When a Guppy Swallows a Whale: The Anatomy of the Bluff Incorporation

The community of Bluff voted in November to incorporate as a Utah town. In ordinary times, such a step is not unusual or particularly noteworthy. But these are not ordinary times in San Juan County nor are the details of this particular incorporation.

Bluff Balloon Festival
Salt Lake Tribune

Bluff Goes Big

The most attention-grabbing fact of the incorporation is its size: 38 square miles, which is more than 60 times the size of Bluff’s present developed footprint. The scale of the new boundary is fairly hard to contextualize, but one way to try is by linking it to population and housing estimates.

Bluff currently has a population of 265, a developed footprint of around 400 acres, and a residential stock of 184 homes including both household and non-household units (second homes, vacation rentals, etc.). Effective household size is therefore about 1 ½ people per dwelling unit and net residential density about one dwelling unit per 2 ¼ acres. Using these facts as analytical pivots, we can game out a few hypothetical scenarios about Bluff’s buildout.

For example, if Bluff were to continue to pursue a sprawling development pattern of, say, one home per two acres, a housing stock of about 12,000 units would fit within the new town limits. Assuming basically the same household composition as Bluff has today, this would spread a population of around 18,000 people across an area only a bit smaller than San Francisco (population 865,000).

If, on the other hand, Bluff were to grow according to a more efficient development pattern yielding a residential density of something like 5 homes per acre, the town could grow its housing stock 11 times over to 2,000 residences without expanding beyond its current developed footprint at all and could build over 120,000 residential units, almost 700 times more than it has today, before running out of land within town limits.

Of course the possibility of either of these thought experiments becoming reality is roughly zero. The Bluff Incorporation Feasibility Study projects an average population growth rate of about 0.5%, which equates to well under one new Bluff household per year. Even after accounting for residential demand for second homes and other non-household dwelling units, the study projects a need for less than two new homes per year.

Based on these facts, it is quite an understatement for the Feasibility Study to note that “[t]he proposed Bluff Town area has an ample amount of vacant land within the proposed boundaries.” After all, assuming even the sprawling development pattern that typically prevails in the New West, it would take thousands of years for Bluff to reach buildout at the study’s projected growth rate.

Given these conditions — minimal development pressure and abundant under-utilized land within Bluff’s existing footprint — the expansive Bluff boundary was obviously not established based on any sort of ordinary relationship between municipal incorporation and the provision of services to a discrete population, either now or in any conceivable future.

Non-Private Land

There is another unusual element about Bluff’s incorporation: the large amount of SITLA and BLM land encompassed within the new boundary. According to the feasibility study, of the 38 square miles contained within Bluff town limits, “SITLA and BLM lands will comprise 16.5 sq miles.” The straightforward reading of this statement is that about 43% of Bluff is non-private land managed by federal or state entities, leaving roughly 57% in private ownership. But even a cursory review of the incorporation map reveals that this cannot be the case, since the property color-coded as private is obviously much less than a majority of the land contained within Bluff boundaries.

To independently estimate the composition of land ownership, we can tally the number of township sections in each category. BLM land within the town boundary totals 12 sections in their entirety or near-entirety plus smaller portions of 11 additional sections. SITLA land also totals 12 sections in their entirety or near-entirety plus smaller portions of 7 additional sections. Since each section is one square mile, BLM and SITLA land therefore adds up to almost 24 square miles just counting sections that are entirely or almost-entirely within their ownership category, which is about 50% more than the 16.5 square miles referenced in the incorporation feasibility study. Once the partial sections are also accounted for, SITLA and the BLM may each manage something like the 16.5 square miles referenced in the study. If so, that would mean 33 of the 38 square miles inside Bluff boundaries are BLM or SITLA lands and less than 15% is private property.

Whatever the exact figures, the information in the feasibility study is a curious calculation and presentation of the composition of land ownership within Bluff’s new city limits, and begs further questions about the thought process that led to the new Bluff town limits. But before entertaining such questions, it may be instructive to make a short narrative and analytical detour.

The Wayne County Template

It is entirely likely that the Bluff residents who drove the boundary-drawing process are familiar with the experience of their New West antecedents, including in other parts of southern Utah. In particular, they may have learned some interesting lessons in land use realpolitik from a recent dispute in adjacent Wayne County. The facts of that controversy are as follows.

