Castle Valley is a spectacular gash in the earth connecting southeastern Utah’s La Sal Mountains with the canyon of the Colorado River. The unbroken rampart of Porcupine Rim rises 1,700 feet from the valley floor to an undulating western skyline ten miles long. Beyond lies the Negro Bill Wilderness Study Area. Across the chasm of the river to the north, one glimpses the fantastic landscape of Arches National Park and the proposed wilderness of Dome Plateau. The arresting forms of Parriott Mesa, the Priest and Nuns and Castle Rock tower to the east. In this direction, too, the valley is enclosed by the proposed wilderness of Mary Jane Canyon. Finally, on the south, rise the snowy peaks of the La Sals, home to bears, bighorns, elk, lions and mule deer. Snowmelt from the mountains feeds streams and springs that support an agricultural oasis at the lower end of Castle Valley. The upper end is critical winter range for deer and elk — a steeply dissected pinon and juniper forest punctuated by the upthrust bulk of Round Mountain.
This valley is significant not just because of its famous and fragile beauty, but also because there is a community here willing to be a model of sustainable relations between humans and the natural world that sustains them. The community has passed a land use plan that is a model of restraint and vision, with an eye to protecting the place that drew us all here. The citizenry is remarkably involved in local politics, and is currently wrestling with the trust land issue that has relevance throughout much of the West.
European settlement in Castle Valley began 15 years before Utah’s statehood on a few ranches that claimed the flat, well watered, arable land. Several of these ranches are now farms, while the largest has become the incorporated Town of Castle Valley, home to some 450 people. Modest sections of developable land and great sweeps of wildly eroded talus slopes surround this private acreage. Some of these public lands are federal and are managed by the BLM or USFS. However, the largest landowner in the valley is the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA).
Like most Western States, as a condition of statehood, Utah set aside part of its land area in a trust to generate money for the schools. The grid of trust lands paid no heed to topography or resources. In the case of Castle Valley, where much of the habitable land was already private, trust lands primarily got the cliffs and talus slopes, the rare plant sites, view areas, eagle eyries, and critical watershed. Exchanges over the years have added to the trust estate here, resulting in a large block within and adjacent to the town. Great portions of these holding should never be developed.
Nevertheless, rapid population growth in Utah has caused the school board to demand greater returns from the trust land assets, including a directive to build the trust fund to a billion dollars by 2007. Trust administrators have begun an aggressive real estate and marketing effort in order to comply. Thus, the Castle Valley community was shocked last year by the sudden sale-at-auction of a deeply eroded parcel of trust land squarely in the view on the flank of Parriott Mesa. When local people contacted trust lands to ask about the transaction, they learned that land at the foot of Castle Rock, that icon of the red rock country, would be auctioned within a few months. Indeed, the entire valley had been carved into 40-acre parcels and a wholesale liquidation had begun, opening the way for new inholdings and development that would be disastrous for the community and the wildlands around it. In response, the Grand Canyon Trust helped organize and fund a group of citizens calling themselves the Castle Rock Collaboration. This group has engaged trust lands in an unprecedented collaborative planning process to decide the future of these lands.
The basic idea of the plan, which focuses on the 4,500-acre trust land parcel adjacent to the town, is to protect those lands that should never be developed and to plan for sensible development on the rest. The members of the collaboration realize that this is a high-risk strategy, since careful planning raises the visibility and value of the property. But, the alternative of ambush auctions seemed unacceptable. So far, areas subject to flooding and rockfall have been placed off-limits, and the locations of rare plant sites, archaeological remains and critical deer migration routes are being mapped. The Town of Castle Valley and the Property Owners Association have joined the Collaboration in funding the planner and also a study of the valley’s groundwater resources and permissible septic tank densities. The planners are thinking primarily of clustered housing that stays out of sight and keeps space open for animal migrations and for hikers.
While the plan moves forward, there has been plenty of action on the other 4,500 acres of trust land scattered in square mile blocks around Castle Valley. The Nature Conservancy has made an attractive offer to buy six sections of trust land in the Colorado River corridor, one of which is contiguous with TNC’s existing Mayberry Orchard Preserve. The Grand Canyon Trust is assisting negotiations through which the US Forest Service hopes to exchange a designated portal to SITLA coal reserves in Emery County for three sections of trust land in upper Castle Valley. Utah Open Lands has applied to the Utah Quality Growth Commission for funds to buy two parcels that control access to the famous climbing routes on Castle Rock. Also, Utah Open Lands has — with major fund raising assistance from the Grand Canyon Trust — bought back from the developers the original parcel of land whose auction started the whole process. It is not easy to work together with trust lands in this way; but the emerging results are far better than those produced by the usual ostrich head-in-the-sand approach. This point was brought home with startling force recently when trust lands surprised the nearby Moab community with the announcement that it had been in negotiation for two years with a developer who wants to build “the western hemisphere’s most upscale wilderness resort and condo complex” on top of a mesa in the Moab Valley. It is time for rural communities across the Colorado Plateau to become very pragmatic about incorporating trust lands into their local planning processes. The alternative is sprawl, vanishing open space, and compromised wildlife habitat throughout the landscape.