The Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, or SITLA, which sold the trust section at auction for $500,000, has advised the new owner to unlock the gate.
Local officials are not so sure of the road's status. The route is a Class D county road, according to San Juan County's travel plan. Although blocking a county road is considered a criminal offense, the county has yet to move to reopen the road. Officials say they learned of the locked gate on Dec. 30 and are now trying to determine whether the county holds easements to this road.
"The section has nine Class D roads. Some are quite short and end on the private land. The county notified SITLA about the easements. Nothing was acquired before the land was sold. I've asked the county attorney to look into the legalities of the matter," Sheriff Rick Eldredge said.
The spot is on the north side of the highway where it bends around the southern tip of the distinctive sandstone ridge that rises like a backbone along the southeastern part of Bears Ears National Monument.
Chris Webb, an executive for Hunt's Air Medical Resource Group who has spoken for Lyman Family Farm in the past, did not return a phone message. But Eldredge said the new owner has expressed a willingness to work with the county to resolve the road's status.
The sale of the parcel sparked outrage among many Bluff residents and other Utahns concerned about SITLA creating a private inholding in an area then poised to become a national monument.
President Barack Obama in December set aside 1.3 million acres in the area to protect their geological wonders and the ancient remnants of American Indian societies that populated the region for thousands of years.
Blocking the road "is just a slap in the face to the town," said Wes Shook, who serves on the elected Bluff Services Area board.
"The town knew this would happen," Shook said. "If [the Bureau of Land Management] had done this, you guys [county officials] would be jumping through hoops to make it open. [The county is] trying to make sure it was an illegal closure. We believe it is, but they are dragging their feet hoping it goes away. They don't have any respect for the folks who have used the property and accessed the public land."
San Juan County's response to the Comb Ridge closure does contrast sharply with its strenuous objections to closures ordered by the Bureau of Land Management in recent years. Eldredge has launched criminal probes in the past after BLM retired some roads used by locals.
The county's travel plan designates the gated Comb Ridge road as D0182, and it connects to several other Class D county roads on public lands just beyond the locked gate. The road departs the north side of the state highway, heads northeast and enters public land after about 100 yards. It connects to another road that returns to the former SITLA parcel along the historic Hole-in-the-Rock Trail.
The disclosures attached to the property when it was sold indicate it is encumbered by "Easement No. 2081, issued to San Juan County for roads for a perpetual term."
"I'm looking at the signed easement with an effective date of Oct. 17. The county official who signed it is Kelly Pehrson, the county administrator," said SITLA associate director Kim Christy late Thursday. "This is a county road that is perfected [or protected] by this easement."
As of Wednesday, the gate was still locked, although the sign was gone, according to Bluff resident Josh Ewing.
It appears that San Juan County has included the county road in its claims under RS2477, a frontier-era federal statute granting rights of way on public land.
That's an indication that the county has historically asserted a strong interest in maintaining public access to the route, although Eldredge questioned whether the county would assert an RS2477 claim to this specific road.
According to an analysis by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the county's legal claims cover some, if not most, of the Class D roads on the Comb Ridge parcel.
Brian Maffly covers public lands for The Salt Lake Tribune. Brian Maffly can be reached at email@example.com or 801-257-8713.