A steep divide: Locals plead for a conservation easement for a tract on Comb Ridge

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PROPOSED SALE OF CEDAR MESA DISCUSSED AT BLUFF COMMUNITY MEETING

Citizens packed the Bluff, Utah, Community Center on June 7 to give their views about a proposed sale of school-trust land west of the town. The vast majority opposed it. Photo by Gail Binkly

Opponents of the sale of a tract of state trust land near Bluff, Utah, are pleading with the potential buyers to put a conservation easement on the property to protect it from development in the future.

But the group seeking to purchase the site seems disinclined to pursue the protective designation.

At issue is the fate of a 640-acre section owned by Utah’s State Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA), six miles west of Bluff on steep, scenic Comb Ridge.

Earlier this year, the nonprofit Hole in the Rock Foundation nominated the parcel for auction – essentially asking for permission to bid to buy it. SITLA’s mission is to manage its trust lands to raise money for its beneficiaries, which are primarily Utah’s public schools.

A furor erupted over the proposal. At a public meeting in Bluff on June 7, close to a hundred locals packed the tiny town’s community center. Dozens spoke in opposition to the auction, relating personal accounts of their close ties to the square mile of land, which although not technically “public” has always been open for public use.

“The comb is the spine of Mother Earth,” said Georgiana Simpson of Bluff. “It’s this magical place you can go.”

“It’s like our town park,” agreed Tamara Desrosiers, a 27-year resident of Bluff who now lives in Cortez, Colo. She is a member of the board of directors of the Bluff-based nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa, a conservation group. “This is where we go for our barbecues, our parties, our bridal showers.”

Greg Child of Moab, Utah, another FCM director, said he walked the entire 120-mile length of Comb Ridge 12 years ago and didn’t encounter a single “No Trespassing” sign. “Can a stipulation be placed on that land so all members of the public can walk unobstructed across its length?” he asked.

Locals begged the Hole in the Rock Foundation to seek another site to purchase, and for SITLA to say no to the sale.

But SITLA is proceeding with the auction, set for Oct. 19 at the Little America Hotel in Salt Lake City.

At the June 7 meeting, SITLA Director Dave Ure said the agency is often “damned if we do and damned if we don’t,” adding that SITLA has been sued on numerous occasions for not accepting offers that could increase funds for its beneficiaries.

“It’s in our beneficiaries’ best interest to move forward with the sale,” Kim Christy, SITLA’s deputy director for surface and external relations, told the Free Press. In response, FCM has been asking its supporters to contact the Hole in the Rock Foundation about arranging a conservation easement for the parcel.

On its website, FCM says such an action would “demonstrate and maintain positive working relationships between the Foundation, the residents of Bluff and visitors from around the region that have used this property for decades as if it were public land.”

The site continues, “This solution is a classic compromise where everyone gives up something. The Foundation would give up some development rights in exchange for permanently allowing public access and limiting their future development. Conservationists would give up the dream of this land being true public land for future generations. However, the practical result would be a win-win compromise. . . .”

FCM assistant director Amanda Nichols told the Free Press she is hopeful an easement may yet be implemented. “Ever since we heard about the auction, we have been looking for a win-win solution and we think a conservation easement is best.”

But Lynn Stevens, a member of the foundation’s board of directors, said the board has discussed the idea but is not interested. “HIRF is seeing no advantage whatsoever to a conservation easement,” he told the Free Press. “I’ve read all the Friends of Cedar Mesa stuff that constantly refers to it as a win-win. Well, we don’t see any win in it whatsoever for the foundation.”

Christy said SITLA has no position on a conservation easement for the tract.

“If a conservation easement is consummated, it would have to be between the purchaser and FCM or their affiliates,” Christy said. “It’s not something we would orchestrate. I understand that is still being strongly advocated, but we have no position one way or another.”

The Hole in the Rock Foundation is a nonprofit dedicated to preserving and promoting the legacy of the hardy pioneers who settled the Bluff area.

The foundation has steadfastly maintained it has no interest in developing the property or closing it to public access, but wants to own it in order to guarantee its use for youth hikes and other events commemorating the pioneers’ courage and endurance.

“The reason we want to buy this is because it’s representative of the terrain over which the pioneers in 1879 and 1880 had to travel in wagons to get to Bluff,” Stevens told the Free Press. “And there is significant evidence they actually crossed part of this piece of land.”

In a June 8 op-ed piece in the Salt Lake Tribune, Stevens wrote, “The foundation’s interest in purchasing this particular section of trust land relates directly to one of its primary purposes: to educate young and old about the history and current relevance of this story. This property is significant because it allows participants to literally walk in the footsteps of those original pioneers, to see and feel and experience, on the ground, what those early pioneers saw and felt as they struggled to cross the terrain on their way to Bluff.”

