary in the mid-2000s, according to Best Friends executives, who deny the organization pushes any agenda outside of advancing its core mission of caring for homeless pets and building goodwill with the community.

“We really want to get beyond this,” co-founder Francis Battista said. “We have no animus toward the local folks. We want to work with them and achieve mutual goals.”

Where Best Friends draws a line in the sand, literally, is mining the dunes next to its sanctuary.

An offer too rich to refuse

(Photo courtesy of Best Friends Animal Society) Best Friends Animal Society co-founder Francis Battista.

The origins of the land feud are rooted in a proposal to mine sand on state trust land near Best Friends’ 3,700-acre animal sanctuary. Last year, a company called Southern Red Sands leased two state parcels nestled in a sea of federally owned dunes northwest of Kanab. The goal was to set up a quarry and processing plant for sand to be used in fracking operations in Utah’s oil fields.

Best Friends commissioned hydrological studies that concluded mining operations would have degraded the aquifer that supplies water for the sanctuary, which houses 1,600 dogs, cats and other animals on any given day and sees hundreds of volunteers a month.

Opposing the mine was not a gesture of environmental activism, Battista said, but an act of self-preservation.

“Our point," he said, “was to protect against the kind of extractive things that would be a detriment and put the sanctuary at risk.”

Southern Red Sands ultimately abandoned the project because it was not economically viable, and Best Friends bought out its mining claims on 12,000 acres of public land surrounding Red Knoll, one of the two state-owned sections leased for the mine. But because SITLA’s mission is to maximize returns off its landholdings to support schools, the threat of a future mine would always hang over the sanctuary unless Best Friends acquired the land, Battista said.

A sale price of $6.3 million was reached, exceeding what any appraisal would have brought, according to SITLA officials. They publicized the sale and invited competing offers. None came. The deal with Best Friends closed April 30.

It is apparent from the Kane County officials’ letter that they resent Best Friends’ opposition to a sand project that would have supported high-paying nontourism jobs. Other than a coal mine at Alton, Kane County has no large-scale extractive industry.

‘None of this makes any sense’

Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo Best Friends saves thousands of animals every year as the nation's largest no-kill sanctuary, near Kanab.

Officials in Kane County saw the land acquisition as an insult added to injury and assumed the worst outcomes possible. Hunting and historic recreational access to the parcels would be cut off, ranchers would be evicted, and Kanab would lose access to water wells on one of the parcels. These were the chief concerns officials, including Sheriff Tracy Glover, raised at the April 21 commission meeting.

Best Friends could use its ownership of Kanab’s wells to thwart the city’s growth by cutting off access to its main source of culinary water, suggested Commissioner Brent Chamberlain.

There is no basis for any of these fears, especially those about Kanab’s wells, Battista emphasized. The city holds an easement to access the wells until 2032, and Best Friends operates a hotel, visitor center and pet-adoption facility in the town where many of its employees reside.

“Why would we put our own staff at a disadvantage? None of this makes any sense,” he said. “Our policy over the years has been to mind our own business, and stay out of everybody’s way. We are not saying we are blameless in the breakdown in communication, but I cannot explain this level of paranoia and distrust.”

In a recent interview, Chamberlain struck a conciliatory tone, hoping county leaders’ talks with Best Friends will achieve agreements that resolve some county concerns over the sale.

“I don’t believe there is adversity between the community and Best Friends. Overall the relationship is very good,” Chamberlain said. “They are a great employer, and we support them. There is no objection with their principles. They are a good neighbor.”

Still, the county sees the land sale as a threat because it could further its reliance on tourism, which now accounts for 83% of the area economy, at the expense of traditional industries.

“We didn’t have the same opposition to the mine because mines don’t last forever. It will be a small area that is mined and when it is reclaimed, the historic uses can return,” Chamberlain said. The sale, on the other hand, "takes what is now public land and what is accessible to the public for hiking, hunting and ATV-ing and puts it into a position that could prohibit those historic uses. Here’s another big chunk of land that won’t generate anything for the county.”

Now that the land is private, however, the county can tax it.

Disappearing trust lands

Rural Utah counties generally like having significant state trust holdings within their borders because these lands are more readily developed for their natural resources than the federal lands that are predominant in Utah. Much of Kane’s state trust sections, however, were captured within the 1996 designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and were traded for federal land in other parts of Utah.

So, Kane County holds less than 110,000 acres of trust lands, covering 4% of the county, while 85% is federal and 10.4% is private.

“We have very little SITLA lands left," Chamberlain said, “and when they are sold into something with no possibility of generating revenue for the community, we lose the potential for any development down the road.”

Hunting, ranching traditions at risk?

Because of its elevated position in a large swath of mule deer habitat, Red Knoll has long been a favorite destination for hunters, not well-heeled trophy baggers, but locals looking to put meat in the freezer, Meyeres said. Because of Best Friends’ animal mission, many assume the organization would close the square-mile Red Knoll section to hunting.

That would be a “devastating” loss, officials say.

“It’s an accessibility issue. This is a good place for children to begin learning the craft of hunting,” Meyeres said. “Red Knoll is the best vantage point. I can get up there and see where the deer are.”

Best Friends has said it intends to keep Red Knoll open to the public but has not announced a stance on hunting. A county road crosses the parcel and, by law, it will remain open to all, Battista said. Off-roaders always will be able to drive it, he said, and people will always be able to use it to spot big game on surrounding public land. But hunting on Best Friends’ newly acquired acreage remains a question.

In addition to the more than 5,300 acres it now owns, Best Friends holds grazing permits on 17,000 acres of public land that came with the Angel Canyon property, most of which are sublet to ranchers. The group intends to allow grazing to continue on the former SITLA parcels, Julie Castle, Best Friends’ CEO, wrote in her letter to the county to allay fears that the land deal will disrupt livestock grazing

"The grazing rights of our neighbors should be protected," Castle wrote. "Grazing has never been an issue for us, and we don’t expect that it will be now."

A major economic driver

(Photo courtesy of Best Friends Animal Society) Best Friends Animal Society CEO Julie Castle.

In the face of community pushback over the sand mine fight, Best Friends commissioned a study that concluded its sanctuary generates $43 million in economic activity and directly supports 675 jobs, an impact exceeding that of the coal mine up the road in Alton. The sanctuary supports $8.6 million in annual tax revenues and a payroll worth $22.5 million, according to the study completed in December by John Dunham & Associates based in New York City.

More than 8% of Kane County’s 450,000 overnight visitors in 2018 went to the sanctuary, which welcomes the public to volunteer and participate in various programs, including birthday parties. Pay at the sanctuary starts at around $30,000 and comes with health benefits and a 401(k), which exceeds the industry standard, according to Battista.

Meyeres contends the sanctuary’s economic effects are overblown, arguing many of its visitors would have been coming to Kane County to enjoy its other destinations and that many of the employees go to St. George to shop.

“These are not homebuying, family-supporting wages,” she said, adding that Best Friends staffers are driving up rents, making Kanab a more expensive place to live.

“They are in a bracket where they need a lot of assistance for housing and other services as well,” the Kanab council member said. “There is a housing crunch because of the hundreds of people they bring in looking to rent.”

While Best Friends has proposed an employee housing project that would relieve pressure, Battista blames Kanab’s large number of vacation rentals for high rents. He rejected Meyeres’ assertion that his organization has “a long history” of trying to block industrial projects, such as a failed proposal for a coal-gasification plant.

Battista said environmental activism is not the mission of Best Friends, whose members hail from across the political spectrum, drawn together by a common love of animals.

As the COVID-19 pandemic’s grip shut down Kane County’s economy last month, Best Friends awarded $225,000 grants to area businesses to help them stay afloat.

Meyeres even took issue with that gesture, characterizing the grants as an “insulting” pittance compared with the $6.3 million Best Friends just spent on the land — a sum that exceeds Kanab’s annual budget.

“We could have taken all our money in a good year," she said, “and still not be able to compete with that.”

Preoccupied with the coronavirus crisis, Kane County and Kanab officials were unaware that SITLA was selling the land until it was too late to put in a competing offer or object.

“We were in the middle of a local, state and national emergency," Meyeres said. "We missed it, and now we are paying a big price.”