Comb Ridge parcel sold to highest bidder

The privatized parcel within the proposed Bears Ears national monument could be a sign of things to come.

 

This story was originally published on RiverofLostSouls.com

It was like a sucker punch to the gut last week when the State of Utah sold off 800 acres of land in southern Utah to the highest bidders, the hardest blow being the loss of a 380-acre chunk of Comb Ridge near Bluff. On October 18, and for decades before that, it was public land, a place where locals and visitors could roam freely. Then it wasn't, and likely never will be again.

The Comb Ridge parcel lies just north of Highway 163, and stretches from the crest of what some Navajo call the "backbone of the world" down toward Butler Wash. The Hole-in-the-Rock trail went through here, prompting the Hole-in-the-Rock foundation to nominate it for auction in the first place. The old, abandoned blacktop highway cuts through the parcel, too, both defiling and adding an intriguing feature to the slickrock.

Comb Ridge rock, which is now on private land, with the Bears Ears in the background on the horizon.
Jonathan Thompson

It's one of the easiest places to access Comb Ridge from the highway, so it gets a lot of use — people camp, hike and just climb up to the ridge to sit quietly and take in the contorted and spectacular landscape all around. I've even used a little nook on the crest of the ridge as a sort of backcountry office because of the view and the solitude and because of the 3G cell signal that the town of Bluff lacks. It lies within the proposed Bears Ears national monument, and probably would have been swapped out for federal land elsewhere under a monument declaration. Now, if the monument is designated, it will simply be a private inholding.

After it was nominated for sale, local conservationists scrambled to raise enough money to buy it themselves, but Lyman Family Farm, Inc. beat them and the Hole-in-the-Rock Foundation to it with a $500,000 bid. Don’t expect to see fields of corn and alfalfa growing there, though, as Lyman Family Farm doesn’t appear to do much farming at all.

The company is registered to Joseph L. Hunt at the South Jordan, Utah, address of Air Medical Resource Group, of which Hunt is the president. Hunt is from Blanding, Utah, pioneer stock, and one of AMRG’s subsidiaries, Eagle Air Med, got its start in Blanding when a local doctor, Jon Hunt, started flying his plane to medical emergencies on the nearby Navajo Nation. Hunt registered Lyman Family Farm, purportedly as a vegetable and melon growing operation, in June 2014, just weeks after San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman led an ATV protest ride down Recapture Canyon. It’s not clear whether the two are connected, nor why Hunt went with the “Lyman” name.

In 2015, Lyman Family Farm bought three parcels of state land just outside of Bryce Canyon National Park for a total of $292,000. In addition to the Comb Ridge acreage, Lyman Family Farm also bought two other parcels near national parks: One in San Juan County north of Monticello and about 20 miles east of Canyonlands National Park, and one — at a price of $1.74 million — near Zion National Park. Hunt has been evasive about his plans for any of the parcels.

Meanwhile, Phil Lyman and other locals who have fought against Bears Ears and other public land preservation efforts have been notably silent, thus revealing one of the paradoxes of the land transfer/Sagebrush Rebel movement. The principal motivation behind the movement is a desire for more local control over, and access to, the vast tracts of federal land in their backyards. They believe that they should have a bigger say in how that land is managed, and they generally believe that the best way to realize this is to transfer federal land into state hands. The 15,000 residents of San Juan County will, in theory, have far more sway over state bureaucrats and politicians than they do over those in Washington, D.C..

The crest of Comb Ridge from the parcel that was sold.
Jonathan Thompson

Of course, it doesn’t always work out that way. In almost every Western state, state lands are seen primarily as revenue generators for schools and other services. So when it comes to managing them, money speaks a heck of a lot louder than local voices. A state will always lease out land to extraction or grazing if the opportunity exists. Just look at New Mexico, where state lands are crammed full with oil and gas infrastructure that brings in a lot of cash — at least when oil and gas prices are high. By prioritizing revenue generation above all else, the state takes the control over the land away from the people, and puts it into the hands of the corporations. So much for local control.

If there’s no oil or gas or coal or gravel on the land, then the state can generate much needed revenue by simply selling it off to the highest bidder, a la the Comb Ridge parcel. Arizona’s growth machine has been fueled by developers buying up huge chunks of state land at a bargain, and then slathering them with massive residential “communities.” Once the land is private, then local control — and usually local access — is tossed out the window.

