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Bluff • When the Hole in the Rock Foundation purchased an undeveloped parcel of land west of Bluff in 2015, it was almost the ideal location for a private campground.
In all four directions, the plot of land looked out on the same rosy sandstone cliffs that greeted the Hole-in-the-Rock expedition in 1880, when 70 settler families and their livestock straggled into the Bluff valley on the tail end of a grueling — and some would say miraculous — six-month, 250-mile journey from Parowan.
The nonprofit foundation, which was created in 2006 to educate the public about the storied expedition and the years that followed, runs the Bluff Fort with missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints as staff, and it bought the campground property in order to host groups that visit the county for celebrations of pioneer and church history.
But there was just one catch with the L-shaped parcel located in an otherwise undeveloped area: it was directly adjacent to a San Juan County-owned waste transfer station, where locals from Bluff and the Navajo Nation had come to dump their trash since the mid-1990s. Smells from the refuse regularly wafted through the campground.
Almost as soon as the foundation bought the land, it began working to purchase the transfer station from the county and shut it down permanently. In 2018, it succeeded, selling a 3.9-acre parcel of land just down the road from the campground to the county for $10 in exchange for the two-acre transfer station property.
The sale and subsequent closure of the transfer station was controversial at the time, and it recently came back under scrutiny after the Cortez Journal published a column detailing how the transfer station had been partially funded by the Navajo Nation and the Indian Health Service in the early 1990s as part of an effort to reduce illegal dumping in the county, including at an unregulated landfill site near the present-day campground.
At a San Juan County Commission work meeting Tuesday, County Chief Administrative Officer Mack McDonald acknowledged that following the transfer station’s closure, residents of the Navajo Nation south of Bluff had to drive an additional 26 miles round-trip to dispose of waste at the San Juan County Landfill. But McDonald also noted that operating the transfer station was costly. “It was operating at a loss,” he said.
McDonald, who started working for the county in 2019, defended the decision of the previous commission — which consisted of now-state Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, Commissioner Bruce Adams, and former Commissioner Rebecca Benally — to not pay for an appraisal of either property before the exchange was finalized in the fall of 2018.
“There’s a difference in size,” McDonald said, comparing the two properties. “I would not [have required] an appraisal. I would not seek a couple thousand dollar appraisal because I can already tell just by the property size, the value of the properties is going to be much greater in our favor.”
The lack of appraisal and other concerns associated with the sale were raised in a resolution passed by the Utah Navajo Commission in the weeks after the exchange was completed. And Bluff Mayor Ann Leppanen questioned whether the exchange was a good deal for the county, despite the trade for a larger parcel.
The county “got a piece of property that’s totally useless,” she said, noting its triangular shape and lack of access to municipal water. The 3.9-acre property, she added, is in an area known for numerous archaeological sites, which could add considerable costs or impediments to any future development. The San Juan School District had to abandon plans to build an elementary school on a nearby plot of land in 2017 for the same reason.
Additionally, it would cost $150,000 to build a new concrete dumping platform and fencing if the transfer station were relocated, according to Randy Rarick, the San Juan County landfill manager.
The sale occurred just weeks before a 2018 special election, which brought in the first Native American-majority commission in San Juan County’s history with the election of Kenneth Maryboy and Willie Grayeyes, both Democrats and members of the Navajo Nation.
In one of their first acts in office, the new commissioners passed a resolution directing the then-county administrator and other county staff to review the sale of the transfer station property, but McDonald said it’s not clear whether the directives were ever carried out.
Two years later, McDonald did complete a review and said the former commission’s process appears to have been above board. “The [previous commission] did have a public hearing on this matter … and they did everything in the light of day.”
The Navajo Nation and Indian Health Service do not appear to have been consulted before the transfer station was closed, however, despite their contributions to its construction.
County records obtained through public records request by Bluff resident Wes Shook, which were shared with The Salt Lake Tribune, show that former Navajo Nation President Peterson Zah signed a resolution in 1993 directing $30,000 in Indian Health Service funding to San Juan County for the construction of two transfer stations in Bluff and Mexican Hat, the latter of which remains in operation. San Juan County agreed to pay the remainder of the construction costs, also estimated to be $30,000 for each site at the time of the deal. In 1995, the county accepted bids of $19,522 for fencing for the Bluff transfer station and $39,050 for concrete work.
The 260-person town of Bluff was in the process of incorporating when the sale went through in 2018, and Leppanen said the town was planning to take over operations of the transfer station from the county. But, she added, paying for the construction of a new facility is a much more difficult proposition.
“The train left the station,” Leppanen said, “and it’s a little late for [the county administrative staff] to be visiting what should have been visited back in 2018 and 2019.”
Leppanen said the Bluff Town Council would be willing to work with Navajo Nation chapters and San Juan County to find a new location for a transfer station site that would better serve reservation communities, possibly in Montezuma Creek or Red Mesa. But that could be a long way off.
In the meantime, Grayeyes, the county commissioner from Navajo Mountain, said that illegal dumping in washes remains a problem in areas without easy access to trash disposal services.
Rarick, the county’s landfill manager, said he hopes to hold several free, one-time trash disposal events in Navajo Nation communities this year.
Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.