Words carved into the sandstone signs welcoming those driving into Bluff indicate the Utah town was “established” in the year 650, a not-so-subtle nod to the Native Americans who built a civilization in the region’s canyons and mesas 12 centuries before Mormon pioneers settled and named Bluff.
Now, Bluff will be Utah’s newest town. By nearly a 3-to-1 margin, residents voted Tuesday in favor of incorporating their community at the doorstep of the new Bears Ears National Monument.
The incorporation drive got off the ground last year at the same time American Indian tribes built momentum for their successful campaign to convince then-President Barack Obama to designate the 1.3-million-acre Bears Ears monument against the wishes of San Juan County leaders.
Incorporation leaders characterized municipal government as the best way to guide the town’s destiny in the face of tourism pressures, while critics were concerned about the costs of running a town and providing essential services currently provided by the county. The preliminary vote tally—89 for, 32 against—indicates residents are willing to shoulder additional costs if necessary.
Many see change coming, driven by growing interest in the region’s rich archaeology and stunning undeveloped landscapes that are expected to draw increasing numbers of visitors, according to Brant Murray, chairman of the committee that campaigned in favor of incorporation.
“We need to get in front of this dynamic of change,” said Murray, whose accent gives away his North Carolina roots. “It is such a special place, we want to maintain this desert charm that we have.”
The retired auto parts store operator moved Bluff three years ago after visiting the region for the previous 30 years to explore its mysteries on foot.
Last year’s controversial monument designation guarantees Bluff will remain a magnet for tourists regardless of whether President Donald Trump redraws or rescinds the monument. Bluff has less than one-tenth the population as its neighbor Blanding, but visitors tend to find Bluff a more inviting place to stay, dine and shop than Blanding, whose residents re-affirmed a 50-year ban on alcohol sales on Tuesday.
President Trump is expected to travel to San Juan County next month to announce what will likely be a severe reduction to the Bears Ears monument, a move that would immediately be tied up in the courts.
With the addition of Bluff, Utah has 247 cities and towns. Incorporation won’t be official until voters seat a mayor and four town council members. A town treasurer and clerk will also be hired.
While Bluff has only 265 residents, the new town limits cover 38 square miles stretching along the north side of the San Juan River for several miles on either side of the town settled in 1880 by the famous Hole-in-the-Rock Expedition. That is vastly more territory than is covered by Blanding and Monticello.
Bluff was the subject of a student planning project, titled Listening to Bluff, led by University of Utah professor Stephen Goldsmith last year. Murray said he expects town leaders to glean insights from that project to help chart the town’s future.