With the help of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and private donations, The Nature Conservancy has bought 2 miles of property along the Virgin River near Zion National Park for $4.3 million.
Management plans for the land, known as Sheep Bridge, have yet to be determined, and the property, including the popular JEM Bike Trail, will remain open to the public, according to Elaine York, west desert regional director for The Nature Conservancy.
Sheep Bridge is not expected to become a part of Zion, Utah’s most visited national park, but the purchase will safeguard this scenic stretch from development in the state’s fast-growing southwestern corner.
It also will protect four of the Virgin River’s six at-risk native fish species and other wildlife such as the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher and migratory birds.
York said the river also is important for the Washington County Water Conservancy District.
“Whenever you have a desert stream,” York said in an interview, “it's important to a huge percent of the wildlife because water is such a scarce resource.”
The nonprofit organization applied for funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service through its partnership with the state. Utah received $3 million from a federal program and gave that money to The Nature Conservancy in May 2020. This and a variety of donations helped make the purchase possible.
“We had broad support, so that wasn't a problem,” York said. “It was just fundraising $4.3 million. That's a huge amount of money. So by far the biggest challenge was just getting up to that huge number.”
The Nature Conservancy pointed to support from the Virgin River Land Preservation Association; the Utah Department of Natural Resources; Gov. Gary Herbert; Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah; and Zion Forever. Philanthropic groups also contributed, including the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation along with the Dr. Ezekiel R. Dumke and Edna Wattis Dumke Foundation.
The property will be owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy in cooperation with the Utah Department of Natural Resources, a news release noted. The Division of Wildlife Resources will help oversee the flora, fauna and native fishes.
The Virgin River formed Zion, with its redrock riches, stunning sandstone peaks and beckoning slot canyons, and the purchase will help preserve the park’s surroundings.
“As millions of visitors approach Zion National Park, they drive along the Virgin River. Its beautiful cottonwoods form a ‘ribbon of green’ in the redrock,” Lori Rose, executive director of the Virgin River Land Preservation Association, said in the release. “Sheep Bridge is a vital link in this corridor. Our organization has been thrilled to be a part of this effort, which will protect this property for all time.”