Private land in Grand Staircase trickling to BLM
Eight small parcels of privately owned land along State Road 12 in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument are quietly slipping into federal hands in the hopes of keeping commercial clutter away from the Calf Creek trailhead.
Several years ago the Grand Canyon Trust, the Flagstaff, Ariz.-based conservation group, began buying these inholding parcels after proposals surfaced to develop them for tourist-oriented businesses.
Group leaders felt the town of Escalante 15 miles to the south was more appropriate for restaurants and T-shirt shops.
Last month, the trust began transferring the inholdings to the Bureau of Land Management, which tapped $440,000 from the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) to close the deal. The 21-acre transaction affects but a drop in this redrock bucket, but it does mark the first time the federal government purchased a significant slice of private land inside the monument, created in 1996 in the face of intense local opposition.
In the past, the LWCF has funded minor acquisitions and two 40-acre parcels have been donated, according to Hugh Wolf, the monument's real estate specialist.
Garfield County, where only 3 percent of the land base is privately owned, maintains a policy of opposition to further government ownership, Chairman Clare Ramsay said.
"Every bit we lose, that will cost us in property taxes," Ramsay said. "We can't afford to lose anymore."
There is some commercial development already within a few miles of Calf Creek, such as the Kiva Koffeehouse. Shutting down areas like this to future development could make it harder for visitors to enjoy the monument, argued Chuck Cushman, founder of the National Inholders Association based in Battle Ground, Wash.
"They foreclose the opportunity to provide services to the public," Cushman said. "It makes sense to have some development in these areas because some want to drive their car and stay in a hotel. The handicapped and elderly get frozen out."
When President Bill Clinton created the monument, plenty of land inside the boundaries of the 1.9 million-acre monument, spanning parts of Garfield and Kane counties, was not federally owned. The feds have since purchased all 175,000 acres of state inholdings, but numerous parcels remain in private hands, totaling about 11,000 acres.
Under the monument's management plan, the BLM aims to acquire these private parcels, but only when the landowner sells willingly and funding is available.
"The monument will not grow outside its boundaries ,but we are required to look at land that comes available within the boundaries," monument Manager Rene Berkhoudt said. "It preserves the area for current and future generations. That goes along with the mission of the [BLM's National Landscape Conservation] System to protect these treasured landscapes."
To make such transactions more politically acceptable to locals, the agency has identified 5,423 acres of federal land in Garfield County it could sell to private interests, according to Berkhoudt.
"More lands will be sold off [by BLM] than will be bought," Berkhoudt said.
Selling this land, some of which lies on the outskirts of Escalante, would require environmental review. "We are happy to work with [BLM] on deals like that," Ramsay said.
Inside the Garfield half of the monument, private interests own 2,618 private acres, less than half what BLM would sell.
In 1964, Congress established this fund to acquire sensitive lands inside national parks and wilderness areas. The annual spending limit is set at $900 million, but actual appropriations are usually just a small fraction of that cap. This year's appropriation is around $350 million. As of 2011, the fund has spent $48.5 million in Utah. The money comes from fees and royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling.