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Bennion Ranch Receives Utah Leopold Conservation Award

Bennion Ranch of Vernon is the 2023 Utah Leopold Conservation Award® recipient.

The award honors ranchers, farmers, and forestland owners who go above and beyond in their management of soil health, water quality and wildlife habitat on working land.

Bennion Ranch was revealed as the award recipient at the Utah Farm Bureau’s Annual Meeting in Provo. Ranchers Alan and Elizabeth Mitchell receive $10,000 and a crystal award for being selected.

Sand County and national sponsor American Farmland Trust present the Leopold Conservation Award to private landowners in 27 states. In Utah the award is presented with Utah Farm Bureau Federation, Western AgCredit, and Utah Cattlemen’s Association.

Given in honor of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold, the award recognizes farmers and forestland owners who inspire others with their dedication to environmental improvement. In his influential 1949 book, A Sand County Almanac, Leopold advocated for “a land ethic,” an ethical relationship between people and the land they own and manage.

Among the many outstanding Utah landowners nominated for the award were finalists: Lewis Farms of Monticello in San Juan County, and Warrior Rizen Ranch of Porterville in Morgan County. Earlier this year, Utah landowners were encouraged to apply (or be nominated) for the award. Applications were reviewed by an independent panel of agricultural and conservation leaders.

The Leopold Conservation Award in Utah is made possible thanks to the generous contributions from American Farmland Trust, Western AgCredit, Utah Farm Bureau Federation, Utah Cattlemen’s Association, Sand County Foundation, Utah Department of Natural Resources, CKP Insurance, Producers Livestock Marketing Association, The Nature Conservancy, Utah Association of Conservation Districts, Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, and Utah Wool Growers Association. To view past recipients of the Utah Leopold Conservation Award, visit


For Elizabeth Mitchell, the land at Bennion Ranch is an extension of herself. The fifth-generation cattle rancher spent her youth on her family’s ranch located along the Vernon Creek in Utah’s West Desert.

When Elizabeth and Alan, and their five children, took the reins of the 2080-acre ranch in 2001 they wanted to improve its cattle pastures and wildlife habitat.

The Mitchell’s first task was rebuilding worn out fencing. Without control of their cattle’s movements, any conservation efforts would be stymied. They reconstructed 14 miles of fencing during their first five years, and have since doubled that amount. The early years also included installing two miles of waterlines and troughs with wildlife-friendly ramps.

The Mitchells have allotments to graze their cattle on thousands of acres of U.S. Forest Service lands that surround Bennion Ranch. They began their rangeland rejuvenation there in 2007 by removing Pinyon-juniper trees, thinning sagebrush, and reseeding 300 acres of pastures with multi-species of native grasses. This initial effort led to more than a dozen subsequent habitat improvement projects covering more than 18,000 acres, including all their private land.

Although Pinyon-juniper trees notoriously compete with grass for moisture, some groves of the trees were allowed to remain to provide shelter for cattle and wildlife. The Mitchells continue to interseed drought-resistant native grasses into their pastures.

When the Mitchells got involved with a local group working to conserve habitat for the greater sage-grouse, they brought thoughtful landowner and cattle rancher perspectives to the effort. With financial and technical assistance from a variety of organizations who rallied around the Sage Grouse Initiative, the Mitchells implemented a wildlife and livestock habitat conservation plan over a five-year span.

The Mitchell family helped identify leks of the elusive birds that are native to the area around the Sheeprock Mountains. To protect the birds from mowing equipment, Alan built a hydraulic flushing bar system that mounts to a tractor’s front-end loader.

The Mitchells have improved water quality and wildlife habitat with help from Beaver Dam Analogues, man-made structures that mimic the form and function of natural beaver dams. Located at various spots along Vernon Creek, which runs through Bennion Ranch, the structures filter silt from the water and create small ponds for migrating ducks.

