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
  • MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    For more information visit www. wyofile.com/careers/
  • THRIVING LOCAL HEALTH FOOD STORE FOR SALE
    Turn-key business opportunity. Successful well established business with room to grow. Excellent highway visibility.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    For more information, visit www.wyofile.com/careers/
  • SONORAN INSTITUTE, CEO
    Chief Executive Officer Tucson, Arizona ABOUT SONORAN INSTITUTE Since 1990, the Sonoran Institute has brought together diverse interests to successfully forge effective and enduring conservation...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a high-impact, nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 27-year legacy using...
  • PROJECT MANAGER
    Position Summary Join our Team at the New Mexico Land Conservancy! We're seeking a Project Manager who will work to protect land and water across...
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • DIRECTOR OF PRODUCT AND MARKETING
    High Country News seeks a Director of Product and Marketing to join our senior team during an exciting chapter of innovation and growth. This individual...
  • WILDLIFE HAVEN
    Beautiful acreage with Teton Creek flowing through it. Springs and ponds, lots of trees, moose and deer. Property has barn. Easy access. approx. 33 acres.
  • ARIZONA CONSERVATION CORPS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Arizona Conservation Corps is seeking a Program Director in Flagstaff or Tucson
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...