The marshes along the Colorado River north of town are kind of an anomaly in this desert landscape: They're full of water. They're dense with wildlife.

And, in contrast to the crimson-orange landforms of the Colorado Plateau, they're green.Despite their individuality, the marshes have largely been ignored by the throngs of tourists who consider southeastern Utah a sightseeing wonder.

The Nature Conservancy, which owns and manages the marshlands with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, is out to change that. Come next April, the marsh, known officially as the Scott Matheson Wetlands Preserve, will be accessible to the public.

Trail construction is now under way at the 875-acre preserve.

"Until now, it's been difficult to provide access," said Sue Bellagamba, preserve manager. Wetlands, an integral part of the environment, are prone to human-caused damage. "We think our plans strike just the right balance between protecting sensitive wildlife and allowing people to enjoy and learn about this beautiful natural area."

The $300,000 plan calls for 1,100 feet of boardwalk, 2,700 feet of compacted dirt trail, an outdoor classroom site and a wildlife observation platform, all accessible to handicapped people. More trails, platforms and boardwalk will be added as funds become available.

Bellagamba said much of the expense is the result of environmentally sensitive construction, such as a foundation system that does not block underground water flows. Redwood for the boardwalk is being recycled from old railroad structures in the Great Salt Lake.

"So there hasn't been a tree killed in the past 100 years to build this boardwalk," Bellagamba said.

If the preserve is so important to the environment, and so sensitive, why invite humans in at all?

Bellagamba said it's a matter of education.

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"I would like the community to have a better understanding that it's not a worthless swamp but valuable wetlands."

One of the first orders of business is to make the preserve a regular part of the Grand County school curricula so that kids can visit and learn about wetlands and their wildlife.

The Nature Conservancy will make the preserve open to the public at no charge but does not plan a massive advertising campaign.

For more information, contact the Nature Conservancy in Moab, 59 E. Center, or call 259-4629.

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