Can complicated land trade fix Red Butte Garden’s fence snafu?

Saving a historic stone structure from vandalism created an ownership nightmare.

(Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune) The historic Quarry House is located inside Red Butte Garden’s fence in the Wasatch foothills above the University of Utah, Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021. For nearly 30 years, the fence has enclosed 40 acres of national forest land, resulting in a bureaucratic mess that state officials hope to resolve through a complicated land exchange.

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Back in the 1980s, a historic stone structure in the foothills behind Red Butte Garden became a popular party spot, where people gathered to enjoy sunsets, beer and each others’ company.

But the trash and vandalism that went with the fun posed a significant challenge for the U.S. Forest Service, which oversees the land rising above Salt Lake City, so a deal was struck that seemed to offer a lasting solution. Under this arrangement, the University of Utah expanded the botanical garden’s fence line to capture 40 acres of national forest that included what is now called Quarry House or the Stone House to ensure its preservation. The classic two-hearth sandstone dwelling was built by Utah pioneers in the 1800s.

Though roofless, the structure still stands, but there is a new problem of an entirely bureaucratic nature, according to Bekee Hotze, the Salt Lake District ranger for the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. Fencing off Forest Service land isn’t exactly legal.

Hotze has been exploring ways to square the situation with the law. Finding a solution has not been easy.

“When we started the discussion on land exchanges, the University had just sold a parcel within Red Butte Canyon to a private family, which the Forest Service has just recently purchased,” she wrote in an email “That parcel would have been ideal to do a land exchange with the University for the parcel they have fenced within Red Butte Garden.”

The fenced-in national forest is an undeveloped, though vital part of the U.’s signature nature amenity. It now features an extensive trail network through undulating oak-covered terrain with great views of the Salt Lake Valley.

This mess came to Hotze’s attention when Red Butte began planning for its Six Bridges Trail, now nearing completion along Red Butte Creek, which will eventually tie into trails on Forest Service land. Unless a solution can be found, the U. might have to rebuild the fence to exclude the federally owned land in the Wasatch foothills, putting the Stone House back under the Forest Service’s management.

Now, state trust lands officials are riding to the rescue, proposing an idea that could put the matter to rest and ensure the Stone House remains inside the U.’s umbrella of protection.

The Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, or SITLA, has set itself up as a potential middleman.

(Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune) This part of Red Butte Garden features national forest lands that may have been illegally incorporated into the University of Utah's signature nature amenity.

Here’s how the deal would work, according to Michelle McConkie, SITLA’s assistant director for surface. The agency would trade some its land holdings to the Forest Service for the 40 acres of national forest, and then lease those acres to the U., which happens to be one of its institutional beneficiaries.

“This proposed exchange is a win-win for all sides. It helps the university, it helps the Forest Service and it allows SITLA to help one of its beneficiaries. If we can help in this situation we are happy to be involved to do so,” McConkie said. “We wouldn’t be doing this if the U. wasn’t one of our beneficiaries.”

SITLA manages 3 million acres of state-owned land for the benefit of public education and several state entities. The agency is legally obligated to manage these lands to make as much money as possible for Utah’s school trust fund.

It holds numerous parcels abutting Utah national forests that are of little use to the school trust, but are perhaps better suited for inclusion in a national forest where it can be managed for wildlife habitat, watershed or recreation.

McConkie said the exchange process has only just begun and SITLA has yet to identify a parcel it would like to trade to the Forest Service, nor has it appraised the Red Butte parcel. The trade would have to be value for value to be legal. Thanks to its proximity to Utah’s biggest city and university, the Red Butte land would likely be far more valuable, acre for acre, than any parcel that SITLA could offer in exchange.

The U. was not able to make anyone available for comment for this article.

Red Butte Garden occupies more than 100 acres on the south side of the mouth of Red Butte Canyon. In the years since the fence went up, it has become a major cultural attraction in the Wasatch foothills, with a popular outdoor concert venue, botanical research and educational programming, in addition to its 21 acres of display gardens. Visited by 200,000 a year, it charges $14 admission for adults.

The U. established the botanical garden here in the 1980s following the designation of the U. campus as the State Arboretum, by setting aside the land that became Red Butte Garden & Arboretum.

The arrangement that led to today’s impasse appears to have been swaddled in good intentions. Vandalism at the Stone House was a serious problem and Red Butte officials provided what appeared at the time an ideal solution.

In the early 1990s, then-District Ranger Michael Sieg worked out a memorandum of understanding with Red Butte Director Mary Pat Matheson, according to Hotze. The garden’s fence was subsequently expanded to include the Stone House and national forest land that were to be used as an outdoor classroom for Red Butte’s environmental education programs.

“Unfortunately, District Rangers do not have the authority to allow an entity to fence National Forest System lands, charge a fee to enter the land, and to manage the land,” Hotze said in her email. “Since then, we have been researching a number of potential solutions to the problem.”

Hotze investigated whether the federal Small Tracts Act could be used to make the necessary property line adjustments, but the 40 acres do not qualify under that law. The U. has cited that law to adjust property lines where parking lot construction encroached on national forest land.

The district ranger also looked into issuing a special use permit, allowing the U. to use the land for a fee, but the garden’s uses were not a good fit with Forest Service policies.

Realigning Red Butte’s fence is an outcome no one wants to see. But that may be the one selected by default if the agencies can’t navigate the bureaucratic maze the federal government has established for land trades.