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More than 700 acres once coveted by Brighton for ski resort expansion have been acquired through a public-private partnership that will preserve the Snake Creek Canyon area for public recreation, wildlife habitat and watershed.

Gov. Mike Leavitt announced Thursday the state will pay $702,000 to acquire 702 acres near the top of Snake Creek Canyon, located above Heber and below Brighton. The land will become an extension of Wasatch Mountain State Park, which borders the acreage."This is a great moment in our continuing efforts to preserve Utah's pristine open spaces," Leavitt said. "A powerful public-private partnership enabled us to save this property as a year-round recreation destination, a home for wildlife and a source of pure water."

The property has been purchased by the Nature Conservancy, one of the nation's largest land conservation organizations. The state will now reimburse the Nature Conservancy periodically over several years.

The funds to purchase the property will come from sale of about 100 acres of state parks land in the Midway, Wasatch County, area, now part of Wasatch Mountain State Park but not contiguous to the park. The land is in an area difficult to manage.

"The decision was made to make these properties available to the private sector and use the proceeds to acquire the 700 acres in Snake Creek Canyon," said Dave Morrow, deputy director of the state Division of Parks and Recreation.

Among the parcels being sold by the state are Burgi Hill, River Road, Tate Lane and Provo River parcel. The Provo River parcel has already been deeded to the Nature Conservancy for a $59,000 credit against the balance due.

The balance will also be paid off with donations from Midway, Salt Lake City and county governments and from private individuals and businesses.

The area being acquired comes with the contingency it not be developed, Morrow said.

Snake Creek Canyon is prized for its wildlife habitat as well as a valuable watershed for Heber City and Salt Lake City. Three years ago, the Trust for Public Lands was asked to purchase and save open lands in the area valued at that time at $900,000. The trust was unable to raise the funds.

In June 1995, Utah Open Lands, the Nature Conservancy and the Division of Parks and Recreation completed a cooperative agreement to purchase the canyon and open it to the public. The Nature Conservancy provided the capital to make the purchase.

The state agreed to hold title to the property and provide additional funding. Utah Open Lands will hold the conservation easement to the canyon, ensuring its preservation as open space.