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Passing by it looks like any open meadow in the area - green grasses, a few birds, running water, a fence post the tallest thing within the lea, standing pine trees around the perimeter.

Really, not a lot of difference between this meadow and the one a few turns down a dirt road, or the one over the hill.A gathering of sandhill cranes moved about near the center of the grassy garden. One watched while the others fed. Nothing in the meadow went unnoticed by them. Overhead hawks soared about, ducks rushed by and small sparrows darted here and there.

Nothing too unusual.

They say, over the summer, deer, moose, elk, eagles, osprey, and quite likely bears, even grizzlies, will visit this meadow, and dozens more like it in the area.

And yet, consensus seems to be, this 425-acre plot of land, called Squirrel Meadows, can become the very heart of this body of several million acres in what is called the Yellowstone ecosystem.

Can one rock be so important to a mountain; one page so valuable to a book; one tree so vital to an entire forest?

Yes, they say. It is, after all, the only private land in in the entire area.

In 1914, three brothers homesteaded this meadow, which is located on the west slope of the Tetons in Wyoming, just four miles south of the Yellowstone National Park boundary.

It is the only privately owned track of land anywhere in the area, and that's what makes it so valuable. There are wilderness areas east and west - Winegar Hole and Jedidiah Smith - and Yellowstone to the north.

There's the John D. Rockerfeller Jr. Memorial Parkway and the Targhee National Forest to the west, and over the mountain the Grand Teton National Park, and a ways further the Bridger-Teton National Forest and the Shoshone National Forest.

And therein rests the secret to this parcel of land on the Yellowstone boarder - it's private.

It is also cause for some fear. Now, it looks like all the other publicly owned meadows around it. Subdivided, however, it could become a town of summer homes, or pasture for cattle or sheep, or a lodge for passing guests.

Not all bad uses, but Joe Christensen, president of Ricks College, believes there's a better use and so, too, does many others. The current owners of the property have given the college first option to buy.

And, as Christensen said, "The option to acquire this unspoiled, protected one-of-a-kind parcel of land is a rare opportunity . . . and would become one of the most significant investments we can make to enrich our teaching and research in the natural sciences."

If the learning center does gain control of Squirrel Meadows, it would be opened up to research and study by groups ranging from botanist to zoologist.

Kimball Harper, a professor of botany at BYU, said, "Since (Squirrel Meadows) is surrounded by a federal wilderness area and lies adjacent to two national parks, money could not buy a more ideally situated field ecology teaching station."

It provides, both men contend, an ideal laboratory for students interested in learning about the wildlands and animals.

The problems students face now, said Robert Perkes, assistant academic vice president of instruction at the college, is that to study or plan programs on federal land takes a long time for approval and a lot of red tape.

Under current regulations, only eight individuals at a time are allowed to enter a research area, and that periodically government agencies require projects be relocated.

"We would like to have a basecamp for students where they could come and conduct studies they might not be able to anywhere else, and in a setting that wouldn't require so much red tape," said Perkes.

"We would not, however, be involved in anything that would be contrary to the greater Yellowstone ecosystem."

Certainly, there is no place better. Besides the geological treasures, the area has been called a botanical marvel. Equally abundant are the zoological wonders.

Yellowstone, and surrounding country, holds some of the largest elk and buffalo herds in the U.S. It is one of the last remaining strongholds for the grizzly bear. It is also an important area for trumpeter swans.

While this outdoor campus is new in Utah and Idaho, it is not elsewhere. In California, for example, nine campuses there have use to 27 preserves now, with two more to be added before the end of 1988.

Twenty years ago the University of California Natural Reserve System began a program to acquire sites in California that would "reflect the state's natural diversity, and to make those sites available for teaching and research," a program brochure reported.

In California, reserves range from the Pygmy Forest Reserve in the north, to the Kendall-Frost Mission Bay Marsh Reserve to the south.

In Utah there is the recently purchased Lytle Ranch in Washington County, a part of the Mojave Desert, which is now run by BYU. Squirrel Meadows would be owned by Ricks, but would be made available to other schools, the University of Utah and BYU included. It would also be an opposite of, but a compliment to the ranch in southern Utah.

The college now owns 95 of the 425 acres available in the meadows. The remaining 80 acres of private ground will be kept by the current owners.

To gain control of the remaining 330 acres will take about $2.5 million. The school, through the LDS Foundation, is currently looking for businesses and individuals to contribute to the project. It is, they said, the only way in these tight-budgeted times such a project can be handled.

When completed, and the studies and research started, private and government officials believe Squirrel Meadows, despite its common look, can play a key part in preserving the fragile region.