Utah Sells Critical Desert Land to Farm Corporation

Really think the feds should turn over lands to the states? Environmentalists are up in arms over land dump to private hands.

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


Steve Casimiro is the editor of Adventure Journal. Follow him on Instagram at @stevecasimiro.
Showing 15 comments
  • Cody L Custis

    There is a difference between transferring ownership and transferring control. States control certain aspects of land management, such as wildlife management, even on Federally owned lands. Meanwhile, Bundy grazing rights (sold far below market value and uncollected) are an example of terrible Federal management of public lands. Utah’s decisions relate to land ownership, not to land management.

  • Dan

    I am so perplexed. Who is Lyman Family Farms? What incentive do they have to own all these plots in every corner of the state? How do they have so much money to purchase these? I can’t find anything online that details who this entity even is, or who Joseph Hunt is. I find it very surprising these folks have regularly one SITLA auctions, but what is their ultimate goal?

    Huge loss for public lands today.

    • Steve Casimiro

      I spent about an hour searching and could find nothing more than a corporate address in South Jordan, Utah.

      • Dan

        Yeah exactly, and just barely registered in 2014. They won parcels in 2015 too from SITLA auctions as well. Feels like there is more to this story than meets the eye. He implied in one news article they would run sheep on some of the acreage – give me a break. I don’t normally don the tinfoil cap but this just doesn’t add up. I wonder what the actual process is for selecting parcels that are eventually made available in a SITLA auction – this is 4 pretty ideal plots of land in unique areas, seems more than coincidence that one entity bought all of them. Is it possible that the parcels selected this year for auction were influenced somehow? Indian Creek, Cave Valley, Comb Ridge, even the Hanksville one. Those all have exceptional characteristics for the recreation and conservation crowds. Just blows my mind that one entity bought them all.

        • Steve Casimiro

          Dan, I’ve been thinking all those things, too. These aren’t random plots of land. Lyman claims to be a melon grower. You’re going to grow melons on Comb Ridge, in the middle of archaeological sites? Not likely. They’re dropping a ton of money and outbidding everyone in sight. The Salt Lake Tribune has only mentioned them a couple times in the last 18 months, since LFF started buying SITLA land.

          And what of Joe Hunt, the person doing all the bidding? Lyman is registered in South Jordan, Utah. There’s a company in South Jordan called Air Medical Resources Group—its president is Joseph Hunt. One of the parcels of land purchased by Lyman has no public access or right of way—it’s completely surrounded by land own by a giant energy company called…Hunt Oil.

          No tin hat here, but this definitely deserves closer look, at least by the Utah media.

          Also, from the Desert News:

          The Comb Ridge parcel sold for $500,000 — $200,000 above what defeated competitors offered — to Lyman Family Farm’s Joe Hunt, who responded, “What Bears Ears?” when asked.

          • Dan

            Yeah, this is bizarre. Turns out prior to running AMRG he ran a small air tour company in… drumroll please… Southeastern Utah. How would he not know what Bear’s Ears is? Combined these plots this year with the ones he bought around Tropic and Bryce Canyon last year, and he has quite an interesting portfolio of land. Don’t need easements and roads when you fly in by helicopter.

          • Steve Casimiro

            But to do what with it, hmmm?

            This definitely deserves more digging.

          • Dan

            Hi Steve,

            Interesting work by the Salt Lake Tribune on this story – published yesterday: http://www.sltrib.com/home/4536249-155/family-farm-has-spent-millions-buying

  • KeepPublicLandsPublic

    I heard a conservation group bid $460,000 for the Comb Ridge parcel, and that Hunt’s next bid was $500,000.
    That land is about as fertile as our tile countertop. It’s not for farming. My guess is they’re waiting for a monument designation, and plan to sell it to the feds.

    • David

      Seems like a Tom Chapman style land play, the Lyman family is one of the original Hole in the Rock families and they have a fair bit of influence in San Juan County. I wonder how this LFF is connected to good old County Commissioner Phil Lyman. Maybe this is their effort to pay off his legal bills after the Recapture Canyon fiasco.

  • Nick

    Interesting details Steve! This one stinks, I hope that someone with journalistic abilites has the resources to investigate whats up with this.

    I feel like every American who has ever enjoyed the desert whether it be on foot or by Jeep just got ripped off.

  • Thomas
  • Allen

    Would think that for several of these spots, the thought is to sell back to feds (for more, later) or to develop high-end destinations, whichever pencils out better.

  • allent

    He mainly bought it to ensure access and preserve it. essentially the same thing environmental groups wanted, he’s just not an environmentalist.

  • Bob

    Maybe this may (who knows?) be a case where a united environmental front of outdoors enthusiasts would’ve been effective? As opposed to the constant infighting: You know hikers wanting to ban everyone off the land, horsepeople wanting to ban everyone but themselves from the land. People having a problem with people running on trails. Mountain bikers stuck defending their rights to ride instead of uniting against this type of thing. Might not

    Just a thought but it’s been discussed quite often that a united human powered group would have more power to oppose things like this, but as history shows many Sierra Club environmentalists would rather spend atrocious amounts of time trying to ban users they don’t like. This may or may not apply here but there’s too much time fighting the environmentalists who feel superior to other trail users. Just my $.02

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