One of San Juan County residents’ biggest fears regarding a possible Bears Ears national monument is that it would take away local control and access to the lands that they’ve long roamed on freely. I understand this fear. I grew up in a town surrounded by open space, where my friends and I rode bikes, camped out, hiked, had sword battles. And I remember how sick it made me feel when the fences went up around those places and the machinery and houses came in — what we had long intuitively understood to be public land, our land, was actually private. And believe me, no one asked us for our opinion on what happened on that land.

Federal land management often leaves a lot to be desired. The feds, too, want to fill up the coffers with cash, and so they, too, can be beholden to corporate interests. But in the end it belongs to every one of us, and we each have a voice in how it’s managed, even if it may be a small one. Once land is private, we lose that voice.

Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor for High Country News and is currently working on a book about the Gold King Mine spill. This post originally appeared at riveroflostsouls.com, where you can find more of his musings.

Michael Bryant
Michael Bryant
Oct 25, 2016 02:34 PM
New Mexico, what many point at as the standard for state control, realized the real cost of managing the parks and monuments is why outside what a state could manage. So what did they do? This article says it well. The corporations and range grazers restrict access to the land are the ones benefitting from the resources. The people get screwed in the end.
David W Hamilton
David W Hamilton Subscriber
Oct 25, 2016 06:03 PM
Oh, Jonathan!....This is the reality on the ground out West!... "The West against itself!" as Bernard DeVoto would put it.....everyone knows that anything that is not protected is going to be privatized and developed, trashed and exploited to the max for the benefit of the Eastern Plutocrats and their Western assistants....and we will be locked out of the whole process! Anyone arguing otherwise is either being ignorant, naive or disingenuous. We are sooo stupid...our patrimony is being stolen from us under our very noses...and we look the other way and pretend it is not happening!
While I was out in San Juan County last week, I kept seeing signs saying "SITLA...Don't Sell Comb Ridge!"...and now I know what THAT was about!
Jim Bolen
Jim Bolen Subscriber
Oct 25, 2016 11:32 PM
"Money doesn't talk it swears" Bob Dylan
Buying this inholding sounds much like what Chapman did in buying land in the Telluride and Black canyon area and threatening to develop if he doesn't get an exorbitant price from the the government
I hope this sale will finally get Obama moving to protect Bears Ears and make sure it stays out of state control
and private interests forever
David W Hamilton
David W Hamilton Subscriber
Oct 26, 2016 08:34 PM
Jim, my man, You are thinking just like me....surprise!!....of the Chapman scam connection....as well as the thought that Obama's usual timidity to do the right thing before the election....he might piss-off Utah, after all!!...
Also....the Kinks "Money Talks" comes to mind. Well, Jim, I won't go into my usual "Failed Species Rant"...but it is certainly bearing witness!! Oh mores!!....Oh tempore!!.....or "I see an evil moon arisen!"
Michael Bryant
Michael Bryant
Oct 26, 2016 08:50 PM
David W Hamilton
David W Hamilton Subscriber
Oct 26, 2016 09:07 PM
Michael....So pleased that you dug up that Tom Ribe essay on the Valles Caldera ( would have been nice if someone at HCN had gone ahead and done that!!!)...it has been on my mind in the context of the whole "Sagebrush Rebellion" privatization issue and the related mythologies. I notices that no one at HCN managed to bring up the Chapman precedent ( it took my friend Jim Bolen to do that!)....really!!...HCN has a tendency for caution these days that reminds ones of NPR....fear of Republicants and the White Nationalist State I guess!
Reminds me of Alice Cooper's...."I Never Wrote Those Songs"!!
Janet Wilcox
Janet Wilcox
Oct 31, 2016 03:09 PM
If the sale of Utah SITLA lands was a sucker punch, then you better understand that President Clinton's declaration of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument was a bomb dropped on Kane and Garfield Counties in 1996 that reverberated throughout the state of Utah, with continuous negative effects.

The State of Utah covers 52,696,960 acres. They have already given up 35,033,603 acres to 13 different national parks/monuments. That means the Federal government owns/ runs/ manages 55.5% of Utah's land. (Utah by the way is a solvent state, unlike the federal government which has a $20 Trillion debt. The scenario in San Juan County is more askew. Only 8% of San Juan County’s 5,077,120 acres is privately owned. Those with a socialistic mind set don’t seem to grasp the idea that private property rights exist in the proposed Bears Ears monument area. Some areas in that coveted land do NOT meet the definition of “public lands”, including 43 grazing allotments, 661 water-right infrastructures, 151,000 acres of state trust land, 18,000 acres of private property, and hundreds of miles of roads and infrastructure which are granted a RS2477 right-of-way.

