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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT EDITOR
    High Country News (HCN) seeks an audience editor to attract and acquire new audiences and deepen engagement with them - in our newsletters, on our...
  • COMMUNITY MARKETER
    High Country News (HCN) is looking for a Community Marketer to build and strengthen relationships between HCN and other organizations and individuals, with the aim...
  • FINANCE & OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Job Announcement: Finance and Operations Manager Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement: Development Director Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August 9, 2021...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • HECHO NEW MEXICO SENIOR FIELD COORDINATOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. This position is part of our...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is dedicated to saving the lands and waters on which all life depends. For more than 30 years, TNC has...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, CLIMATE AND ENERGY PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-climate-energy-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Climate and Energy Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Climate and Energy Program Director Location: Helena, Montana; other...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, WILDLANDS AND WILDLIFE PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-wildlands-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Director Location: Portland or Eugene,...
  • DISCOUNT SOLAR PANELS
    New w/25 year warranty. Shipped anywhere in the lower 48. Minimum order of 10 units. Call, text or email for current prices. .50-.80/ watt
  • SWEET MOUNTAIN HOME
    3.8 acres in pine and fir forest on a year round creek. Custom home, 2x6 framing, radiant heat, wrap around decks and established berry patch....
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • LEGAL DIRECTOR AND STAFF ATTORNEY
    Friends of the San Juans' Legal Director and Staff Attorney ("Legal Director") leads our legal advocacy and litigation practice and participates in many other organizational...
  • SPRING-FED PARCELS ON THE UPPER SAC RIVER
    Adjacent parcels above the Upper Sacramento river, near Dunsmuir. The smaller is just under 3 acres, with the larger at just under 15 acres. Multiple...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Wilderness Volunteers Wilderness Volunteers (WV), a 24-year leader in preserving our nation's wildlands, is seeking a motivated person with deep outdoor interests to guide our...
  • POEM+ NEWSLETTER
    Start each month with a poem in your inbox by signing up for Taylor S. Winchell's monthly Poem+ Newsletter. No frills. No news. No politics....