This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Soon after Tracey Napoleone and Gary Knecht bought the Needles Outpost in 1997, things starting going wrong. The trailer hook-ups didn't work, the buildings were barely usable and few customers showed up. The electrical generators blew up three months later, flash floods took out the landing strip and the landowner, which happens to be a state agency, quadrupled the rent in 2009.
The couple soldiered on, according to court records, investing $600,000 in the campground, gas station and convenience store just outside the Needles entrance to Canyonlands National Park. They operated under a lease with the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, or SITLA, that was supposed to run through 2045. But after a court battle, the agency evicted Napoleone and Knecht in 2015, citing run-ins with visitors that resulted in criminal convictions. One arose from a stack of quarters thrown at a visitor, another from a rock hurled through a vehicle window and a third for selling alcohol to a minor, according to court records.
Now officials plan to sell the outpost's 640-acre section, which sits where the national park and the new Bears Ears National Monument abut near San Juan County's Indian Creek. It's the only place within 45 miles for park visitors to buy gas or groceries. SITLA officials are accepting sealed bids for the property, with the floor set at just over $1 million.
The couple believes SITLA did not treat them fairly and may have even undermined the viability of the outpost.
"Every time we came up to them with a proposal, the first thing out of their mouths was, 'We are not in business together.' But we are in business together and we are just trying to protect their assets there," Knecht said. "They were trying to work us out of the equation."
But according to Kim Christy, SITLA's deputy director, evicting Knecht had nothing to do with the decision to sell the 1-square-mile property.
"History doesn't speak to that because we were trying to work through this for years to get a different outcome than what happened," Christy said. "Our agency was extremely patient to work through these issues over years. It turned on public safety."
Bids on the property will be opened at SITLA's next twice-a-year auction May 24, when the three high bids along with those in the ballpark will be invited to participate in oral bidding. Also on the block are a 480-acre piece called Rip Gut Creek in western Beaver County and two donated residential lots in Cedar City.
SITLA, which manages 3.2 million acres of trust lands for the benefit of Utah schools, has been ramping up land sales in recent years with the rebound of the real estate market. Many of these parcels are on scenic lands near national monuments and parks and other protected landscapes. Nearly half the land SITLA has sold in the past three years 5,214 acres in 19 parcels have gone to a newly incorporated business called Lyman Family Farm. The most controversial acquisition by the Blanding-based firm, founded by air-ambulance executive Joe Hunt, was a 381-acre parcel at the southern tip of Comb Ridge, now inside the new national monument.
What makes the Needles sale different is the property has long been developed for commercial use.
Trust lands officials first began renting it as campground when Congress established the park in 1964. For years the annual rent was just $400 before it was raised to $5,000 when SITLA was established in the mid-1990s as part of broad reforms to improve revenue generation off state trust lands. That was around the time Knect and Napoleone acquired the outpost. In 2009, SITLA concluded the market would support a much higher rent and insisted the outpost proprietors pay $19,200 a year. After the couple balked, SITLA agreed to phase in the four-fold increase over the next three years.
"We had worked closely with the tenants to work out terms that were more reasonable. There were multiple layers of efforts to try to put things on fair footing regarding market value," Christy said.
But the economics remained untenable, according to Knecht.
"It is a small campground. It can't generate that kind of overhead," he said. The campground, which provided flush toilets and showers, has two group sites and 26 single sites available at $20 a night.
"It's a very fragile area, but there is a needed place for recreation down there. That property would be best suited for the private sector which could handle it much better than SITLA. We approached them a couple times to buy it, but they said it was not in the plan," Knecht said, who also complained that SITLA wouldn't help with upgrades. "I hope for the best for the property itself."
Napoleone and Knecht spent thousands on a solar array that generated sufficient power to unplug the outpost from the grid. They bought water from the park and stored it in a 5,000-gallon cistern.
In court filings, the couple said SITLA focused on a few negative incidents to justify terminating the lease.
They "have had thousands of written accolades about the service they provide, their hospitality, their friendliness and their willingness to assist anyone in need. They are good people, and loved by most," their lawyer wrote.
But complaints had been coming into Canyonlands from visitors who incorrectly assumed the outpost was a park concession, according to SITLA. Things came to a head in November 2013 when Knecht and Napoleone racked up that string of criminal convictions. Currently, a Moab-based business operates the outpost under contract as a concessionaire until the end of August.