To improve soil health and feed efficiency, the Mitchells grow cover crops within a crop rotation system on their alfalfa fields. A mix of grain, clover, radish, turnip, collards, and kale provides forage while naturally suppressing weeds and reducing the need for commercial fertilizers. Each fall the hay fields are part of the ranch’s rotational grazing system. The Mitchells raise crossbred Wagyu/Angus cattle and direct market their beef to customers.

Alan has served on the boards of the Rush Valley Water Conservancy District, Vernon Irrigation District, and Utah Crop Improvement Association. Elizabeth organized a cooperative project between ranchers and the U.S. Forest Service that improved water and grazing distribution.

Bennion Ranch hosts a variety of projects and events that bring guests to its remote location, including the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources’ Dedicated Hunter Program. This service-based hunting program provides hunters with opportunities to contribute time to wildlife-related service projects. They also learn about the conservation ethic that drives landowners like the Mitchells.


“Valuing the preservation of water and our precious natural resources takes center stage in today’s era of farming and ranching,” said Spencer Gibbons, Utah Farm Bureau Federation CEO. “We applaud the Mitchell family for their commendable dedication to these ideals on their farm and ranch. While we can only single out one family for this prestigious award, it’s important to extend our heartfelt appreciation to all the finalists, as well as the broader community of farmers and ranchers in our state, who share a profound sense of duty towards the welfare of our land and its inhabitants.”

“We’d like to commend the Mitchell family of Bennion Ranch for their conservation efforts. Bennion Ranch has a rich history of conservation, and this recognition is well-deserved,” said David Brown, President of Western AgCredit. “Farmers and ranchers work tirelessly to protect natural resources so they can thrive for generations, and we appreciate the Mitchell family’s commitment to conservation that helps ensure a lasting legacy.”

“The Mitchell family is an example of how Aldo Leopold’s land ethic is alive and well today. Their dedication to conservation shows how individuals can improve the health of the land while producing food and fiber,” said Kevin McAleese, Sand County Foundation President and CEO.

“As the national sponsor for Sand County Foundation’s Leopold Conservation Award, American Farmland Trust celebrates the hard work and dedication of the Mitchell family,” said John Piotti, AFT President and CEO. “At AFT we believe that conservation in agriculture requires a focus on the land, the practices and the people and this award recognizes the integral role of all three.”

Watch their conservation success story


The Leopold Conservation Award is a competitive award that recognizes landowner achievement in voluntary conservation. Sand County Foundation presents the award in California, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin, and in New England (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont).


American Farmland Trust is the only national organization that takes a holistic approach to agriculture, focusing on the land itself, the agricultural practices used on that land, and the farmers and ranchers who do the work. AFT launched the conservation agriculture movement and continues to raise public awareness through its No Farms, No Food message. Since its founding in 1980, AFT has helped permanently protect over 6.8 million acres of agricultural lands, advanced environmentally sound farming practices on millions of additional acres, and supported thousands of farm families.


Sand County Foundation inspires and empowers a growing number of private landowners to ethically manage natural resources in their care, so future generations have clean and abundant water, healthy soil to support agriculture and forestry, plentiful habitat for wildlife and opportunities for outdoor recreation.


The Utah Farm Bureau is the largest general farm and ranch organization in the state with more than 35,000 member families. Its mission is to inspire all Utah families to connect, succeed and grow through the miracle of agriculture. It strives to bring value to every citizen and community through love of God, family, country, and the land through political action, educational and informational means.


The Utah Cattlemen’s Association has represented Utah cattle producers since 1870, preserving the heritage and strength of the industry through education and public policy and by supporting and establishing the adoption of good principles of raising and marketing cattle and caring for the land we ranch on. Efforts are made possible through membership contributions.


Western AgCredit is the leader within the agricultural finance industry with nearly 100 years of lending to farmers in the Intermountain West. It currently serves approximately 1,700 customers with a full range of credit and financial services, as well as providing financial and volunteer support to several agricultural and community activities, including, among others, Utah Farm Bureau, Utah Cattlemen’s Association, Utah Wool Growers Association, the FFA, and the 4-H.