The emotion-strafed Lionsback project near Moab is one of those cases that’s caught in the crosshairs of public and private focus.
Lionsback, the huge sandstone fin between the dump and Sand Flats, was for decades a playground for thrill-seekers, much like the Hell’s Revenge area adjacent to it. Because of its proximity to town it has been a popular obstacle course for many a Moab daredevil who could drive to the top of it and turn around — sometimes in the dark and inebriated — without rolling off the sheer sides. I used to wonder that such antics were allowed, leaving twin black tire marks striping the back of the inclined rock, but I was long ago told it was permissible because it wasn’t federal land.
Now we know Lionsback as more than just the big fin. It’s the sandy, rolling lands around it with spectacular views of the La Sal Mountains, slated to be turned into a resort with a hotel and more than 30 small houses. But this project differs from others in terms of the public’s ability to affect its design or demise. The land has been owned by the state since pioneer times, sitting vacant like its BLM neighbors. But the state, under the direction of the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA), struck a deal with a private firm to develop it.
Lest we forget, SITLA is in the business of generating money to fund Utah’s public schools. The patchwork of state parcels sprinkled among federally managed lands across the West was set aside to help pay for education in states where there isn’t enough private land to generate sufficient taxes to support schools. So this lovely piece of desert that many of us have viewed and sometimes even used as if it were public and somewhat protected, really isn’t. Further, the prospect of its development hasn’t been a secret; it’s been on the table for a decade. The city of Moab, under past generations of managers and councils, approved the resort in 2009. The Utah Supreme Court upheld the validity of the project three years later when it dismissed a lawsuit against it. It seems the state can do with its trust lands just about anything it wants. The highest bidder wins and the state hopes to collect a little more tax revenue from it.
Moab’s bustling lodging economy has brought the project into the news again with a request for a “minor revision” to its 2009 plan, which in my mind is anything but minor. The revision could triple the capacity of the initial hotel by making the 50-room lodge into 50 hotel units each having three bedrooms. The city is between a rock and a hard place because the state is exempt from local zoning laws. So are folks who want a say in how that area is developed. But public schools in the West are also between that “el roco y puesto duro” because they don’t have vast tax bases powered by private development.
Are there solutions? Perhaps folks can become more aware of sensitive state-held parcels. Open-space initiatives could attempt to buy and preserve sensitive state lands, although that doesn’t always work. The recent Comb Ridge purchase south of us is a case in point. A San Juan County organization that preserves history about Bluff and the Hole in the Rock Mormon pioneer expedition had asked the state to auction the land so that their group could buy it. But a wealthy family business outbid the history buffs and it’s now unclear how the land will be used.
State lands don’t belong to us in the sense that federal lands do. In Arizona, where wide-open deserts are divvied up much like they are here, a person has to buy a permit to even park on state lands. Rules differ among various western states. Sometimes, we’re using land we think is ours when it really isn’t. It can make folks feel like they’re between a rock and a hard place.