Generations of Bluff residents have used a road leading north from the town between towering sandstone mesas to access public lands beyond, in what is now Bears Ears National Monument.
But last month, San Juan County officials proposed vacating a two-mile section of the road that crosses private land, a move that could effectively cut off access to the cherished pathway through the cliffs hemming the historic town’s northern perimeter.
The proposed road closure, which will be the subject of a public hearing Sept. 19 in Monticello, has upset many Bluff residents who enjoy walking up South Cottonwood Wash.
“This is simply an issue of public access to public lands,” said Josh Ewing, executive director of Friends of Cedar Mesa, a nonprofit conservation group based in Bluff. “We respect the property rights to have people not abuse private land, but it’s not appropriate for landowners to block off public access and essentially result in turning public land into their own private backyard.”
Known as D5036, this road is among many to which San Juan County has claimed title under RS 2477, the frontier-era law that once granted counties rights of way to roads cut across public land.
The property in question is a narrow 320-acre strip running along the wash sandwiched between Bluff Bench on the east and Tank Mesa on the west. It is owned by the Guymons, a former ranching family, who have gated it for the past 17 years. The Cottonwood Wash road peters out further north on Bureau of Land Management land not far beyond the Guymon property.
Rick Meyer, who married into the Guymon family, asked the San Juan County commissioners on Aug. 1 to vacate the road, according to an audio recording of the meeting. He told them family members hoped to pursue development on the land, involving “some farming projects and different things.“
“With the [Bears Ears] monument being established on all sides of this private property, I feel it is time to close that road and reduce our liability of the tourists and people walking on our private property,” said Meyer, who told commissioners he uses the land to run cattle.
“A lot of people like to walk dogs up this road, and I don’t want them chasing my cattle. They have no qualms about walking on someone else’s property,” said Meyer, who also works for San Juan County as its environmental health director.
Meyer’s request now includes vacating a 270-foot section of the road in front of the gate.
But according to Ewing, Meyer’s liability concerns are misplaced. Under Utah law private property, he said, owners are not subject to liability for injuries suffered by those who entered without permission. But that’s only if the land is not posted with “no trespassing” signs.
“We’ve studied this issue extensively,” Ewing said. “He incurs liability when he starts saying ‘No Trespassing.’ ”
Meyer did not respond to an email from The Tribune seeking comment.
Not all the land’s owners know about Meyer’s request. Contacted Monday by The Salt Lake Tribune, landowner Lawrence Guymon said he was unaware that anyone had petitioned to have the road vacated.
The pending RS 2477 claim on the road, meanwhile, further complicates the picture. In several lawsuits pending in federal court, Utah is staking claims across the state to numerous road segments crossing private land that access public land, even over the objections of the landowners.
Under Utah law, if a county abandons an RS 2477 right of way, it reverts to the state. That could mean South Cottonwood Wash would remain a public road unless it is dropped from San Juan County’s RS 2477 lawsuit.
Still, county commissioners were receptive to Meyer’s request at their Aug. 1 meeting, even though residents often resent road closures. The county has fought hard to keep the BLM and National Park Service from closing routes favored by motorized users, but those routes, such as Salt Creek and Recapture Canyon, typically don’t cross private land.
Ewing and other Bluff residents suspect the county is indulging a double standard on Cottonwood Wash, whose public use is confined to foot traffic. Several said it was ironic that county officials have complained that the Bears Ears monument would lead in road closures, yet also have gone along with closures sought by private owners in some cases, despite a long history of public use.
Reached by The Tribune, San Juan Chief Administrative Officer Kelly Pehrson declined to comment.
The road is within the boundaries of an incorporation proposal Bluff residents are voting on Nov. 2. Some residents believe the request is meant to eliminate the public road before it might fall under the jurisdiction on a new municipal government.
Or it might have something to do with an illegal tire dump that appeared just outside the gate, said Wes Shook, a Bluff firefighter who serves on the town’s services board and runs its mosquito-abatement district.
“If they block public access are they not doing the same thing you accuse the federal government of accomplishing?” Shook wrote to the county commission in a letter opposing the road closure. “Can the owners demonstrate that the public has been more disrespectful to the land than they were when they created a waste tire dump?”
The pile of 500 or so tires — which Shook called a “mosquito heaven” — prompted him to complain to officials with the state Department of Environmental Quality, which concluded the property had become an unauthorized landfill and ordered the tires removal.
Shook said he now wonders whether Meyer’s move to close the road is payback against the town.