Comb Ridge is a dramatic reef of rock that stretches for 80 miles across northern Arizona and southern Utah and has served as barrier, landmark, and home back through the millennia. And through all those years, across the majority of that land, it’s remained open and public. But the state of Utah, which is the most vociferous of the states demanding the federal lands be turned over to state control, just sold 391 acres of Comb Ridge to a private party, Lyman Family Farms.
The transaction went through despite the strong opposition of locals and environmentalists.
“The sale is a distressing loss for the countless locals, returning visitors, and Native communities bearing cultural connections to the Comb Ridge,” wrote Friends of Cedar Mesa, which helped lead the fight. “With this purchase, this frequently visited section of the Comb may be closed to public access. We are currently unaware of the development intentions of the buyer. It is now the only privatized section of the 80-mile sandstone spine north of the Navajo Nation.”
The Comb Ridge parcel was owned by Utah and held by the State Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA). The state trust lands are a legacy of the 134 million acres that were granted by the U.S. government to states when they joined the union for the purpose of education. Utah, in threatening to sue the United States to wrest land from federal control, says that it can do a better job of managing them.
Numerous reports and studies suggest otherwise. Nationally, only 40 million acres remain of the original deeded tracts. California and Nevada sold off almost all theirs and have little to show for it. Utah’s performance has been somewhere in the middle. About half of its six million acres are left.
In 2013, SITLA leased 96,000 acres in the Book Cliffs for oil exploration against the vehement opposition of typically energy-friendly Gov. Gary Herbert and a coalition of hunters, sportsmen, and environmentalists.
SITLA board chairman Steven Ostler shrugged. “When SITLA lands are involved, the board has no other job than to maximize the value of the trust,”he said.
The Comb Ridge acreage was just one of a number of parcels sold by SITLA yesterday, which netted the agency $5.5 million. Lyman Family Farms also bought 200 acres near Zion National Park and outbid Salt Lake climber Niels Tietze, who was trying to buy 180 acres near the crack climbing mecca of Indian Creek. He was using money left to him by his deceased brothers and intending living off the land. Lyman outbid him, paying $270,000.
Altogether, the company spent $2.24 million at the auction. President Joseph Hunt refused to say what Lyman would do with it.
“As we suffer this big loss,” Josh Ewing, Friends of Cedar Mesa’s executive director, wrote, “we are reminded just how much work there is yet to be done to protect our public lands in Southeast Utah. As we write this, SITLA is pushing for a massive land trade outside of Bluff that would block up a large, archaeologically sensitive area for energy development.”
Photos by Steve Casimiro, top, Wikimedia Commons