Old, clunky generators from the ’80s sustained just enough power for the lights to flicker on and reveal twin beds on metal frames. It was Christmas Day 2021, and the Leota family had spontaneously packed up all their belongings and driven nearly 300 miles to Utah’s southwestern corner. As they drove, Christmas trees shriveled into cacti, and white snow melted into red dirt.
The Leotas now stood in the doorway of the former bachelor pad that would become their new desert home. “My family are troopers,” Dallin Leota says. “This is our life outdoors.”
Leota is the manager of BYU’s Lytle Ranch Preserve, located thirty-six miles west of St. George, Utah. Its unique placement at the intersection of the Mojave Desert and the Great Basin makes the ranch a hotspot for biodiversity found nowhere else in Utah. The Lytle Preserve manager lives and works on the land full-time to preserve the area’s natural diversity and share its beauty with BYU students and faculty.
Several months have passed since Christmas Day, and Leota’s seven-year-old son and five-year-old daughter are adjusting to homeschool in the middle of nowhere. The same backup generators that provide power to cooking stoves also provide internet access for the kids’ schooling. Because of the lack of power, the kids’ schoolhouse expands to the great outdoors, where Mother Nature is their teacher.
“My son loves birdwatching,” Leota says. “We got some binoculars so he could enjoy looking at different kinds of birds, and it’s part of his science work that he does for homeschooling. My daughter loves being outdoors with her bike.” Per her special request, the Leotas also have two dogs.
Leota and his wife, Amilaina, are also adapting to life at the Lytle Preserve. Both are completing their master’s degrees while maintaining the preserve and raising their children. The couple spends ten hours a week driving to and from Salt Lake City for classes.
Despite the unique challenges these living conditions present, Leota feels he has found his purpose in conservation and preservation work.
CONSERVATION AND PRESERVATION
Both Leota and his wife received bachelor’s degrees from BYU–Hawaii. Leota finished classes in 2017 but waited to graduate with his wife in 2020. Leota studied business, though he had already worked in several managerial positions for about a decade. By the end of his degree, Leota felt he had hit a wall.
“One thing I’ve really felt in going through this [educational] experience is that I don’t want to make money for the sake of making money,” Leota once told his wife. “There’s no value, no purpose in that.”
After graduating from BYU–Hawaii, Leota started looking for jobs that would involve living off the land. He found great fulfillment in working at Kualoa Ranch in Oahu, Hawaii. To Leota, Kualoa Ranch is much more than the Jurassic Park filming site. The ranch taught him about his own passion for conserving and preserving Hawaiian culture.
“I really felt that this is what I want to do,” he says. “I want to preserve land. I want to take care of the land to a point where I can teach people about it and continue that conversation.”
The Leotas moved from Hawaii to Provo in 2020 to pursue master’s degrees in public administration at BYU. Leota felt drawn to the opportunity to impact local communities and governments through nonprofits. He was studying and working as the Bean Life Science Museum store manager when the Lytle Ranch manager position opened.
Leota says the opportunity at Lytle Ranch was his dream job. He loves that this work allows him to live self-sufficiently and make an impact in BYU students’ lives.
ENRICHING THE LIVES OF BYU STUDENTS
While studying business and gaining experience in the field, Leota saw students occasionally graduate with textbook knowledge and a diploma in hand but without hands-on experience. He usually preferred hiring people who had experience in the field over those who only had a degree.
With that in mind, Leota hopes to provide invaluable hands-on experience for students to supplement their degrees. “I want this to be a place where they can come and apply practical skills from what they’re learning in books,” he says. “I’d love to expand the experiential learning opportunity to all BYU students.”
The Lytle Preserve currently houses orchards of pomegranates, persimmons, peaches, and pistachios. Leota plans to add corn and other vegetation to the mix by drawing from the preserve’s nearby water source. He hopes to put visiting classes and student researchers to work pruning pomegranate trees and tilling the land. “Hopefully when we get those students going, everyone can gain a sense of the importance of taking care of the land. And then, in turn, the land takes care of us.”
EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING AT LYTLE RANCH
Each year, several plant and wildlife sciences classes take a field trip to the Lytle Ranch Preserve. One of these classes is Rangeland Plant ID and Ecology. Because of the warm climate, plants at the Lytle Preserve germinate long before plants in Utah County. Professor April Hulet says the preserve even has some species of plants that do not grow in other areas of Utah.
Hulet plans to create a living herbarium at the preserve with her students, using GPS to develop a story map. The story map will eventually be made public so visitors can locate specific plants growing at Lytle Ranch.
“That will give the students a legacy, in that every year we go, we can build upon our work,” Hulet says. “Over time, we can create a really nice database.” This project will be an opportunity for students to learn about plants and geographic information system tracking while simultaneously providing Lytle Preserve with an educational tool for visitors.
The ornithology class visits the Lytle Preserve each year to study birds rather than plants. Professor Randy Larsen remembers going to Lytle as a BYU student, and now he provides that same experience to current students. Larsen says the trip to Lytle Ranch culminates everything the students learned about birds in class.
“We’re going to see over 100 different species in three days,” he says. “Out of those 100-plus species, a big chunk of them will be southern birds that we wouldn’t be able to see around campus or in northern Utah in April.” Larsen hopes to open students’ eyes to the world of birds by giving names and histories to these feathered creatures at the preserve.
OUTREACH TO NATIVE TRIBES
Part of Leota’s vision for the preserve includes recognizing and connecting with the native cultures. On November 20, 2021, the Lytle Preserve hosted an outreach event with BYU biology faculty Alison and Michael Whiting and about thirty community members. In attendance were members of the tribal chair over the five bands of Paiutes, the Cedar City Tribal Council, and the Shivwits Tribal Council.
Paiute tribe leaders participated in a tour of the preserve, where they identified areas and archeological sites that belonged to their tribe. Leota helps to preserve and restore these areas.
“Our Native American students do a lot of research with ancient Paiute and Moapa tribes that inhabited this area before the polygamists and the settlers came through,” Leota says. He hopes that archeological sites in the Lytle Preserve will be a resource for students at BYU and neighboring universities interested in Native American culture.
LYTLE RANCH PRESERVE MISSION STATEMENT
The Preserve is dedicated to providing students, scientists, and visitors with an opportunity to experience the flora, fauna, and ecological complexities of this living system. Brigham Young University is committed to the care and preservation of this unique natural resource so that future generations can enjoy and learn firsthand about the biological and historical features of the Lytle Ranch Preserve.