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Plans For Bluff Solar Farm Clouds Scenic Community's Future, Leaders Say

Photo of Bluff Mayor Ann Leppanen and Bluff Town Councilman Brant Murray standing in redrock country.
Judy Fahys / KUER
Bluff Mayor Ann Leppanen and Bluff Town Councilman Brant Murray stand where solar panels are planned on the Bluff Bench just north of town. They say the proposal would mar the view on scenic land that was designated as a national monument in 2016.

BLUFF — This recently incorporated town in San Juan County is facing a new test of newfound political clout as a solar farm is being proposed inside the disputed boundaries of the original Bears Ears National Monument.

Having incorporated in 2018, Bluff stands just below the proposed thousand-acre project, raising concerns about its potential impact on their water supplies and the redrock landscape.

“If we’re going to have a solar facility here, then it needs to be the right size and in the right place,” said Bluff Councilman Brant Murray.

Credit Judy Fahys / KUER

“I’m a little less inclined than Brant,” said Mayor Ann Leppanen. “I’m saying really strongly: I don’t want it here. I want it to go somewhere else.”

Both local leaders said they’re pleased that the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) has contacted Bluff, which became a town after voters opted for incorporation in 2018, to hear their thoughts about the solar proposal.

SITLA has not disclosed who has applied for rights to lease 999.13 acres on the Bluff Bench, just north of downtown. But Director David Ure pointed out that SITLA’s mandate is to capture the biggest possible return on its assets to help fund Utah schools — whether that’s interest on its $2.3 billion trust fund or leasing land for mining and development and selling real estate.

Photo of David Ure.
Credit Screenshot
David Ure is director of Utah's School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, an agency that expects to pump more than $61 million into Utah schools this year from earnings on its assets. SITLA is considering leasing 999 acres just north of Bluff, Utah, for a solar farm.

Having met with the Bluff officials last month to talk about the project and to visit the site where the solar panels would generate renewable energy for up to 30 years, Ure said the project would be lucrative. For Bluff, with an estimated budget of about $70,000 this year, it would mean revenue of up to $300,000 a year, and jobs. For SITLA, the project could bring up to $600,000 annually.

“This solar field will bring an awful lot in to them,” he said. “I’m guessing it will be around $500,000 or $600,000 for us.”

But there are several complications, including the ongoing battle over the boundaries of the Bears Ears National Monument. All but snippets of the solar project area lie within the lines of the original, 1.35-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument as created by former U.S. President Barack Obama in December 2016. The project is outside the boundaries of the shrunken, 201,876-acre national monument declared by President Donald Trump a year later.

Two lawsuits now in federal court contend that presidents do not have the authority to reduce national monuments created by their predecessors. A ruling is expected any day by Judge Tanya S. Chutkan of the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia, but the battle could continue if either side disagrees.

“We are working very hard not to do anything in the old Bears Ears or the new Bears Ears until the courts decide what is valid,” Ure said.

SITLA is also proposing a solar farm in Emery County, on 2,406.78 acres east of Castle Dale, in central Utah. The lease site is near the new San Rafael Swell national recreation area and would be visible from the popular Wedge Overlook and the Cedar Mountain Overlook on either side of what sometimes called the Little Grand Canyon.

Photo of sagebrush range in redrock country.
Credit Judy Fahys / KUER
The jagged teeth of Comb Ridge are visible straight ahead on land owned by the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, or SITLA, and proposed for a 999-acre solar farm. The Bears Ears rise up near the photo's right edge, what's left of the Bears Ears National Monument after the Trump administration reductions in 2017.

Emery County officials have told SITLA there are other areas better suited for solar farm than at the entrance to the 216,754 acres that Congress set aside earlier this year for the San Rafael Swell Western Heritage and Historic Mining Recreation Area.

Local leaders have already told SITLA the Emery County Lease is no place for a solar farm. It’s a message Bluff’s leaders also hope to convey, and Bluff Mayor Leppanen is looking on the bright side.

Meanwhile, while Leppanen and Murray say they support renewable energy, they contend that the Bluff Bench location poses too many risks. Grading it could affect city watersheds and create a flooding hazard in Bluff. And the landscape is rich with archaeological sites.

The solar farm also would be the first thing visitors see as they drive into Bluff from the north. It would blight the scenic entry to a community considered the gateway to southeastern Utah’s public lands and recreational sites, including Comb Ridge, the twin buttes of Bears Ears and the Abajo Mountains.

Map of SITLA solar site.
Credit Renee Bright / KUER
The solar farm site outside Bluff, UT would be the first thing visitors traveling to redrock country see when coming in from the north. Local officials worry the location would be bad for tourism, and say there are better sites for a solar farm.

Leppanen and Murray said Ure is keeping them in the loop, and that makes them feel the incorporation effort was worthwhile.

“If we hadn’t incorporated, we wouldn’t have had a seat at the table at all,” said Leppanen.

Ure said SITLA is trying to figure out how to accommodate the solar investors and local concerns so the project can be built. But he said it probably will be six months before a final resolution is clear.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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