The SITLA land sold recently, is State land, and similar parcels exist throughout the San Juan County. The actual Comb Ridge wilderness area consists of 17,400 acres most of which is already public; however, adjacent to Comb Ridge proper existed the land that was sold. It was not public land. The 391 acres was .02% of the total Comb Ridge acreage, but owned by Utah. It seems the playground bullies don’t want to share even that pinpoint of land with anyone else. In the bigger more coveted landscape of 1.9 million acres, 391 acres comprises only .0002 %. Additional SITLA lands take up another .079 % of the ill-conceived proposal for another 1.9 million acre monument. I wish I could believe that the federal government would take better care of it, but the fact is they are so in debt that National parks and monuments are under a 2 year deferred maintenance. Don't over-react by what you hear from extremists. Come back and revisit this scene in a year, and I think you will be surprised by the positive way it will be used.
Michael Bryant
Michael Bryant
Oct 31, 2016 03:35 PM
Selling off public, or undesignated, lands is a slippery slope. The end result is still the same: big businesses reap the rewards and the public looses out.
Janet Wilcox
Janet Wilcox
Oct 31, 2016 04:23 PM
As I said, don't jump to conclusions. Often private enterprise has supported worthwhile cultural and historic preservation. There is more at stake than a single vision of what Comb Ridge should be used for.
Wendy Black
Wendy Black
Oct 31, 2016 04:36 PM
SITLA lands are not "public land" They are used to give money to the schools in the state they are located in. Just becaue these parcels of land are not fenced in and people are allowed to roam upon them this does not mean they are "public Land". Its the same as me not putting a fence around my yard. Its still my yard.
David W Hamilton
David W Hamilton Subscriber
Oct 31, 2016 05:08 PM
Please enlighten me....isn't state land public land?.....If it belongs to the state....and the state is a public entity....how can the state hold its public property privately....you have really stumped the stoops here, I must say!...Does anyone here have the legal beagle insight on this...because this sounds like horse pucky to me!
Wendy Black
Wendy Black
Oct 31, 2016 05:17 PM
SIITLA lands are not "public" in the same sense you think they are. These lands belong to the schools of Utah and their express purpose is to bring income to Utah schools. The monies are then used by the districts in the best academic use. These lands were set aside for this purpose.
Wendy Black
Wendy Black
Oct 31, 2016 05:24 PM
Look up SITLA, What are trust lands?
Jim Bolen
Jim Bolen Subscriber
Oct 31, 2016 10:59 PM
Wendy and Janet
 Public lands are lands owned by a government entity in this case the state of Utah.
But you hit the nail on the head. The state's purpose is too maximize profits or sell this land. I totally agree with you.
But why then would I want to hand over my public lands to the state for them to exploit for maximized profits or sell off to the highest bidder.
By the way the state gave up these lands through the enabling act for the privilege of becoming a State. Maybe you would like to go back in time and have Utah become a sovereign state and not part of America.
 Just with any leased property private or public, property rights stay with the owner, despite what the Bundy's have claimed.
So you (Utah) did not give up anything to make national parks as you never owned them in the first place.
Janet you may want to rely on a private owner to do the right thing and be good stewards of the Land but I sure don't as at least with public lands I can vote against anybody who would want to take the public lands.
This includes the federal public lands of Utah.
It is rather irrelevant that their is deferred maintenance as that only refers to human improvements. The arches, natural bridges and canyons are not affected by the lack of funds, they will always be their. But what will impact them is trams, hotels , sleazy souvenir establishments that most likely would appear under a for-profit private property.
I am not sure you know what you have in Utah. I love my rocky mountains for the solitude and expanse but in reality they are not world class mountains on the scale of the Alps,Himalayas and Andes
However the quantity and quality of Canyons and desert landscapes of the Colorado plateau(which includes Utah) are world class.They can not be equalled in any part of the world.
Happy Halloween
Janet Wilcox
Janet Wilcox
Oct 31, 2016 11:06 PM
You didn't look up what SITLA lands are, did you?
Wendy Black
Wendy Black
Oct 31, 2016 11:19 PM
Also being a sovereign state does not mean leaving America. First we are part of the United States. America is Canada, United States and Mexico and others. Being a sovereign state was supposed to happen years ago and the United States government were only supposed to come in to help the western states for a time. We would be a state taking care of ourselves and also be in the United States. The states in the east are basiclly doing this because their is so little land owned by the Federal Government. We know what type of place we live in. Thats why we love it more than anyone, We not only think its beautiful we literally love the land and the heritge and traditions that it holds in our hearts. We are terrified of becoming another Zions, Arches, Canyonlands, Moab, Jackson Hole type of place. The people are loving the parks to death and the communtiies are being destoyed by tourism.
Wendy Black
Wendy Black
Oct 31, 2016 11:24 PM
Oh and... you said the states are exploiting the lands for profit. ??? Did you not understnd the SITLA page? The money goes for education. Are you against education? Do you think our kids and teachers do not deserve this money? Go get informed. Look up what is happening to these world class places, the tourist overcrowdng, the vanadalism the understaffed employees having to wear bullet proof vest and know all about drugs and riot techniques. Look up what kind of deficite the country is in and how they cannot take care of things as it is,
Jim Bolen
Jim Bolen Subscriber
Nov 01, 2016 09:30 AM
Wendy
so what are you going to do after exploit your state lands by extracting all it's resources and is no longer useful. you will then have to sell to gain funds for schools. You will be left with spoiled lands or no state lands and have to figure out another way to support your schools. This is a very short sighted and non-sustainable plan.
The ills that you mentioned are unfortunate but destruction would be much worse by rampant ATV use and overgrazing, mind pollution etc if not under a more stricter government control and looting would still occur.
