The old covered bird blind, which was destroyed by fire this spring, has been replaced with a new boardwalk and viewing platform. [Courtesy Linda Whitham]

One morning earlier this week, Linda Whitham “unceremoniously” unlocked the metal gate that bars the driveway at the Scott and Norma Matheson Wetlands Preserve, allowing the public to return to the privately-owned 894-acre natural area near Moab that provides habitat for hundreds of species of wildlife.

Whitham is the central canyonlands program manager for The Nature Conservancy, the nonprofit that co-owns the Matheson Preserve along with the Division of Wildlife Resources, and she oversees the refuge. Trails and boardwalks leading through the preserve’s trees and grasslands offer visitors a way to enjoy a rare ecosystem in the desert: a marshy, riparian area rich with moisture and vegetation.

Whitham closed the preserve this spring after seeing evidence that visitors were abusing it: litter, vandalism, and prohibited activities including bringing dogs, riding bikes, parking trailers and camping. Even after the preserve was closed to the public, a human-caused fire destroyed a wooden bird blind (a covered deck for watching wildlife) inside the preserve.

Now that the damage from that fire has been cleaned up and the lost structure has been replaced with a boardwalk and platform, Whitham has mustered the optimism to reopen the gate.

“It’s been frustrating, but I just decided I’m going to go ahead and open up anyway and keep an eye on things,” she said. Whitham visits the preserve several times a week, and relies on reports from at least one regular user of the preserve; she hopes to also soon create volunteer opportunities for more people to monitor and steward the area. Now that the Fourth of July holiday is over, summer temperatures are discouraging out-of-town visitors, and the heat has most of us in a stupor, Whitham hopes the frenzy of visitation that the preserve saw in the spring will lull.

“Hopefully it’s too hot for people to act up,” she said.

There are also a few new signs highlighting the ban on overnight parking and camping in the preserve. The Nature Conservancy will soon hire a new employee to help with upkeep and stewardship at the Matheson Preserve as well as other properties owned by the organization.

Whitham said that even in the blaze of summer, there is still lots of wildlife to see at the preserve. She recently saw a great blue heron, sometimes sees wild turkeys, and often notices deer and squirrels.

“This past Thursday, I went down in the early morning, which is the time to go—it’s just lovely,” Whitham said. “It’s a cacophony of sound, there are so many songbirds out there right now. It’s really delightful.”

Bears, mountain lions, bobcats, foxes, coyotes, raccoons, and beaver are also known to use the preserve, though they’re either rare or elusive or both, and not likely to be seen by people. Sometimes someone catches a rare glimpse, however:

“A couple months back, a birder saw a river otter in one of the channels,” Whitham said.

While she’s glad to be opening the gate, Whitham won’t hesitate to close it again if users aren’t respectful. The following are prohibited at the preserve: bikes, dogs, camping, campfires, trailer parking, and littering.

“Yes, we’re opening the preserve again, and we really want people to come and enjoy it,” Whitham said. “But it doesn’t have to stay open if people aren’t following the guidelines.”