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In the winter of 1879-80, some 70 Mormon families on a calling from their church trekked across the Escalante region and Cedar Mesa, blazing a path that connected the settled southwestern corner of the Utah Territory to what became San Juan County. The party hit Comb Ridge that spring, turned south down Comb Wash and camped at a place they called San Juan Hill overlooking its namesake river.

The pioneer route between Escalante and Bluff became known as the Hole-in-the-Rock Trail, named for a slit in a side canyon to the cavernous Glen Canyon, where the pioneers lowered loaded wagons hundreds of feet to cross the Colorado River.

This summer, historic preservationists will launch trekking programs celebrating the heroic, six-month ordeal that enabled Mormon settlement of southeastern Utah, according to leaders of the Bluff-based Hole in the Rock Foundation.

But the program is not without controversy, thanks to the large groups the foundation wants to take across fragile, archaeologically important desert administered by the Bureau of Land Management. The group is now proposing to buy a section of state trust land on Comb Ridge, an area included in the proposed Bears Ears National Monument and in a competing conservation proposal in the Utah Public Lands Initiative.

Comb Ridge is a towering sandstone fin running nearly 50 miles from Bear Ears Buttes south into the Navajo Reservation across the San Juan River. The spot was featured on the cover of the 1999 debut edition of National Geographic Adventure magazine. The 640-acre section that the foundation wants is located 6 miles west of Bluff on State Route 163 and sits between its staging area for treks down Comb Wash and its campground on private land 2 miles to the east.

"This property is significant because it allows participants to literally walk in the footsteps of those original pioneers, to see and feel and experience, on the ground, what those early pioneers saw and felt as they struggled to cross the terrain on their way to Bluff," said Lynn Stevens, a former county commissioner who serves as the Hole in the Rock Foundation's government relations director.

The foundation will host a June 7 public meeting in Bluff on its proposed land acquisition, which is already drawing opposition from some conservation groups.

"There's nothing preventing them from doing whatever they want development-wise (other than archaeology restrictions) once they own the property, and what about if they run short on money and want to sell off the only private land on the entire Comb Ridge? What would the next owner do?" Josh Ewing, executive director of Friends of Cedar Mesa, wrote in an email.

Attending the Bluff meeting will be four officials with the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA), which is exploring whether to include the parcel in its October auction. The idea would be to sell it to the highest bidder — which may not necessarily be Stevens' foundation.

To avoid perceived abuses of the process, the agency no longer conducts negotiated sales except in limited circumstances, usually involving governmental entities, said SITLA deputy Director Kim Christy. This means there is no guarantee that the foundation's historic-education vision would play out on this land should it go on the block.

"We need to preserve the integrity of the marketplace. We can't go back to the days of closed transactions that resulted in sales perceived as sweetheart deals," Christy said.

SITLA had previously signaled a willingness to trade this and nearby sections for BLM lands with oil and gas potential. That gesture came as part of the Utah Public Lands Initiative, or PLI, the process sponsored by U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop. A draft version included Comb Ridge in a national conservation area that will presumably be in the bill Bishop is expected to release any day. These lands were once inhabited by Native Americans who left behind cliff dwellings, artifacts, grave sites and other archaeological treasures that most agree warrant protection.

A SITLA sale of the 640 acres could create a private in-holding within what may become a national monument, or an area managed for conservation.

Critics say the proposed sale suggests the state is holding out little hope for the PLI and that it does not value its holdings on Comb Ridge.

"Why would they propose to trade out this parcel for better economic potential land, then consider selling it to a nonprofit (that doesn't pay property taxes that benefit schools)?" Ewing wrote.

Christy contends his agency can't put its properties "on ice" in anticipation of some federal action on neighboring land that might not happen for years, if at all.

"We are moving forward with business as usual," he said.

Stevens acknowledges his group has no guarantee of winning the parcel. If it does, though, he said the Hole in the Rock Foundation intends to conserve the land in the condition that pioneers would have experienced it. It has no plans to establish overnight accommodations or permanent structures, he said, and intends to preserve public access — visitors and Bluff residents use the spot for dispersed camping and as a trailhead to hike Comb Ridge.

"Our motto is to preserve and protect the legacy of the pioneers. We are focused on protecting the trail and give youths an opportunity to experience pioneer history," Stevens said.

Last winter, the BLM issued a special recreation permit for the foundation to run treks on three short Hole-in-the-Rock segments. The group recently conducted test treks on the Salvation Knoll and Comb Wash legs. The third trek covers Long Flat, a 6.2-mile leg off State Route 261 on Cedar Mesa.

The BLM will allow 250 participants at a time on the Salvation Knoll and Long Flat treks, as long as hiking parties remain in groups of 12 or less. The group size limit is much tighter for Comb Wash, where only 12 can be on the 4-mile trail at a time, with a daily limit of five groups.

The foundation will offer its treks to LDS wards, or congregations.

"The BLM permit has a lot of restrictions that do indeed interfere with the size of groups and the conditions under which we can re-create the experience of the pioneers," Stevens said.

Don Hoffheins, manager of the BLM's Monticello field office, said his agency can't bend on the 12-person limit, which is specified in long-standing planning documents.

"That was to protect the cultural resources and the experiences out there," he said. "Our resource management plan is our direction and without going through a major planning effort to revise it, we have to stick with its guidance, which is a group size limit of 12."

Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance is appealing the permit, which was subject to an Environmental Analysis that concluded the trekking program would not result in significant environmental impacts.

Local hiking guide Vaughn Hadenfeldt, who serves on Friends of Cedar Mesa board and endorses the foundation's historic preservation mission, contends the fragile landscape can't handle large groups and the support vehicles hauling water, "luggable loos," and medical gear needed to keep everyone safe and comfortable.

"We want them to be stuck with the same [rules] as everyone else and play on the same playing field. It shouldn't come down to a Mormon thing. It should could come down to group size," he said. "This sale would allow them to do whatever they want with group sizes."

Yet Stevens said the land-acquisition proposal is not aimed at skirting those limits on trekking, but to supplement the over-all experience for youth groups.

"The property has several features that are adaptable where we could see the youth and talk to them about the pioneer trekkers and their hardships and other aspects of the story of commitment," Stevens said. "It will primarily be an educational venue to convey to these young people the conditions these pioneers endured. One commitment is to preserve the rugged nature of the Hole-in-the-Rock Trail."

Most of the BLM-permitted trekking will occur between June 15 and Aug. 15. While this season does not correspond with the time of year pioneers blazed the trail, it does coincide with schools' summer break and a season when other recreational use is low.

The permit carries a two-year probationary period when the foundation may operate at no more than half its permitted levels. If the treks are conducted well, without unforeseen impacts, the permit will be extended 10 years.

"We will prove their assessment of impacts of teenagers walking on a trail is way, way overly cautious," Stevens vowed.

The foundation's permit allows it to run up to 17,100 user days, but no more than 4,100 of those may occur outside the June-through-August, window to minimize overlap with high-visitation seasons in spring and fall, when temperatures are more pleasant.

Twitter: @brianmaffly