A local road construction company reached agreement with SITLA to undertake sand and gravel mining operations on a 120-acre trust land parcel located in unincorporated Wayne County near Teasdale. Consistent with its ordinary practice, SITLA required that the prospective mine operator secure local zoning approval prior to beginning operations. In this instance, that meant applying for both a zone change and conditional use permit (CUP). The construction company applied for the necessary approvals and the application was met with organized opposition from some area residents. Wayne County eventually concluded that it had no zoning authority over trust lands, and, on that basis, declined to take any action on the zone change application. The county went on to treat the CUP as an independent application and approved the conditional use permit.

Photo: The Insider

The opponents of the gravel operation then sued and the trial court affirmed the county’s conclusion that local land use authorities lack jurisdiction over trust lands. Secondarily, the court disagreed with the county as to its handling of the CUP. (Because conditional uses are specific uses permitted within a specific zone, albeit with mitigation of negative impacts, issuance of a CUP cannot be severed from the applicable zone that permits the use in question. To properly approve the CUP, Wayne County would have had to also approve the rezone request.) In effect, the court held that when SITLA submits to local land use authorities, it is engaging in arguably useful but ultimately non-binding regulatory theater.

What happened next is interesting. Rather than allow the gravel operation to proceed, as the court had made clear was its right, SITLA canceled the mining lease. In doing so, SITLA cited one of the main arguments of the opponents of the application, namely, that the parcel may have become more valuable as a prospective residential subdivision than as a gravel pit.

SITLA then included the parcel in its semi-annual auction of properties deemed suitable for disposal and, in yet another twist, the property failed to attract a bid greater than the reserve price of $6,600/acre. Not from a prospective developer; not from the gravel mining company; and not from the opponents of the gravel mine who were adamant that the property be preserved in an undeveloped state. So far, SITLA has declined to say if or when the land may be back on the auction block and has also given no indication that the failure to sell the parcel has caused it to reconsider the canceled mining lease.

This episode underscores at least two conditions of land use in Utah: (1) the modern SITLA is not an ideological or partisan agency, but a professional technocracy that must carefully manage its public reputation while pursuing its legal mandate to generate revenue for the beneficial owners of trust lands; and (2) like well-heeled NIMBYs everywhere, amenity migrants wield considerable political power to tilt land use in the direction of their particular preferences even where they lack any legal authority to do so and despite operating within an ostensibly pro-productivist political environment.

And so, despite a few interesting wrinkles, this tale from Wayne County is pretty typical of rural gentrification across the Colorado Plateau. Land uses like grazing and resource extraction are especially disfavored by New West settlers, but really almost any land use has the potential to be opposed as a threat to the establishment of a bourgeois utopia. Of course the systematic replacement of industrial-age land uses and social values with their post-industrial counterparts enhances the saleability of the place to the next wave of middle-class amenity migrants who then add their influence to the rebranding campaign. Lather, rinse, repeat.

In this account of the process of rural restructuring in the West, generational blue-collar residents lose their grip on their home’s sociopolitical landscape by losing their grip on the physical landscape. But note that this shift is often as much a transformation of the symbolic, social meaning of the landscape as any significant change in its actual use. For example, rebranding the San Juan backcountry as “Bears Ears” changes almost nothing about the landscape in productivist terms, but completely changes its social and economic meaning along post-industrial middle-class lines. Note also that this revolution in sociopolitical status typically occurs well before incumbent locals lose their majority status at the ballot box. In the gentrifying New West, it is rule-by-the-few zoning, not elections, that defines most of the important terms of social and economic life. With this in mind, let’s return to Bluff.

SITLA’s Bluff Block

This Is Bears Ears
View of Bluff Bench southeast across Highway 191.

