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Op-ed: SITLA’s Comb Ridge sale leaves Utah schoolchildren with less than they had

First Published      Last Updated Nov 14 2016 07:06 pm

On Oct. 19, Utah liquidated an irreplaceable cultural and anthropological site when it sold Comb Ridge to the highest bidder. The sale of "PS 8581" was not just a routine state land transfer. Americans lost irreplaceable history. Tuvwup Oaov, Mother Earth's Backbone, is worth far more as public land than the cash it brought into state coffers.

On Comb Ridge, near Bluff, ravens wheel and plummet over sandstone fins stretching for 80 miles. Artifacts lie scattered amidst scrubby juniper and prickly pear cacti. Its spines orient us to the Bears Ears Buttes, the Abajo Mountains, and miles of badlands stretching to Monument Valley.




This place changes you, whether you came for recreation, culture or spiritual retreat. My time here sparked a career in public lands conservation. Now the ground on which I stood has been privatized. The public lands takeover just got personal.

While conservationists had their eyes on the prize — 1.9 million acres protected as Bears Ears National Monument — a small and important section of school trusts land on Comb Ridge was ripped from the proposed monument and sold at auction in Salt Lake City. Utah's State Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) lands are managed for revenue. Almost overnight, 391 acres of Comb Ridge went from being Bluff's all-inclusive backyard to a private playground after the Hole in the Rock Foundation (a Latter-day Saints heritage group) asked SITLA to auction off the parcel.

Across the West, proposals abound to wrest federal lands from the public interest. The focus is on state control, from the Bundy brigade to Utah's compromised-to-death Public Lands Initiative.

Josh Ewing, director of Friends of Cedar Mesa, suggests we pay attention to the SITLA auctions. States like Utah "would sell [lands] off to the highest bidder."

Comb Ridge was sold off for a mere $500,000 to fund Utah public schools. The money will be quickly spent and forgotten.

Selling off public lands to pay for public education is criminally myopic. Free and open access to public lands gives American youth an education no classroom could provide — and keeps the West a place worth living in. Comb Ridge's spectacular scenery, vital cultural artifacts, and multi-faceted history warrant protection, not privatization.

From the start, conservationists urged SITLA to exempt Comb Ridge from sales. Asked to comment on conservation alternatives to an open auction, SITLA deputy Director Kim Christy made the state's priorities clear: "We need to preserve the integrity of the marketplace."

This is not the integrity we need.

Comb Ridge has welcomed strangers to its flanks from time immemorial. We see signs of indigenous communities with long and continued inhabitance. Early European explorers wandered here, as did the 1879-1880 San Juan Expedition along the Hole in the Rock Trail that settled Bluff. The privatization is an act of violence, cutting the public's connection to the place.

The land of the free must remain free: Anything less than keeping public lands in public hands disrespects the diverse generations who have called this landscape home, fought for our country, and preserved our heritage.

Soon Comb Ridge will be hung with a "No Trespassing" sign that only the ravens may cross. To privatize this particular pilgrimage place — to lock its wild spirit away — denies our shared history and diminishes our future. Common ground should not be for sale.

Claire Martini is a conservationist, geologist, and storyteller who supports other young advocates in the Southwest to address climate change.

 

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