In his column, Stevens quoted former University of Utah history professor David E. Miller, who wrote, “In all the annals of the West . . . there is no better example of the indomitable pioneer spirit than that of the Hole-in-the Rock expedition of the San Juan Mission. No pioneer company ever built a wagon road through wilder, tougher, more inhospitable country, still one of the leastknown regions in America.”

Stevens said some people don’t understand that the foundation intends to keep the tract as it is.

“[FCM’s] appeal to the world has resulted in nearly 100 emails so far to us,” Stevens said, “one of which is very disturbing in a way. It was from a person that was at the [June 7] public meeting, where I said we would not build a fence around the property. His entire appeal was about how difficult it would be for him to walk around a fence.”

He said the foundation’s board sees no reason to alter the site. “We’re buying it because of what it is.”

It’s possible some signs would have to be put up, and perhaps Porta-Potties on a temporary basis. “If we have 200 or 300 teens there for a day, it would be short-sighted if we didn’t have some Porta-Potties and remove them,” Stevens said.

The foundation has no plans to limit access, he added. “Access and use of that would not be limited to people who are members of the Mormon Church.”

But FCM and its supporters say, without a conservation easement, there is no guarantee that future directors of the foundation would not someday erect structures or fencing on the site. Furthermore, they could choose to resell the property to someone else who would want to develop it.

For that matter, the Hole in the Rock Foundation may not even wind up with the winning bid at the auction.

SITLA’s Christy said he isn’t aware of other potential buyers interested in the tract, but if there are any, the agency can’t pick favorites.

“In a sale of this nature, the prevailing party will be that party that bids the highest amount,” Christy said.

He said SITLA will set a minimum acceptable price, and interested parties will submit sealed bids. The three highest bidders, along with anyone else who is within 80 percent of the third-highest bid, will qualify for the oral auction to follow.

Stevens said he thinks it unlikely there would be much competition for this parcel unless it comes from a conservation group such as FCM.

“As far as we know, we’re the only ones interested,” he said, adding, “It’s 90 percent solid, exposed sandstone slickrock.”

“We are scared of the potential of other buyers,” said FCM’s Nichols, “because if there were someone else coming forward, we’re not in discussions with them about a conservation easement. Anyone else could own it and sell it off to developers. Or the buyer could also decide later on down the line they no longer wanted to allow public access.

“People have been asking about FCM buying it, but we’re not in the real-estate game and don’t have the budget to make a competitive bid.”

Although the Comb Ridge sale has drawn a great deal of attention, it is just one of 13 SITLA parcels slated to be put up for bid in October for either sale or lease.

SITLA’s narrow mission of maximizing profits off its lands has periodically come under criticism when popular or scenic parcels were involved.

In an editorial in 2013, the Salt Lake Tribune called for the legislature to modify the agency’s legal mandate.

“SITLA’s codified mission is to make as much money as possible on lands it oversees, which goes into a trust fund to make even more money, a tiny bit of which goes to fund public education,” the Tribune said. “That single-minded mission, which does not allow SITLA to consider the long-term value of any parcel of institutional trust lands, should be changed by the Utah Legislature.”

However, no move has been made in that direction.

Recently, SITLA and the Hole in the Rock Foundation have discussed the idea of auctioning off less than the entire 640-acre Comb Ridge parcel.

“Initially we were staged to offer the full section,” Christy said, “but frankly, in mind of what was expressed at the community meeting, we opted to shrink the footprint.”

He said this is an effort to keep from carving out a piece from “the overall continuum of Comb Ridge.”

He said the smaller parcel being contemplated lies north of Utah Highway 163 and essentially east of the lip of the ridge. SITLA is in the process of having that portion surveyed, but it is estimated at 380 acres.

Stevens said the smaller parcel would be a better fit for the foundation’s purposes.

“Originally SITLA had insisted we would have to buy 640 acres, but the recent indication is they are having surveyed a reduced footprint,” he said.

“There are several advantages of the smaller piece: It’s the property we wanted initially; the price will surely be less; and there is a very minimal amount of archaeological Anasazi artifacts in that part of the section, so we would not have to go to extraordinary means to fence that off and protect it.”

But Nichols said FCM does not see the sale of a part of the tract as offering any advantage.

“We wouldn’t see a smaller parcel as any positive compromise because to us what is important is protecting the integrity of the Comb Ridge as a whole. Even if a small part were privatized, there might not be public access.” She said she continues to hope the foundation will reconsider and adopt a conservation easement.

“We feel like we have the united support of the town of Bluff right now. People are phoning and emailing every day to see what they can do to help,” Nichols said.

“We will keep approaching it with kindness and respect. That’s been the tone of the conversation so far and we want to keep it that way.”

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