I remember Utah was all for a national park for Canyonlands when they thought the Feds were going to spend for huge infrastructure improvements including a massively expensive road through Lockhart basin thus becoming all the places you loath. There was a lot of upset people in Utah when they realized this wasn't going to be the economic boondoggle they thought it was.
I don't want our western states to look like the eastern states, I am sure you don't either
Janet Wilcox
Janet Wilcox
Nov 01, 2016 10:01 AM
SITLA lands are Utah Trust lands. Western state received these so they could support local schools. See Wikipedia definition: "Each western state also received federal "public land" as trust lands designated for specific beneficiaries, which the States are to manage as a condition to acceptance into the union. Those trust lands cannot any longer be considered public lands as allowing any benefits to the "public" would be in breach of loyalty to the specific beneficiaries. The trust lands (two sections, or about 1,280 acres (5.2 km2) per township) are usually managed extractively (grazing or mining), to provide revenue for public schools,"
Michael Bryant
Michael Bryant
Nov 01, 2016 02:17 PM
Then there's this: http://www.sltrib.com/[…]/ute-tribe-rejects-states-plan-for . The does not have the best interest of the people at heart. It's all about the money, not the people, the land, or environment.
Janet Wilcox
Janet Wilcox
Nov 01, 2016 02:26 PM
Four sections of every township was designated at statehood for the purpose of supporting public schools. The State Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) has the responsibility to manage these lands that are in trust for school children in the the state of Utah. The lands that do not have the potential to generate revenue are sold off or traded for land that can produce revenue to support public schools. When land is sold the money from the sale is deposited into the Permanent School Fund. Interest and dividends from the fund are distributed to each public school in the state of Utah each year. Community councils that consist of school faculty and parents of students attending the school make the decision of how the SITLA money is spent.
Janet Wilcox
Janet Wilcox
Nov 01, 2016 02:30 PM
Michael Bryant, You may be surprised that many in San Juan County feel the same way about PLI as discussed in this article. Trading SJC SITLA lands to another county, does not really benefit us, and was not part of the original PLI hammered out by a SJC multi-interest committee over a 3 year period. It was changed, from local recommendation....But that is a whole other issue.
David W Hamilton
David W Hamilton Subscriber
Nov 01, 2016 03:33 PM
The states of the union all started out with varying amounts of state owned public land..(AKA: the blue measles!)...but most have very little left because they have sold it off over the decades!
David W Hamilton
David W Hamilton Subscriber
Nov 01, 2016 03:41 PM
Good Luck! Jim, in trying to bring some reason and perspective to this little dust devil!....I will leave it in your good hands to make the grand effort!....but, I don't think the prospect are good....the fatal flaw was that the whole "Blue Measles" concept was just another bad idea out of the 19th century that was doomed to lead to more conflicts, corruption and chicanery!
Janet Wilcox
Janet Wilcox
Nov 01, 2016 07:58 PM
I return to my original statement. Comb Ridge wilderness area consists of 17,400 acres most of which is already public. Don't you think 17,000 acres of Comb Ridge is enough to satisfy you for the next couple of centuries? While the poor peons of San Juan enjoy their 391 adjacent acres in preserving culture and history in a slightly different way? This should not be an all or nothing position for either side.
Jim Bolen
Jim Bolen Subscriber
Nov 02, 2016 10:24 AM
Janet
This land was bought by a private company so are you saying this land will be open for San Juan county residents. How do you know that? A private owner can do whatever he pleases. As far as I know he is going to grow Melons. If there are native American sites being preserved there, then it should be open to all Americans.
I think I will take a drive over to Combs Ridge to see what is at stake. What I remember is there are some interesting native American sites really close to the turnoff.
meanwhile Janet I just voted to support my schools the old fashion way. I voted for school bond issue which is sustainable and staying within limits of paying for what government services I want. I would never be interested in a non-sustainable practice of selling off our state land.
.
Janet Wilcox
Janet Wilcox
Nov 02, 2016 11:15 AM
Definitely, you should drive down. Also visit with those at the Bluff Fort and listen to their concerns about that land. They may have some insights too. And I'm glad you voted for the school bond issue. I'm sure your county is not in the poverty level ours is, and with the unemployment we have. I'm not sure we can afford any more taxes in SJC.
Jim Bolen
Jim Bolen Subscriber
Nov 02, 2016 10:16 PM
janet
Break in the world series , the tension is horrible i am afraid the Cubs have blown it.
Anyway looking at my computer and seen your comment. Your right my county is doing well and I don't mean to demean your problems in funding schools. I wish we had a better system in place to fund poorer areas to give these kids chance. It's to bad you have to sell your public lands to support your schools but it is not sustainable . We need to find a better way
Janet Wilcox
Janet Wilcox
Nov 02, 2016 11:33 PM
I did actually get to visit with Merri Shumway tonight, and asked her specifically about the SITLA land sales funds. She is president of our local school board. I wasn't totally sure how the sales money is managed, and as you said, we don't want that money to run out. She said all sales go to the Trust Fund, and only the dividends on the investments is used and divided among the schools. I had thought local SITLA sales only went to adjacent schools, but that's not the case. As of March 31, 2015 there was approximately $2.03 billion in that trust. The interest and dividends earned by the State School Fund are distributed to schools statewide under the School LAND (Learning And Nurturing Development) Trust Program. Distributions through the LAND Trust Program are used by schools to address their most critical academic needs. So the investment of those funds has been "sustainable" for quite some time, thanks to the protected legislation behind that trust fund, and wise investments. I need to find out for how long, and the growth pattern.

