When a developer threatened to bid on 1,280 acres of school trust land in the redrock country northeast of Moab, Peter Lawson and Anne Wilson laid out $1.3 million to preserve the mouth of Mary Jane Canyon.

“The prospect of having this canyon we love so much have houses run through it was more than we could stand,” says Lawson. The 300-acre Professor Valley Ranch has been in Wilson’s family for more than 30 years; her father, Bates Wilson, was the first superintendent of Canyonlands National Park.

Ric McBrier, with Utah’s School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA), says an individual purchase this large for conservation is “unusual, but not unheard of.” SITLA manages 3.5 million acres of land in Utah, which it leases and sells to raise money for schools. Traditionally, the agency has favored resource extraction and development deals. But conservation sales have increased in the last several years, especially in the Colorado River Corridor, where The Nature Conservancy has purchased 107,000 acres of desert brush and sandstone cliffs (HCN, 2/17/03: Conservation pays off in a desert town).

The nearby Canyonlands Field Institute is happy about the deal: The group gives outdoor lessons in environmental education and frequently uses the Mary Jane Canyon area. Lawson says his purchase allows the students to continue to use an “irreplaceable laboratory.” Lawson and The Nature Conservancy are also discussing placing a conservation easement on the property to prevent future development.