Most of the trust land within Bluff boundaries consists of a large contiguous block on the so-called Bluff Bench above town. This should strike the informed observer as unusual on its face. The typical distribution of trust lands is the same as existed at statehood, with sections 2, 16, 32, and 36 of each township belonging to particular named beneficiaries (mostly K-12 schools). This allocation explains the distinctive blue checkerboard on a typical map of Utah. When, instead of that pattern, you see a large block of trust lands like the one north of Bluff — aggregated to include multiple adjacent sections and located near roads and/or towns — it is the result of an intentional exchange transaction between Utah and the federal government. These generally take one of two forms:

(1) “In-Lieu” Lands. As mentioned above, the Utah Enabling Act granted to the state four sections of each township to be used for the financial support of education. However, Congress had already disposed of some of the specific enumerated sections and so the Enabling Act also stipulated that Utah would be entitled to take equivalent property of the state’s choice from other sections of available federal land. Utah completed its process of electing these so-called in-lieu lands over the course of about 20 years, beginning in the 1960s. (Unsurprisingly, this was not a smooth or linear process, but the details of related controversies are beyond the scope of this analysis.)

The Bluff Block is a particularly good example of how this wrinkle was ironed out. Sections 32 and 36 of the township in which Bluff is located (Township 40 South Range 22 East) are south of the San Juan River, which makes them part of the Navajo Reservation and therefore ineligible for inclusion in the state’s grant of trust land. In turn, this and similar withdrawals by Congress of lands across Utah triggered an election of equivalent federal land elsewhere as replacement state trust land. The Bluff Block appears to have been assembled in 1977 as one such election in this process of reconciliation. Given the productivity of the nearby Aneth oil fields during this period, it is almost certain that these sections were chosen for their fossil fuel potential. But as yet, after more than 40 years, there has been really no energy development on this particular tract of land and overall oil and gas production in San Juan County has steadily declined over that same period.

(2) Negotiated Exchange Lands. The completion of a negotiated exchange is typically triggered by a specific land use conflict. When this sort of exchange is successful at all, it usually involves a years-long process of painstaking negotiation and due diligence.

For example, when a large national monument like Grand Staircase-Escalante (GSE) or Bears Ears is created, the Secretary of Interior is directed to acquire the trust land locked within the new monument’s boundaries through an exchange of other federal land of equal value. In the case of GSE, the monument boundary encompassed around 176,000 surface acres of trust lands (and 24,000 acres of subsurface mineral rights), which eventually led to a legislated land swap: SITLA exchanged a total of about 377,000 acres (its GSE inholdings along with other trust land located within National Parks, National Forests, and Indian reservations) for $50 million and about 139,000 acres of federal land. Noteworthy blocks of land acquired by the state through this exchange included a massive tract surrounding Big Water near Lake Powell (a corner of which is now home to Amangiri) and land with high mineral potential in the Uintah Basin.

Such exchanges are often hailed as win-win propositions by productivists and post-productivists alike, and in some respects they certainly count as that. After all, a negotiated exchange represents a far more constructive treatment of Utah’s vast non-private lands than the state of “total warfare” that typically prevails. And if we as a society accept the premise that some places are more worthy of conservation than others, it probably follows that resource extraction and other industrial uses should be concentrated in some areas rather than others (not to mention the fact that economic value, whether related to agricultural, industrial or recreational uses, is not equally distributed across non-private lands). But the careful observer may note that there are contradictions lurking here.

Cornering SITLA

It may also, by this point, occur to the careful observer that SITLA and rural Utah counties are increasingly placed in a difficult predicament by two major political and economic forces. The first is the shift by the U.S. government from a policy of acquisition and disposition of federal land to one of retention. Starting no sooner than the passage of the Taylor Grazing Act in 1934 and ending no later than passage of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act in 1976, the federal government first tacitly then explicitly ended its policy of non-retention of federal public land. In numerical terms, 816 million acres of public domain land was conveyed into private ownership between 1781 and 2006,  97% of which occurred prior to 1940.

One of the results of the timing of this policy shift relative to Utah’s existence as a state is that federal land policy de facto applies not just to federal land, but also to most Utah state trust lands, which amount to roughly 3.4 million acres or 6% of Utah’s land mass. SITLA has a constitutional mandate to use the land under its management to generate revenue for Utah’s schools, but its ability to do this is significantly constrained by the scattered nature of SITLA’s holdings combined with direct federal ownership of 2/3 of Utah. This combination means that most trust land is persistently locked within larger tracts of federal lands, which are managed according to entirely different legal paradigms and for entirely different purposes. The practical effect is that the federal government indirectly controls more non-private land in Utah than it owns outright in 35 other U.S. states.

