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Wrecking homes for open space: Philanthropist Jennifer Speers


MOAB, UTAH — Call her a home-wrecker, and Jennifer Speers just laughs.

But the title fits. In February 2003, Speers purchased the "Rio Colorado at Dewey," a 115-acre commercial development near Moab, that included a new adobe home with spectacular views of the Colorado River. Just a few months later, she leveled the $600,000 house.

"It’s one of the best experiences of my life," she says, her features brightening into an impish grin as she recalls watching a work crew demolish the home. "I loved every minute of it."

Since 2002, the Salt Lake City resident has purchased more than 500 acres of prime real estate near Moab — solely to protect the land from commercial development. Her efforts to conserve open space have made the 50-year-old Speers something of a legend in canyon country.

Conservation is a family tradition for Speers. In the late 1800s, her great-grandfather, George W. Perkins II, played a prominent role in convincing the states of New York and New Jersey to stop development and quarrying along the Palisades, a 550-foot-high rock face that adorns the west bank of the Hudson River. Perkins, John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, and other wealthy landowners in the area petitioned the legislatures in both states to create an interstate park. They also donated land to the cause. Today, the Palisades Interstate Park System includes more than 60,000 acres and numerous state parks.

Unlike her great-grandfather, Speers describes herself as "a private person." The daughter of an East Coast cattleman, Speers was drawn to Utah in 1971 by the powder skiing in the Wasatch Mountains. She attended the University of Utah, then worked as a surgical technician — a job from which she retired about eight years ago. While she has been involved in conservation for some time, she has often preferred to remain in the background, supporting well-established organizations.

Her coming-out began two years ago, when she used "old family money" to buy the Cottonwood Bend Ranch from The Nature Conservancy of Utah. Until then, she’d never dreamed of owning land in the redrock desert near Moab.

"People always ask if I was looking for a place here. But I really wasn’t," she says. "If someone had said five years ago that I’d be doing this, I’d have said, ‘You’re nuts.’ But here I am."

While she still calls Salt Lake City home, Speers says she can imagine permanently relocating to Moab sometime in the future.

The Nature Conservancy had purchased the ranch, then called Proudfoot Bend, to save it from development while the group looked for a private buyer willing to set aside much of the acreage in a permanent conservation easement. Speers is a member of the Conservancy and serves as a trustee on the group’s Utah board.

"There were some wild plans for this place," she says of Cottonwood Bend, which borders the Colorado River about 30 miles northeast of Moab. "One person wanted to make it into a water park. But it’s so beautiful and remote. And that’s a large part of the appeal for me."

Then, in February of this year, Speers bought 220 acres of farmland in the heart of Spanish Valley, a rapidly growing area south of Moab, to prevent it from being sold for a housing development. She will continue to grow alfalfa and other crops on the land, at least for now.

Speers lights up with pride, and a little mischief, as she talks about her post-demolition plans for the Rio Colorado property. In her eyes, Moab developer John Ogden’s dream for a 100-acre riverfront community of palatial homes was a boondoggle, pure and simple.

"It was all wrong," Speers says, as she looks out over the sage and scrub oak terrain where the 3,900-square-foot house — the lone home in the new development — once stood. "It was huge. And if you can, envision a string of homes that size all along the river. Now that’s crazy."

Speers says many people encouraged her to move the house, but when that proved impossible, she decided to just tear it down. First, crews salvaged all the usable materials — wood beams, granite countertops, heavy wood doors and windows. Then a large backhoe pulled the adobe shell to the ground.

"Some people thought I was crazy," she says. But "the entertainment value of tearing it down was worth it. We were jumping up and down, and screaming and laughing."

Speers has torn out all the roads on the property, and in February, the Grand County Council granted her request to eliminate the subdivision zoning. She is now exploring options for placing a conservation easement on the land. She calls the place the Cato Reclaim in honor of her farmhand’s grandmother, one of the original settlers in the area.

"I want it to return to what it should be," she says. "Whatever animals can use it, will use it. Maybe someone will lease it and grow native plants, then sell the seeds. But I’m just going to enjoy its beauty."

And if some people think she’s a little crazy, well, that’s just fine with her.

"To me, it’s a natural thing to do. It’s so much fun to know that these places are going to be protected," she says. "I’m just having such a ball."

The author writes from Moab, Utah.