Places We Protect

The Virgin River

Utah

Virgin River in Zion National Park
Virgin River Virgin River in Zion National Park © Devang Mundhra

Groundbreaking partnerships preserve a river crucial to wildlife and people.

Every drop of the Virgin River matters. Hundreds of thousands of people in Washington County drink from its waters and rely on its flows to irrigate farms and ranchlands. Carving through the world-class scenery of Zion National Park, the river plays a major role in tourism and recreation. For nature, the Virgin and its tributaries are also an irreplaceable life source, supporting a rich array of plant and animal species—many found nowhere else on Earth. The river supports a landscape with 40 state sensitive species, 12 federally-listed species and six native fish. Its critical riparian corridor is vital for nesting, wintering and migration for an amazing assemblage of neotropical birds including the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher, phainopepla, vermilion flycatcher, Wilson’s warbler, and many more.

But pressures on the Virgin are rapidly intensifying. The population of Washington County is booming and demands for water are increasing. Climate change is also unfolding in this region, delivering increasing temperatures and prolonged droughts.

Sheep Bridge

Below Virgin, UT, the Virgin River drops into a deep, dramatic canyon. Sheep Bridge, a 419-acre property, encompasses river corridor, floodplain, striking arroyos and uplands. TNC has purchased the Sheep Bridge parcel and protected what the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources calls one of the most pristine corridors in the American Southwest.

Read the Press Release
Aerial view of a canyon carved by deep blue water.
Looking downriver as the water turns through a bend.
Late afternoon panorama view of rocky outcroppings.
Looking down into a canyon carved by the Virgin River.
Sun sets in a blue and yellow sky over a river gorge.

The Nature Conservancy’s Work on the Virgin River

“We’re working with local partners like the Virgin River Program and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources to explore ways to sustain a healthy river for people and wildlife,” explains Elaine York, TNC in Utah's West Desert Regional Director. TNC's conservation priorities on the Virgin span several different fronts and involve a range of partners. Here are a few highlights:

  • Protecting Land: TNC has purchased the 419-acre Sheep Bridge parcel, situated near the town of Virgin near the gateway to Zion National Park. This spectacular property supports two miles of the Virgin, part of a river segment the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources has named as one of the most pristine in the American Southwest. The protection of Sheep Bridge was made possible by a range of supporters and partners, including the property’s previous landowners, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the State of Utah, the Virgin River Program, and the Virgin River Land Preservation Association, as well as many TNC contributors. The preservation of Sheep Bridge builds on other critical land acquisitions TNC has made in the past, including a 27-acre parcel in the vital river corridor between the towns of Virgin and Rockwell.
  • Modernizing Infrastructure to Save Water: More water in the Virgin increases survival odds not just for the fish, but for the huge range of unique and rare plants and animals depending on this river. That’s why TNC and partners are so excited about a major, new collaboration focused on a 17-mile river stretch just below the town of Hurricane.  TNC has worked with a group of diverse partners to obtain funding to modernize Hurricane’s water delivery system within the next couple of years. The water through this upgrade will provide some in-stream benefits to increase flows for the river, supporting the woundfin, Virgin River chub and other river-dependent species. The partners are backing another project in Washington City where a return-flow system, currently in a canal, will be piped and provide some flow benefits to the river.
  • Restoring Habitat: TNC has partnered with a number of local, state and federal partners on Virgin River riparian restoration (east and west of Zion National Park) on public and private lands. Riparian restoration work has taken place in the Virgin to Springdale segment of the river, in Zion National Park, and on the east side of the Park with the help of Utah Forestry, Fire and State Lands, the Bureau of Land Management and several other partners.

With all partners working toward a shared vision, we have real hope for the river’s sustainable future. The vitality of the West, and all of its amazing places and plants and animals, is in some way tied to water.

West Desert Regional Director