The second major political and economic force painting SITLA and many rural Utah counties into a difficult corner is the colonization of the rural West by the post-industrial professional-managerial class. This is the Wayne County example, in which, despite a lack of local jurisdiction, zoning decisions heavily influenced by amenity in-migrants bend the use of trust land toward the creation of a sprawling, gentrified New West. If extractive or industrial land uses are taken completely off the table, and an area is instead marketed for its value as a New West enclave, the only viable alternative that remains to SITLA is to sell or otherwise develop their holdings for residential, resort or similar purposes.

Moving the Goal Posts

This Is Bears Ears
View northwest across Bluff Bench — East Bears Ear in distance.

Recapping in chronological order each key trend or event in the life of SITLA’s Bluff Block provides an interesting example of the interplay of these dual forces in real, historical terms.

For our purposes, the beginning of the story was Utah statehood and the grant of four sections of each township to be managed according to trust principles for the benefit of Utah’s schools. Over the ensuing 80 years, federal land policy shifted from disposition to retention. Then, in 1977, Utah selected the Bluff Block as an in-lieu exchange tract. Beginning in earnest in the 1990s, New West gentrification spread across canyon country and, not coincidentally, escalating arguments over public lands became a constant feature of the region. And so, by the 2010s, with a Democratic President in the White House, Bluff had become a natural beachhead for the final push for a massive national monument designation in San Juan County.

As various competing maps were drawn during the lead-up to Obama’s proclamation, some monument advocates included SITLA’s Bluff Block within their proposed boundaries. At first blush, this made little sense: the Bluff Bench has limited archaeological or scenic value and looping all of it into monument boundaries required a lone, notable incursion east of Highway 191. But some Bluff residents apparently reckoned they could persuade the Obama administration to stretch the purpose of the Antiquities Act to include its use as a potent method of local zoning. And so, at the end of 2016, most of the Bluff Block was indeed encompassed within the monument boundaries as a result of this lobbying.

(For their part, Diné Bikeyah did not include the Bluff Bench in their 2013 proposal. In fact, their boundary along the east of Comb Ridge essentially matches the eventual “Hatch Memo” boundaries.)

This inclusion of SITLA’s Bluff Block within the 2016 monument glossed over the fact that this tract of land is not only not federal land, but is trust land previously acquired by Utah in exchange for other federal land elsewhere in the state. Pro-monument folks extol the virtues of state-federal exchanges when it’s convenient, but will endlessly demagogue SITLA the rest of the time and even attempt to recapture or otherwise block the use of the very trust land previously acquired by Utah in state-federal exchanges.

Drawing Conclusions

All of this history and nuance remained unacknowledged by The New York Times (and the many other news outlets who picked up their coverage) when they recently published documents describing how, as one of the final chapters in the story so far, SITLA’s Bluff Block came to be removed from monument boundaries as part of the Trump-Zinke boundary reduction.

There has also been, as far as I can tell, no recognition that incorporating something like 33 square miles of non-private property into Bluff town boundaries is a variation on the tactic of including that land within monument boundaries. In terms of blocking disfavored land uses, what may or may not ultimately be accomplished in this instance through use of the Antiquities Act is likely to be fairly easily achieved through garden variety NIMBYism as expressed in the local zoning context.

After all, given the endless national controversy surrounding Bears Ears and local zoning dynamics typified by the Teasdale gravel-mine-that-wasn’t, there is now no realistic scenario in which SITLA will ever lease its Bluff Block for energy development or any other significant industrial purpose. Nor is any other economically productive use of the land likely except maybe, someday, hospitality or residential development. That scenario also seems highly implausible given the character of the land in question, but if it does occur, it will be entirely because of demand created by the marketing of Bluff as a New West enclave.

This is how a small group of self-serving residents, with significant help from their non-resident allies, will successfully dictate the use of thousands of acres land they do not own and which is not subject to their zoning authority. Such control will either be a superfluous constraint on non-productive lands or will cost San Juan County and the State of Utah millions of dollars in school funding and property taxes.


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