Conservation pays off in a desert town

A plan to purchase state land could save open space — and make money for schools

  • DOLLARS FOR DESERT: If locals raise enough money, 4,500 acres could remain undeveloped around Castle Valley

    Robyn Morrison

CASTLE VALLEY, Utah — The main street of this desert outpost is like something from the Twilight Zone. The town’s lone paved road is quiet and eerily empty, snaking past a hodgepodge of A-frames, geodesic domes, tidy suburban-style homes and Airstream trailers. There are no gas stations, restaurants or grocery stores. Because Castle Valley bans all commercial development, the nearest businesses are a 50-mile round trip to Moab.

“People live here because that’s part of the deal,” says local Laura Kamala, who works for Utah Open Lands, a statewide land trust. The eclectic community of 400 — mostly retirees, part-time residents, writers, artists and people who work in Moab — is not a wealthy one, she says. But they make ends meet here, because they’re drawn to the stunning red-cliff mesas and towering sandstone spires that flank the desert valley. So when Utah’s School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA), the agency charged with making money for public schools, quietly auctioned off 60 acres of state land to a developer, and “for sale” signs popped up below one of the steep-walled mesas nearly four years ago, residents became alarmed.

Many realized that this was just the first piece of surrounding land that could fall into developers’ hands. The valley floor is covered by 4,500 acres of state land — the result of land swaps between Utah and the federal government when Congress created Canyonlands National Park.

Kamala and others quickly galvanized into a group dubbed the Castle Rock Collaboration — a branch of Utah Open Lands — to stop the development and work to prevent future state-land sell-outs.

But saving open space hasn’t been the Trust Lands Administration’s business. Early on, the agency was quietly run by the ranching, mining and oil industries (HCN, 1/19/98). In the 1990s, it reorganized into a professional land-development agency and has since sold land for houses at a dizzying pace.

Yet for almost four years, the agency has worked with the Castle Rock Collaboration and the town, hashing out a long-range plan for the valley floor that includes saving open space. It’s a plan that could reshape how the agency does business, and it offers the possibility of preserving all 4,500 acres of state land from development.

Bring in the bacon

The plan was hatched to protect open space, but it’s also about cold, hard cash, says collaborative member and writer Brook Williams. Before the agency would listen to the Castle Rock Collaboration, says Williams, “we had to show them that we could bring in money.”

The group negotiated with the developer to buy back the 60 acres below the mesa. Just days before bulldozers rolled in to level homesites, the group secured the down payment from a private donor for the $184,000 property.

While the collaborative scrambled to finalize the purchase, it learned that the state planned to auction off another 221 acres below Castleton Tower, a nearby red-rock monolith famous among rock climbers and desert sightseers. Flush with the success of rescuing the first 60 acres, Williams approached the Trust Lands Administration and convinced the agency to place a moratorium on state-land auctions in the valley, including the property below Castleton Tower.

“SITLA doesn’t like being seen as the bad guy,” says Williams. “This was an opportunity for them to work with the community and demonstrate they could do it in a noncontentious way.”

But halting the auctions hinged on a quid pro quo. “We agreed to the moratorium if the group would work with us on planning,” says the Trust Lands Administration’s assistant director of development, Ric McBrier. That planning process, he says, meant that developing the land had to be one possibility.

Under the plan — still at least a year from being finalized — the land is divided into about a dozen parcels to be appraised and sold over the next 20 years. The Castle Rock Collaboration gets a year-long window to raise the money to purchase each parcel or to find a buyer willing to place a conservation easement on the land.

If the group can’t come up with the money or a buyer, the state will work with a developer to build houses. But development will be controlled by restrictive zoning and covenants, including Castle Valley’s ban on commercial building. Town and state officials are ironing out everything from future access roads and fencing to the number of homes allowable and how they must be clustered to maintain corridors for migrating deer.

Is open space Utah’s cash cow?

If the project is successful, Utah will join Washington, Colorado and Arizona as the only states that have provisions for protecting state trust land as open space.

“This is a new approach for SITLA,” says Bill Hedden, Utah’s conservation director for the Grand Canyon Trust and a Castle Valley resident. He adds, however, that it’s unlikely that selling state land as open space will become a cash cow for Utah’s public schools. The $9.2 million the agency received in 2001 from land sales and real estate development is less than 20 percent of its total revenue. Coal and other mineral leases make up the other 80 percent.

Still, the Castle Rock Collaboration has helped generate a tidy sum. Castleton Tower is listed as one of North America’s “50 classic climbs,” and national climbing organizations and outdoor gear companies have joined valley residents and other individuals in contributing to the cause. So far, the collaborative and its partner, Utah Open Lands, have raised $440,000 toward purchasing the $640,000 property below Castleton Tower, a popular camping area among climbers who scale the 400-foot spire.

But the flaccid economy has made things difficult. Utah’s Division of Wildlife Resources had agreed to help purchase a parcel deemed as critical habitat for the valley’s wintering deer herd. In an effort to fill a $117 million hole in the state budget, however, the Legislature froze the funding in December. The Division of Wildlife is currently waiting to hear if the money will come through.

Williams says he’s optimistic that the group can raise the money needed to purchase more state land. But since all the land doesn’t share the same prestige as the property below Castleton Tower, “we’re going to have to get creative,” he says. “Can we raise money for less high-profile land? That’s the $4 million question.”

Even so, says Kamala, “we’re demonstrating to SITLA that conservation dollars are the same color of green as development dollars.”

Robyn Morrison is special projects editor for High Country News. This story was funded with a grant from the McBride family and Aspen Business Center Foundation.

You can contact ...

  • Laura Kamala, Castle Rock Collaboration, 435/259-8702,;
  • Ric McBrier, Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, 801/538-5170.
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