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What does a company calling itself a "family farm" want with 391 unwatered acres of sandstone on Comb Ridge and many other Utah state trust parcels that have gone on the block in twice-yearly auctions?
That's a question swirling around recent sales of state trust lands in scenic spots to a business entity launched by Utah air-ambulance entrepreneur Joe Hunt.
Half the holdings the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) has auctioned since 2014 have gone to the same buyer, Lyman Family Farm Inc., which has spent $6.4 million acquiring parcels that are rich in geologic wonder, wildlife and archaeology, or are in proximity to protected public lands. Exemplifying these purchases is the southern tip of Comb Ridge inside the proposed Bears Ears National Monument which sold for $500,000 and 200 acres bordering Zion National Park. Hunt bought these and five other parcels at SITLA's Oct. 19 auction.
This auction drew jeers from conservationists who say the state is shortchanging its residents and schoolchildren by selling off land with strong natural values. It also drew a curtain back on a quiet buying spree by Joe Hunt, the chief executive of a controversial medical transportation chain known as Air Medical Resource Group, or AMRG.
Acting on behalf of Lyman Family Farm, the Utah businessman, with roots in Blanding, has bought 19 state parcels around the state totaling 5,214 acres, according to an analysis compiled by the Center for Western Priorities, a group formed to oppose the transfer of public lands to the states and promote conservation of these parcels.
Hunt did not respond to a request for comment.
Hunt's father, Blanding pilot Jon Hunt, launched Eagle Air Med in the early 1980s. The little Blanding firm was the seed that has grown into a national chain of for-profit medical-transportation services based in South Jordan. This firm's billing and employment practices have drawn fire from critics who say it is profiting at the expense of safety and patient care.
Joe Hunt married into the Lymans, a San Juan County family descended from the Mormon pioneers who settled the region in the 1880s and remain prominent in civic and business affairs.
According to state incorporation records, Hunt established Lyman Family Farm Inc. in June 25, 2014, just a few weeks after San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman organized an ATV ride through Recapture Canyon to protest federal oversight of public lands.
Lyman Family Farm lists AMRG's South Jordan headquarters as its address. On the day Lyman Family Farm was incorporated, it entered the high bid for its first SITLA-auctioned parcel: $350,000 for an 896-acre property owned by Utah State University straddling the Carbon and Emery county line at Horse Canyon.
Since then, Hunt, as a representative for the Lyman "farm," has been the busiest bidder at the four most recent auctions, raising his paddle for parcels all over the state, including three 80-acre patches outside Tropic with nice views of Bryce Canyon National Park's hoodoo cliffs.
Conservation groups say the most recent auction on Oct. 19 the state's largest since the real estate meltdown of 2008 is a cautionary tale of what Utah officials might do should they gain control of 31 million acres administered by the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service. That a single buyer bought seven of the 12 parcels for sale only heightened critics' concerns.
"These guys are clearly speculating and doing it under the guise of agriculture. If you look at the parcels sold, they aren't particularly high-quality ag lands, none comes with water and they won't be good for grazing," said Greg Zimmerman, policy director for the Center for Western Priorities. "It raises important questions about the way these lands are managed and how they should be managed. There is no option for the public to have a say. ... These are lands that should be protected and accessible for all Americans."
SITLA officials say state trust lands are more akin to private land.
This agency is required by law to optimize revenue off state trust sections to build an endowment to support education, whereas public lands even if they come under state control, as Utah officials desire are to be managed for multiple use, with opportunities for public involvement in decision-making, according to Kim Christy, SITLA's associate director.
"We have to hold strict allegiance to our mandate to seek and find higher and better uses," Christy said. "We don't apologize for that. Case law and statutes speak to that obligation."
SITLA's revenue-maximizing practices have no relevance to the land-transfer debate since the state would be obligated to manage for multiple uses if it succeeds in gaining control of public land, Christy emphasized.
But everyone agrees Lyman Family Farm's land-buying binge is curious, especially when this entity does not actively "nominate" SITLA parcels to be auctioned. In most instances, the parcels Hunt bought were either put on the block by SITLA itself or nominated by other interested buyers whom Hunt outbid at auction, according to SITLA general counsel John Andrews.
For example, the Hunt Oil Co. (no relation to Joe Hunt) nominated two parcels on Patmos Ridge that are near its massive holdings on the West Tavaputs Plateau, where it maintains a cattle operation and upscale hunting reserve on the historic Preston Nutter Ranch. At the Oct. 19 auction, Joe Hunt spent $700,000 to outbid everyone else for these two parcels, far exceeding the $480,000 SITLA set as the minimum combined bids.
The only other buyer in recent years who comes close to Hunt is Green River Co., which has spent $3.1 million on two sprawling parcels of rangelands, totaling 4,026 acres, intermixed with property it already owns east of the town of Green River.
In previous discussions with the press, AMRG executives were vague, even cryptic, about their intentions for the state land Lyman Family Farm has bought in San Juan County.
"Joe Hunt could see the potential repercussions of the sale, which provided additional motivation to protect the land," Chris Webb, AMRG's chief contracting officer, told the San Juan Record.
The Comb Ridge parcel went on the block at the request of the Bluff-based Hole in the Rock Foundation, which wanted it for staging treks that celebrate the eponymous expedition that brought white settlement to San Juan County. The nonprofit could not compete with deep-pocketed bidders who drove the price far above SITLA's $284,000 minimum bid. But the group hopes to work with the new owner to use the property for its pioneer heritage activities, said Lynn Stevens, its governmental relations director.
"We have requested to meet with them and have a discussion about the possibility of the foundation using that Comb Ridge property several times a year," said Stevens, a former San Juan County commissioner who knows the Hunt family. "We haven't any special reason to believe for them to not be cooperative."
Christy is not privy to the Lyman farm's plans for trust land it buys, but he welcomes its participation at auctions since it makes them more competitive and brings in more money for Utah schools.
"It has been a great benefit to our beneficiaries," he said. "It is not my business to know how they want to use these properties."
Brian Maffly covers public lands for The Salt Lake Tribune. Maffly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 801-257-8713. Twitter: @brianmaffly