Biggest loser at Comb Ridge? The public.

A landmark within the proposed Bears Ears Monument was sold to private interests.

 

It felt 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 Oct. 18, and for decades before that, it had been public land, a place where locals and visitors could roam freely. Now it isn’t, and it likely never will be again.

The Comb Ridge parcel lies just north of Highway 163, stretching from the sandstone ridge’s crest east toward Butler Wash. The Hole-in-the-Rock trail, forged by Mormon pioneers in 1879, passed through the parcel, as does an old, abandoned blacktop highway, imbuing it with an end-of-the-world feel. 

Crest of Comb Ridge on the parcel that was sold.
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. 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 it will be a private inholding.

After the Hole-in-the-Rock Foundation nominated the parcel for sale this summer, local conservationists tried in vain to stop the auction, and scrambled to raise enough money to buy the parcel themselves. But with a bid of $500,000, Lyman Family Farm Inc. beat both them and the Hole-in-the-Rock Foundation to it. 

Lyman Family Farm, however, appears to be more property speculation than agricultural operation. In 2015, the company, registered by Joseph L. Hunt, bought three parcels of state land near Bryce Canyon National Park for a total of $292,000. At the recent auction, in addition to the Comb Ridge acreage, it also bought a parcel 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.

Hunt is the president of Air Resources Medical Group, which is headquartered in South Jordan, Utah. He is originally from Blanding, a Sagebrush Rebellion command post and home of Phil Lyman, the San Juan County commissioner best known for leading an ATV protest ride down a closed road in Recapture Canyon in May 2014.  

The state land sale unveils a paradox within Lyman’s movement. These Sagebrush Rebels are motived mostly by a desire for more local control over, and access to, the vast tracts of federal land in their backyards. The best way to accomplish this, they argue, is to transfer the federal land to the states. 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.

It rarely works out that way. State lands are usually considered primarily as revenue generators for schools and other services. New Mexico, for example, keeps its budget afloat — at least when oil and gas prices are high — by leasing state lands to oil and gas companies. When a state can’t lease the land for extraction, it sells it outright to the highest bidder. Utah did this with 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.” 

By prioritizing revenue generation above all else, the state takes control over the land away from the people, and puts it into the hands of corporations. By selling that land outright, it tosses any remaining shred of local control right 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 freely. The fear is understandable, if somewhat irrational: If the monument is designated as proposed, most traditional uses could continue. The same, however, cannot be said for the parcels sold off by the state, including the one on Comb Ridge. It’s likely only a matter of time before the “No Trespassing” signs and fences go up, and Hunt proceeds to do with the land pretty much whatever he likes. And, believe me, he’s not going to ask our opinion about it, whether we’re locals or not.

Jonathan Thompson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News, where he is a contributing editor.

 

High Country News Classifieds
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
  • ACTING INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS DESK EDITOR
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
  • GRANTS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
  • ALASKA SEA KAYAK BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND EVENTS PROGRAM COORDINATOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
  • PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT FACILITATOR
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
  • LAND STEWARD, ARAVAIPA
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
  • DEVELOPMENT WRITER
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • CONNECTIVITY SCIENCE COORDINATOR
    Position type: Full time, exempt Location: Bozeman preferred; remote negotiable Compensation: $48,000 - $52,000 Benefits: Major medical insurance, up to 5% match on a 401k,...
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT
    ArenaLife is looking for an Executive Assistant who wants to work in a fast-paced, exciting, and growing organization. We are looking for someone to support...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Mountain Lion Foundation is seeking an Executive Director. Please see our website for further information - mountainlion.org/job-openings
  • WASHINGTON DC REPRESENTATIVE
    Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Washington, DC Position Reports to: Program Director The Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) is seeking a Washington, DC Representative...
  • REGIONAL CAMPAIGN ORGANIZER
    Position Title: Regional Campaign Organizers (2 positions) Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Preferred Billings, MT; remote location within WORC's region (in or near Grand Junction...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Western Watersheds Project seeks a Tenth Circuit Staff Attorney to bring litigation in the interests of protecting and restoring western watersheds and wildlife, particularly focused...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • SPRING MOUNTAINS SOLAR OFF GRID MOUNTAIN HOME
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
  • MAJOR GIFTS MANAGER - MOUNTAIN WEST, THE CONSERVATION FUND
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
  • NATURE'S BEST IN ARAVAIPA CANYON
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....