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Located in the rugged Book Cliffs of eastern Utah, the S&H Ranch is a huge spread by any standard: 5,560 acres of private land and exclusive grazing leases on more than 164,000 acres of surrounding state and federal lands.

The S&H is, without question, one of the largest working cattle operations remaining in eastern Utah. It also happens to be located in the heart of some of the state's richest wildlife habitat.Which is why the Nature Conservancy is negotiating a $2 million purchase of the S&H as part of the Book Cliffs Conservation Initiative, which calls for most of the rugged canyon area east of the Green River to be managed for wildlife, not livestock. The conservancy has already purchased two ranches as part of that initiative.

But a decision issued recently by a federal administrative law judge in Arizona could now thwart the Nature Conservancy's attempts to purchase ranches like the S&H. And, potentially, it could devastate the entire Book Cliffs Conservation Initiative - and cost the Nature Conservancy millions of dollars.

Judge Ramon Child ruled that conservation groups cannot purchase federal grazing permits and then elect not to use them - a common practice by groups like the Nature Conservancy that want to see grazing halted in certain areas. In the Arizona case, the judge ruled the BLM should cancel the Nature Conservancy's unused grazing permits and sell them to local ranchers who would use them.

According to Child, "Although the goals and objectives of the Nature Conservancy may be laudable, the Taylor Grazing Act has been and is being subverted by repeatedly issuing non-grazing permits to the Nature Conservancy when the Nature Conservancy never has had a livestock operation and has never grazed the land nor intended to do so."

"We're shocked and angered," said Alyson Heyrend of the Great Basin Field Office of the Nature Conservancy. "We have always worked within the system to achieve our goals, but now we're being told we have no role. Unless we graze cows."

If Child's reasoning is applied to grazing permits in Utah, "there is no incentive whatsoever for us to purchase the S&H," Heyrend said. "If we cannot hold the (S&H) grazing permits and the BLM gives them to someone else to run cattle, we could not then achieve our goal to manage the initiative for wildlife."

The Arizona case is currently on appeal. In the meantime, the Nature Conservancy Office is Salt Lake City is watching the case with considerable interest. While no one has formally applied to the BLM for the Nature Conservancy's grazing permits in Utah, ranchers in the Moab area have expressed interest in the conservancy's permits near Cisco, Grand County.

Those permits came with the Cunningham Ranch, purchased by the Nature Conservancy and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, for $1.36 million. In addition to 7,583 acres of private land, the purchase included grazing permits on 250,000 acres of state and federal land.

The two groups also spent about $1 million for the Graham Ranch, which included 3,720 acres of private land and grazing permits to 110,000 acres of state and federal land.

In both cases, as well as with the S&H Ranch, a large part of the value of the ranches is in the grazing permits. The Nature Conservancy does not run cattle on either the Graham or Cunningham ranches.

The Child ruling garnered the attention of newly appointed BLM director Jim Baca, who called it "real upsetting." During a recent visit to Salt Lake City, Baca has pledged to reverse the ruling through a rewriting of BLM regulations.

The Nature Conservancy maintains it has met all federal requirements to be a livestock operator. The organization currently owns ranches and grazing permits all over the West. But instead of running cattle, the ranches are managed with wildlife habitat in mind.

"We feel the judge made an error and that will be recognized on appeal," Heyrend said.

The Nature Conservancy's long-held practice of paying fair-market value for grazing permits is designed to present a fair deal to the landowner. The conservancy's philosophy is that grazing permits do have economic value and that willing sellers should be compensated for value of their land and their permits. "It is a fair and reasonable method of dealing with landowners," Heyrend said.

Booth Wallentine of the Utah Farm Bureau would not speculate on the impact of the Arizona case on Utah's ranching industry but said "we generally have had some concern about efforts to buy up grazing permits and then retire them. It tends to diminish the unity and economic viability of local grazing associations."