SALT LAKE CITY — The president of a Utah farming corporation outbid Mormon history buffs and conservation groups to snatch up nearly 400 acres of school trust lands in an area that could become enveloped in a Bears Ears national monument should it happen.
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.
Lyman Family Farm prevailed in a number of bidding wars at Wednesday's Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands auction that garnered $5.5 million for the benefit of the permanent school trust fund, which distributes money to Utah schools.
The Hole in the Rock Foundation wanted the 391-acre parcel at Comb Ridge adjacent to federally managed lands to lead youth groups on historical and cultural tours of an area that was blazed by Mormon pioneers over the winter of 1879-80 in a treacherous journey.
Groups like Friends of Cedar Mesa prize the area for its abundance of cultural artifacts and stunning sandstone scenery.
Both groups reacted with disappointment to the auction's outcome, but they are hopeful some "arrangement" can be made with the new private property owner.
"I personally don't anticipate any difficulty in working out something that is acceptable to us," said Lynn Stevens with the Hole in the Rock Foundation.
Stevens said an important part of the trail crosses the school trust lands property, which is why it was so important to the foundation.
Josh Ewing, executive director of Friends of Cedar Mesa, said he is unaware of the intent of Lyman Family Farm.
"It is disconcerting that an area that is integral to Comb Ridge is now privatized," he said.
Hunt said the area is "perfect for sheep grazing," but Ewing was skeptical.
"He might want to check out the slick rock. Plus that's pretty expensive land for grazing sheep."
Lyman Family Farm also outbid a representative from Preston Nutter Ranch/Hunt Oil on two Patmos Ridge parcels of 720 acres in Uintah and Carbon counties.
Blair Eastman was obviously frustrated during the auction, pointing out to Hunt that neither parcel has any legal public access — it's surrounded by land owned by Hunt Oil.
Eastman said the company manages the land for its high-value big game hunting in conjunction with the state Division of Wildlife Resources and also works with archaeological groups to preserve cultural resources in the area.
Jerry Spangler, executive director of the Colorado Plateau Archeological Alliance, had high praise for Hunt Oil, but said the danger of working with some private landowners is lack of public access.
"What was once a public resource is now a private resource," he said. While he noted he was unaware of the extent of cultural resources at Comb Ridge, any potential documentation of artifacts comes at the discretion of the new owner.
The school trust lands administration does cultural resource surveys and places restrictive covenants on the land if they are determined present, but Spangler said assuring adherence to those covenants is problematic.
"In terms of our cultural heritage, some landowners are very fervent about protecting cultural heritage and others are not," he said.
The auction brought criticism from a coalition of sportsmen and conservation groups that asserted the sale interferes with public access. A petition of 1,800 signatures was circulating days before the auction.
While some of the 3,400 acres that were sold at auction include hunting, angling and other public access, many did not.
A 33-acre parcel east of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge lacked any public access nor right of access in the future. Willard City made the winning bid.
Ufford Investment bought 1,240 acres at Diamond Rim in Uintah County.
Steven B. White, a certified public accountant and manager of the trust that includes the investment company, said a portion of the purchase was made with sportsmen access in mind.
"The long-term plans with those particular parcels are to protect the hunting rights where it is limited entry and it has been for years out there. We anticipate it will stay that way," he said. "The rim property is bordered on three sides by public land, so we recognize there will be limited ability to restrict public access."
The other parcel, he added, is bounded by private land, so there had not been public access previously. Ufford prevailed with high bids totaling $1.7 million.
Cave Valley, bordered on the southeast by Zion National Park in Washington County, is a 200-acre parcel that was offered at auction at a minimum bid of $860,000.
The land, described by school trust land as scenic with plentiful hiking, fishing, camping and sightseeing opportunities, brought a bid by Under Canvas — a luxury camping company that offers exclusive experiences in Maine, California, the Cascades and Montana.
It was outbid by Lyman Family Farm at a price of $1.7 million.
A 40-acre parcel within Hankville city limits — which had been sought by the city — was offered at $64,000 but was sold to Lyman Family Farm for $75,000.
Conservation groups characterize the school trust lands auctions as "state of Utah" proposals to sell off land to the highest bidder.
The School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration is a separate entity from the state of Utah tasked with managing trust lands granted to Utah at statehood for its beneficiaries. Its mandate is to generate revenue for 12 state institutions that include public schools.