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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

Best Friends Animal Society Purchases Southern Utah Lands Formerly Slated For Sand Mine

A vista looking out over a dirt road, rows of pine trees and white canyon walls.
David Fuchs
The view from the top of the Red Knoll, just north of Kanab. The site is included within the three parcels that Best Friends Animal Society acquired on Friday.

ST. GEORGE — Best Friends Animal Society is the new owner of roughly 1,600 acres of former state trust lands outside of Kanab.In a $6.3 million deal inked on April 24, the Kane County-based animal sanctuary and animal welfare organization purchased three parcels of land from the State of Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, or SITLA.

One of the parcels contains the site where mining start-up Southern Red Sands sought to build a controversial sand mine. That project aimed to haul 700,000 tons of sand per year from Kane County to fracking operations in the Uintah Basin and stoked intense division and mistrust among residents of this Southern Utah community for the better part of 2019.

The land sale comes three months after the mining company announced it would be walking away from the project and working to preserve the area with Best Friends, which had previously described the mine as an existential threat to its Southern Utah sanctuary.

If another mining operation came by in another five or 10 years, we wanted to make sure that we were protected,” said Best Friends CEO Julie Castle.

Castle pointed to a report produced by Kenneth Kolm — a hydrogeologist Best Friends hired to study the aquifer beneath the parcels — as a key factor in the animal welfare organization’s decision to purchase the land.

The study indicated that future mining activities in the area could pose a threat to the sanctuary’s water supply, Castle said, which is why her team concluded that acquiring the parcels was the only way to guarantee their headquarters would be protected into perpetuity. 

She added that the animal welfare organization currently has no plans for its newly purchased acreage and that all ranchers and tour companies who currently have permits to use the lands will not be affected by the change in ownership.

“Our intent is to protect the sanctuary and be a good community partner,” she said. “It is a western town with western heritage and we want to honor that.”

Although Best Friends now owns the lands, SITLA will maintain control over the mineral rights beneath the three parcels. 

However, no frac sand operations will be permitted there due to mining limitations negotiated during the multimillion dollar agreement, said Michelle McConkie, who oversees the agency’s surface group.

“It will rank among one of the larger sales we’ve done in the last few years,” McConkie said. “We feel like it’s a great opportunity for us to sell a piece of land and get a great return for the school children of the state of Utah.”

The money from the sale will be added to the $2.5 billion fund SITLA manages to generate revenue for schools, universities and hospitals. Best Friends has until the end of August to deliver its full payment to the state agency.

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

Correction 8:49 a.m. MDT 4/30/2020: A previous version of this article mischaracterized Best Friends Animal Society as an animal rights organization. It is an animal welfare organization.

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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