 Anyway, Merri felt like those funds were a big benefit to our schools in San Juan, though she did say that periodically people in the state gov. clamor for part of that money. So far no legislation has stolen it away. So I appreciate your queries, as it made me ask more questions and gave me a better idea of distribution. My next question to her is going to be, how much of our school local budget comes from those funds. Are you in Utah or Colorado? Until later.
Jim Bolen
Jim Bolen Subscriber
Nov 03, 2016 09:43 AM
Hi Janet
I live in a La Plata Colorado so it is unfair comparison to san Juan county. It look like our annual county revenues is 60 to 65 million annually and the bond issue will give our schools and additional 1.7million annually for 10 years. Maybe the counties where Moab or park city reside is a fairer comparison I don't know?.
Anyway that 2 billion a a good amount in that SITLA account . I don't know the rate of return but let's say 5% which would give the state 100 million. I don't know how that is distributed but would hope in goes toward the poorer counties especially one with a lot of Public land. Also should receive from the Feds funds in lieu taxes on federal lands. I don't know if we and your county are getting those funds as congress seems to mess around on these funds every year. We have a lot of federal lands under BLM and the forest service as well. Not much in State lands as far as I know.
I looks like your using these funds in a sustainable manner and I think that's a good thing.
Anyway I hope the new owners don't shut off these lands and the public and can still be able to access . As you mentioned it is only 400 acres but thing get to be chipped away one small parcel at a time
anyway have a good day and I am a happy man this morning as the Cubs have finally one something I haven't seen in my life time
Janet Wilcox
Janet Wilcox
Nov 03, 2016 03:52 PM
Hooray for the Cubs I could hear my husband hollering late last night. I'll try to remember to apprise you of what happens with that land, but I know the new owner was willing to work with the Bluff Fort as they hold youth events, and the BLM drowns everyone in paperwork. We'll both wait and see. Thanks,
Janet Wilcox
Janet Wilcox
Nov 03, 2016 06:01 PM
Hooray for the Cubs I could hear my husband hollering late last night. I'll try to remember to apprise you of what happens with that land, but I know the new owner was willing to work with the Bluff Fort as they hold youth events, and the BLM drowns everyone in paperwork. We'll both have to wait and see what happens. Thanks,