VIRGIN — From state Route 9, about 14 miles west of Zion National Park, the dramatic beauty of Sheep Bridge’s river corridor is nearly hidden.
The road in is unpaved. No flashy signs point the way, making this stretch of the Virgin River feel that much more like stumbling upon a hidden desert oasis. A red-tailed hawk swoops overhead and lands atop a boulder overlooking the steep-sided canyons of sandstone carved away by river.
Adjacent to the 80-acre Falls Park owned by the Bureau of Land Management, the 419-acre property of Sheep Bridge hosts 2 miles of the Virgin River, considered one of the most pristine river corridors in the American Southwest by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.
Yet, up until its recent purchase by The Nature Conservancy, Sheep Bridge was under consideration for development as an exclusive subdivision for 275 homes, Executive Director for the Virgin River Land Preservation Association Lori Rose told St. George News.
In 2006, a group of developers bought the Sheep Bridge property. While the landowners held the area through the Great Recession, they were looking at development options for the property.
“They knew the use of the Jem Trail. They knew the use of Falls Park just upstream. They knew that the property had some challenges that would also make it, frankly, a very beautiful development property,” Rose said. “They were looking at a pretty exclusive subdivision of 275 homes.”
About two years ago, the landowners had a change of mind and approached The Nature Conservancy to see if they were interested in purchasing the land.
“They had their real estate agent reach out to us and ask us if we might be interested in this purchase. They felt that the property was really valuable as a conservation property. They also knew the challenges ahead with the development. They’ve been in this business a while,” Rose said, adding that she had nothing but praise for them.
At that point, the negotiation process began and The Nature Conservancy, along with its partners, began efforts to raise funds. The process took time, but the landowners continued to work with them and even authorized an extension after the announcement of federal grant awards was delayed in the fall. In the spring, they were awarded the grant, the final step to closing the deal and purchasing Sheep Bridge for $4.3 million.
While much of the raised funds were from private donors, the bulk of the money came from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service through its endangered species program, Rose said, as the river corridor is a particularly sensitive habitat.
Rose said she thinks The Nature Conversancy will give much consideration moving forward in order to minimize uses that would negatively impact the wildlife aspects of the river corridor.
One hope for the property she mentioned was for the road to Falls Park, which is currently a one-lane road and on the Sheep Bridge property, to be moved back away from the corridor to allow for two lanes.
“That could make access to Falls Park a lot better,” she said, adding that could also free up area for other public use. But again, all management plans are the authority of The Nature Conservancy.
“The exciting thing is — it’s not a 275-home subdivision that was going to completely block out access,” she said.
An additional benefit Rose mentioned was that the more areas they are able to protect like this river corridor, the more river water resources can be better utilized for municipal purposes.
Elaine York, the west desert regional director for The Nature Conservancy, told St. George News they will be working on developing a management plan over the course of the next few months. But for now, she said they are certain they will be leaving access open to the part of the Jem Trail that crosses through the Sheep Bridge property.
“At least one portion of BLM’s Jem Trail, which is a bike trail, does cross a portion of the Sheep Bridge property, and we know we will leave that bike trail open,” York said. “As far as other uses, we’re yet to develop that.”
Their primary interest in protecting the Sheep Bridge property is for the many types of wildlife living in and above the water.
The property will continue to be private and will remain on the county tax rolls. The Utah State Division of Wildlife Resources will aide in managing the flora and fauna of the property and work to support the region’s native fish.
“Our interest is in protecting this property. It’s important to a lot of different types of wildlife, and that is our number one objective.”
The river corridor of Sheep Bridge is home to four of the Virgin River’s six at-risk native fish, according to a press release issued by The Nature Conservancy. These fish include the Virgin spinedace, flannelmouth sucker, desert sucker and speckled dace. Nesting, wintering and migrating neo-tropical birds, such as the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher and Wilson’s warbler, also live in the riparian zone.
York said composing the management plan has been stalled due to COVID-19-related travel restrictions. She is based in Salt Lake City, but normally she would be frequently traveling to Southern Utah.
“I really want to spend some more time on the property and be thoughtful about some of the issues we’ll need to address.”
She said it will be a few months at least before they complete the plan.
“Washington County has one of the fastest-growing populations in the country. As development pressures mount, this is a rare opportunity to safeguard healthy river habitat,” York said.
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