Come, Pilgrim, come up through the gate and across the slickrock, come up to the summit of Comb Ridge and admire the grandest landscape on this earth. Due west, the icons of Monument Valley. Turn ever so slowly, Pilgrim. The gooseneck meanders of the San Juan. Valley of the Gods where mighty spirits shaped huge rock sculptures. Cedar Mesa where the Ancients built their finely crafted houses and granaries of stone, and inscribed their stories on the red-rock cliffsides where they still speak to us today. The Comb itself stretching northward into infinity. Golden cottonwoods in Butler Wash.The Abajos, blue and misty beyond the Bears Ears tall in the forest. Sleeping Ute Mountain, sacred to the tribes. Ship Rock. The Big Rez. Gaze reverently, Pilgrim. Take photographs. More precious still, Pilgrim, are your mental images, how the air smelled, how the breeze felt on your bare arms in the autumnal sun. Drink deeply of this, Pilgrim, and keep it inside you, where it will be safe.
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On Oct. 19, the State institutional Lands Administration of Utah, amidst great controversy, sold a section (360 acres) of Comb Ridge to a privately-held corporate entity, Lyman Family Farms. The section, which straddles Utah highway 163, has for generations been precious to hikers, naturalists, conservators of cultures, lovers of the outdoors and citizens of Bluff, the historic Mormon town six miles to the east.
Sixty-five million years ago, shifting tectonic plates deep beneath the earth's surface forced up an 80-mile long, one mile narrow ridge of jagged peaks and steep canyons, tilting almost 20 degrees to the west. Known today as Comb Ridge, it runs in jagged, multi-colored splendor from Kayenta, in the Navajo nation in Arizona, to the Abajo Mountains 11 miles west of Blanding, UT.
From roughly 800 A.D. to about 1300, it was part of the homeland of early puebloans sometimes called "Anasazi." They were remarkable stone masons, astronomers, potters and weavers. Priceless remains of their buildings and artifacts of their civilization remain on and around Comb Ridge, as throughout the Four Corners area.
In 1879, a party of Mormon pioneers set out from Salt Lake Valley to found new settlements in the San Juan River valley. Seeking the most direct route, they manhandled their livestock and heavy wagons down a sheer cliff -- the Hole in the Rock -- south of Escalante to the Colorado River where Lake Powell has since been created. Their mission, planned for six weeks, took more than six months, taking them through wild, uncharted mesas and canyons until, on the point of exhaustion, they founded the city of Bluff. Their last and most daunting task before reaching their destination was to cross Comb Ridge, at a point which they called San Juan Hill after the nearby river.
In 1976, Comb Ridge was designated a National Natural Landmark.
Early this year, the Hole in the Rock Foundation of Bluff petitioned the State Institutional Land Administration to auction its land holdings on Comb Ridge, intending to buy the tract and use it as a starting point for tours commemorating the San Juan Hill crossing. Signs opposing the deal popped up all over Bluff and southern San Juan County. Worse, as several local publications put it, the auction "opened a Pandora's box" by attracting monied private interests. The deepest pockets belonged to Lyman Farms, which not only outbid the Hole in the Rock Foundation for the Comb Ridge land, but also snapped up several other choice parcels close to national parks and monuments. Nobody seems to know what the corporation intends to do with its acquisitions. The Lyman Farms corporate filings with the Utah secretary of state identify its business interests as "vegetable and melon agriculture." A local rancher pointed out, "you can't even put cows up there," let alone grow melons or carrots.
A Bluff resident who seemed to favor the sale remarked that the Lyman corporation is "a bunch of entrepreneurs and businessmen, so you can't expect them to reveal their plans." But a Bluff business owner reported dark rumors that the Comb Ridge site would become "a training camp for survivalists."
A member of the Hole in the Rock Foundation said his group is "in close contact with the Lyman group." Everything will work out for the best, he suggested, and future generations will have the opportunity to "go up there and learn how their ancestors survived the rigors of their journey." The State Institutional Land Administration's holdings, he said, were "set aside (when Utah achieved statehood) to provide money for the schools,” so that last month's sales would provide a landfall for Utah public education.
Utah has 899 public schools with close to 500,000 students. Lyman Family Farms paid $500,000 for the section of land on Comb Ridge, which would yield each school in the state about $500, or a dollar per student. Pencil money.
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These are god-fearing folk, Pilgrim, Bible readers who gave places names like Moab and Jordan. Tell them, Pilgrim, tell them to go back and re-read Genesis 25: 29-34 (wherein Esau sells his birthright for pottage).
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The Comb Ridge land and other parcels acquired at auction by Lyman Farms are part of a much larger area and a much larger controversy, with the landmark called Bears Ears at its center. A coalition of native American tribes, ardently supported by environmental, historical, scientific and conservation organizations, has asked President Obama to use his powers under the 1906 Antiquities Act, to designate some 1.9 million acres of public land in Utah as what would be the nation's largest national monument. Republican state and local governments have countered with their own plan for the land -- highly favorable to the extraction industries -- which they hope will soon come to a vote in Congress. "If we fail," one of them said, "San Juan County will become Bears Ears County."
Some right-wingers seem resigned to the probability that their plan, despite the vast wealth and political power of the extraction industry, nevertheless will fail in Congress. They expect that Obama will create the new national monument before leaving office, as President Clinton did 16 years ago with the Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument elsewhere in Utah. Even so, some precious places will not be protected because they are now in private hands.
Proponents of the national monument are acutely aware of the residual anger up north over Grand Staircase/Escalante, which some ranchers still refer to as "the stealth monument." The Lyman purchases have kindled new fears about the future of the public land in the Bears Ears plan. Could that auction have been part of some intricate and well-financed conspiracy to prevent federal protection of the lands from ever happening?
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Treasure your memories of these places, Pilgrim. Lock them deep inside you, where they will be safe. Perhaps some day they will be all that we have.