Southern Utah land swap would give bison more room to roam, but at what cost?

Proposal calls for BLM to acquire Henry Mountains inholdings while giving up other land that’s ripe for development

(Courtesy photo by Ray Bloxham, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance) Utah’s remote Henry Mountains in Garfield County are home to free-roaming herd of bison. A land trade is in the works where nearby ranchers would exchange their private inholdings on the range’s west slope with public land that could then be developed in fast-growing Washington County.

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A massive land swap is in the works that would capture nearly all the private inholdings in the remote Henry Mountains in exchange for valuable public lands near Torrey and Toquerville, two of southern Utah’s most scenic pioneer-era towns.

South Dakota-based ranchers are proposing to trade 2,680 acres scattered around the mountain range for federal land adjoining the ranch they own bordering Capitol Reef National Park, as well as 2,033 acres west of Toquerville.

A Colorado rancher proposes to trade 2,680 acres scattered around southern Utah's Henry Mountains for federal land adjoining the Torrey ranch he owns, as well as up to 2,033 acres near Toquerville.

While the deal is being pitched as way to protect the Henrys’ free-roaming bison herd, some environmental groups fear it would open even more sensitive desert landscapes for development in the quickly sprawling St. George region.

“They want to get land in Washington County because development is exploding here and they’re looking to diversify their portfolio and saw this opportunity to buy parcels elsewhere to organize this swap for developable lands,” said Isabel Adler, public lands program director for Conserve Southwest Utah.

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, or SUWA, objects to the trade because the Garfield County land Sandy Ranch seeks is in an area the county has proposed for wilderness designation, while the Washington County components border the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, established as protected habitat for the imperiled Mojave desert tortoise.

Those groups contend the swap offers no net gain for conservation and would lead to ever more encroachment on public lands.

The landowner proposing the deal is Bryce Lindskov, co-owner of the Lindskov Ranch established by his grandfather in southwestern South Dakota. About a decade ago, the Linkskov family acquired the 7,000-acre Sandy Ranch, located on Notom Road south of Torrey along the eastern edge of Capitol Reef.

The Sandy Ranch holds nearly 250,000 acres of federal grazing allotments on either side of the national park. Those allotments include the western slope of the Henrys, where the Lindskovs also own isolated parcels that they now want to give the Bureau of Land Management in exchange for 880 federal acres surrounding the Sandy Ranch’s headquarters, according to Andy Wiessner, the deal’s chief architect.

“The main thrust for this is to protect the Henry Mountains bison herd,” said Wiessner, who works for the Western Land Group, a Colorado-based real estate firm that specializes in complex land trades.

While the ranch holds grazing allotments on the Henrys west slope, owning land there is of little use to the livestock operation. Sandy Ranch has rarely run cattle there in recent years because of drought and the bison consume the forage grown on the ranch’s private land there, according to Wiessner.

Among the nation’s last mountain ranges outside Alaska to be mapped, the Henrys are an 11,000-foot range rising between Capitol Reef and the Dirty Devil River. Wild bison lived there since the early 1940s, when the herd was established from 18 animals translocated from Yellowstone National Park. The Henry Mountain bison, which now numbers in the 400s, have since been tapped to establish wild herds elsewhere in Utah.

The proposed swap has garnered support from wildlife scientists and advocates, who view it as a way to permanently protect one of the West’s most important pieces of wildlife habitat and herds of wild big game animals.

These bison have never interbred with cattle, so they are not only genetically pure but also free of the bovine disease known as brucellosis, according to wildlife biologist Dustin Ranglack, a professor at the University of Nebraska who researched this heard as a Utah State University graduate student.

“Perhaps most significantly, the herd is truly free-roaming in a range that extends along the west slope of the Henry Mountains from the Fremont River in the north to Glen Canyon [National Recreation Area] on the south — a linear distance of approximately 50 miles … and a total range of some 300+ square miles,” Ranglack wrote in a letter of support to the BLM. “The exchange would forever eliminate the possibility of subdivision and development of the Sandy Ranch private land (including the pivotal 1,000+ acre King Ranch) in the future.”

