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Sale Of State Trust Lands Provokes Backlash In Kane County

A snow-capped mound of red earth rises up on the horizon.
David Fuchs
The Red Knoll in Kane County is on one of the state trust land parcels that animal welfare organization Best Friends has agreed to buy.

ST. GEORGE — To Kane County Sheriff Tracy Glover, the Red Knoll is a special place.
The rust-colored hill, which sits on a parcel of state trust land roughly 10 miles north of Kanab, can be seen for miles in every direction. And it's where many longtime locals go to ride ATVs or celebrate holidays such as Easter.

Glover was concerned when he learned that Best Friends Animal Society had agreed on April 24 to purchase three parcels of state trust land, including the Red Knoll. Once final, the $6.3 million deal will transfer roughly 1,600 acres in Kane County to the animal welfare organization.
Having spent his entire life in this part of the state, Glover expected there would be a strong response.

“The Red Knoll is a landmark that everyone in Kane County has grown up with,” he said. “If that area were to be purchased privately and then closed down — which is a big if — I realized it could become an emotional issue.” 

Glover wasn’t wrong.

News of the deal circulated widely in late April and has been met with a sharp outcry from many Kane County residents. Elected officials denounced the sale on social media, saying the change in ownership could pose a threat to one of Kanab’s wells and what they call long-standing uses of the land like hunting and grazing. 

For others, the backlash is ironic, since city and county leaders had previously supported a proposed frac sand mine on one of the parcels. The Southern Red Sands project would have erected as many as six 120-foot storage silos at the foot of the landmark and mined 100 acres of land in its immediate vicinity. It was backed by Salt Lake City-based Gardner Company and abandoned due to feasibility concerns.

Critics of that project, which included Best Friends, argued that operating a mine at that scale would affect the local aquifer, and pose a direct threat to both the animal welfare organization’s headquarters next door and the city of Kanab.

A Sharp Rebuke

The debate over the sand mine was fierce and divisive — and initial reactions to the latest sale have been no less polarizing.

In an April 24 letter addressed to Best Friends CEO Julie Castle, 18 city and county officials in Kane County wrote to express what they called their “extreme objection” to the sale and request that it be halted. 

“The community outrage undoubtedly will be extreme and severe,” officials said in the statement. “We cannot express more seriously the negative effects and unrest that will occur in our community if Best Friends Animal Society follows through with the purchase.”

Castle responded, writing that Best Friends intended to honor the grazing permits of two ranchers who run cattle on the parcels and welcomed the opportunity to clear up what she described as “misunderstandings” with local leaders. She did not specify whether hunting, hiking or other recreation will continue to be allowed.

Officials also raised concerns that the sale would stifle future development and called on their constituents to weigh in.

In one post in a local Facebook group, Kanab City Councilmember Celeste Meyeres decried the sale.

“Hunters: You are being left out of this equation. Say goodbye to hunting on the Red Knoll, etc if this goes through,” she wrote. “Looks like yet another land grab by environmentalist land barons Best Friends.”

Meyeres, who declined to be interviewed for this story, was not the only official to sound a call to arms.

On May 1, Kane County issued a press release in which it objected to the sale, and invited residents to share comments with Castle and representatives of the State of Utah School and Institutional Trust Land Administration, or SITLA — the entity selling the land.

SITLA’s Response

SITLA Director David Ure said he has been perplexed by the community’s response.

“Three months ago, we were talking about making a frac sand mine down there,” he said, adding that the project would have affected hiking, wildlife, hunting and ATV use.
“Virtually, a lot of the same people who were in favor of this frac sand operation are now against this sale … It seems like, ‘If I can’t win, I’m going to stop anybody else from winning it.’”

Unlike federally managed public lands, state trust lands are considered private property, Ure said.

He added that his agency has an obligation under state law to generate the maximum amount of revenue for its beneficiaries, which include Utah’s public schools and hospitals.

Ure pushed back on the claim that selling the land to Best Friends would inhibit future development in Kane County.

“If the frac sand [mine] can’t make it down there with all of the sand, then someone needs to increase my imagination as to what other organization or type of industry we might be hindering,” he said.

Ure added that the sale will not be reversed and that he has agreed to sit down with county leaders and Best Friends to work out a mutually agreeable solution.

A small plastic bottle is attached to a wooden stake driven into red sand.
Credit David Fuchs / KUER
Mining claims, such as the one shown above, are speckled across the SITLA parcels recently purchased by Best Friends. The organization's leaders have said that buying the land outright, rather than leasing the mineral rights, was the only way to permanently protect the sanctuary.

A Defensive Maneuver

Best Friends executives have said that the organization has no plans for the parcels other than preventing future mining operations.

“From our point of view, this is purely about protecting the water and the viability of Best Friends Animal Sanctuary,” said Francis Battista, who co-founded the organization and now serves as the chairman of its board of directors.

Best Friends is Kane County’s largest employer, an economist from the Utah Department of Workforce Services confirmed. The organization provides 675 jobs and annually generates $42.3 million in the local economy, according to an economic impact report prepared for the organization in 2019.

Battista added that Best Friends has no interest in interfering with Kanab’s well or water rights. His organization is looking forward to working with local leaders to work out issues regarding public access, hunting, grazing, ATV use and other concerns.

A Best Friends spokesperson said Friday that those talks are now underway.

Deeper Roots

As sheriff, Glover said he’s tasked with representing the whole community and remains optimistic about the outcome of the deal.

He said he supports Best Friends’ right to purchase private property. But he also understands how families who lived here for generations, like his own, may view these discussions.

He highlighted several examples in which county residents have seen lands locked up and businesses shut down because of pressure from environmentalists.

Those include the closure of Kaibab Lumber Mill, the shuttering of the Energy Fuels Uranium Mine and the creation of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.

“I think it’s a culmination of many different things that people have felt for years that make them quite sensitive to these types of topics,” he said.

David Fuchs is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southwest Bureau in St. George. Follow David on Twitter @davidmfuchs.

David is a reporter and producer working on Sent Away, an investigative podcast series from KUER, The Salt Lake Tribune and APM Reports.
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