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A Utah trust-lands parcel at the Needles entrance to Canyonlands National Park fetched a record $2.5 million Wednesday from a conservation buyer after a brief bidding war.
The square-mile section longtime home of the Needles Outpost campground and store went on the market shortly after the surrounding public land became part of the new Bears Ears National Monument.
The proposed sale had raised concerns that the 640 acres would be taken over by developers eager to capitalize on the spot's proximity to protected lands in southern Utah.
Jennifer Speers, a Salt Lake City resident affiliated with The Nature Conservancy and The Wilderness Society, submitted a sealed bid that was more than double the $1 million minimum bid set by the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, or SITLA.
The agency then fielded oral bids Wednesday at its Salt Lake City headquarters.
Speers' representative said Wednesday while the land's exact fate hadn't been decided, it will likely remain a campground and never see heavy development.
The Needles Outpost fetched the highest amount paid at auction for a trust-lands parcel in years, according to SITLA executive director David Ure.
"We are very appreciative to [Speers'] foundation," said Ure, who acknowledged being surprised by the final sale price. "This is a good deal for [Utah's] school kids. This money goes directly into the trust [supporting Utah schools] and is reinvested. We will reinvest this money year after year."
The auction room erupted in applause when the gavel dropped on the $2.5 million tendered by Speers' representative Tom Shellenberger after he made several counters to high bids from a company called Wolf Creek.
"You're always scared at auction. You never know what might happen," Shellenberger said.
He said his client intends to put a conservation easement on the land or donate it to The Nature Conservancy, which owns the Dugout Ranch nearby at Indian Creek.
Shellenberger said the parcel, which served as overflow camping for the Needles District, will remain a campground in the short term "and it may stay that way for a long time.
"It has gasoline and food and camping, which is a benefit to the park as long as it doesn't escalate into a big commercial development," he said, "which I can guarantee with this buyer, it will not."
SITLA manages 3.4 million acres of land for the exclusive purpose of generating revenue for schools. It is legally obligated to optimize returns regardless of other land uses the public might prefer, such as access or wildlife habitat.
Twice a year, the agency auctions some of its land holdings, but a recent pattern of selling scenic SITLA parcels near national parks and other protected pubic lands has attracted scrutiny from environmental groups, worried that such sales indicate potential dangers of transferring public lands to state control.
"Happy ending this time, but this was one tiny piece of land," said Brad Brooks, public lands campaign director for The Wilderness Society. "This parcel had a benevolent buyer but there is not enough money in the conservation community to buy every one."
Speers, president of the Paladium Foundation, has also acquired land around Moab to shield it from development.
Her latest purchase features a runway on its eastern edge and a sandstone formation around which are several campsites served with full-service bathrooms. But the Needles Outpost has no water rights; water is trucked in from the national park.
The property has long been a challenge for SITLA, which has leased it to operators who have never made much money, while generating dozens of complaints from guests. After the lessees earned a string of criminal convictions stemming from ugly confrontations in 2015, SITLA evicted the couple running the outpost and leased the property to other operators whose contract expires this year.
In addition to the Needles sale, SITLA sold a pair of donated Cedar City homes on a half-acre for $165,500 and failed to attract a single bid on a 40-acre industrial-zoned property in Emery County. A fourth parcel, dubbed Rip Gut Creek covering 480 acres in Beaver County, elicited a single sealed bid for just $1,000 above the $400,000 minimum.
Rancher Barry Theriot submitted that offer on the land, for which he holds the grazing permit.