Also endorsing the swap are the city of Toquerville, Washington County, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and various wildlife organizations, such as the Mule Deer Foundation, the Utah Wildlife Federation and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (BHA).

“If that land were to remain in private ownership, it could be developed for private retreats, houses, or other recreational projects, which would not be good for wildlife,” wrote Perry Hall, BHA’s Utah chapter chairman, in a letter of support. “While development in such a remote area seems unlikely in the short term, we note that since the advent of COVID, there has been a rush of people seeking to buy and develop remote lands to ‘get away from it all.’”

The land the ranch would acquire would be used for irrigated pasture.

“The last couple years, Sandy Ranch has bought $500,000 of hay because it’s been so dry. They want to transfer their water rights from the west slope [of the Henrys] over to the ranch headquarters,” Wiessner said. “They want to grow more feed there so they don’t have to buy hay.”

Sandy Ranch intends to seek approval for the deal through congressional action rather than administrative procedures with the BLM. It would likely require extensive appraisals to ensure the trade reflects fair market values.

An email to the office of Rep. Chris Stewart, whose Utah district includes Garfield and Washington counties, was not returned.

Because the Henry Mountains exchange parcels are worth more than the acreage the ranch would receive in Garfield County, Wiessner is asking the BLM to include additional federal lands in the deal. The lands the Lindskovs want are in Washington County, just west of Toquerville, miles away from their ranch.

“We looked around at BLM land about a year ago, and Saint George seemed to be the logical place to find some surplus BLM land,” Wiessner said. He arranged the Washington County side of the deal in consultation with the BLM’s St. George field office manager Kieth Rigtrup, who passed away suddenly a few months ago.

There’s not too many other places where we can find BLM parcels that are suitable for disposal and do not have high wildlife values,” Wiessner said.

Since the Washington County land is so valuable, Sandy Ranch would likely have to pay the BLM several million dollars to make up the difference in value. These proceeds would go into a pool of money the BLM taps to acquire inholdings inside the Red Cliffs reserve, according to Wiessner.

The public land selected for the swap sits just west of the future Toquerville Parkway, a 4.5-mile four-lane highway now under construction. The $18 million project is designed to allow millions of motorists to bypass Toquerville’s historic residential core as they travel to and from Zion National Park.

Under an April 8 agreement with the Washington County Water Conservancy District, Sandy Ranch would sell the northernmost 400 acres to the district for its proposed Toquer Reservoir and related pipelines and lakeside park. The water district recently secured a right of way for this land from the BLM, but it would rather own the land outright.

While the remaining lands wouldn’t be useful for ranching, they would make for prime commercial and residential real estate development were they in private hands, which is raising red flags for environmentalists. They don’t dispute the conservation value of ridding the Henrys of private inholdings but question the need to sacrifice open land that is getting more scarce and precious as Washington County continues to sprawl.

“We aren’t excited about the BLM giving up land that it’s managing for wilderness and natural areas,” said Neal Clark, a field attorney for SUWA. “It’s like outright buying BLM land that is not for sale that’s going to make them millions of dollars. You can find BLM land elsewhere, instead you homed in the fastest growing place in the state. The more I look at it the more suspicious I get. Why does this ranch need land in Washington County? It’s because they want to sell to developers.”

The exchange parcels nearly abut a part of the Red Cliffs reserve, known as Zone 4, which has been successfully used for translocating tortoises from habitat elsewhere that has been lost to development, according to Adler.

Development here would increase pressure to cut new roads and utility lines through these sensitive lands. The existing Babylon Road through Zone 4 is already being considered as a high-speed thoroughfare.

“With this continued creep into public lands, it’s going to give the county further reason to continue developing roads and encroaching international conservation areas and destroying habitat for endangered species,” Adler said.