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New West Daily Roundup for Jan. 6, 2017

Today in New West news: Lyman Family Farm LLC blocks road to Comb Ridge near Bears Ears, Edgar Paxson murals reinstated in Missoula courthouse, and two Colorado companies contribute heavily to latest NASA mission.

A few months ago, we reported that Utah’s School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration had announced the sale of several land parcels beloved by conservationists and recreation enthusiasts, including Comb Ridge near the recently designated Bears Ears National Monument, to Lyman Family Farm LLC. To date, the company has acquired over 5,000 acres of land, although, as we previously reported, no one knows entirely why—especially since the land isn’t that great for farming—although some allege the company is a front for land speculation.

Now, according to the Salt Lake Tribune, Lyman Family Farm LLC is offering a clue as to its intentions—by padlocking a gate on the county road long used by residents to access the area:

Lyman Family Farm LLC acquired the 391-acre parcel along U.S. Highway 163 in October, and soon padlocked a gate intersecting a county road that crosses into but quickly exits the property. The new owner also posted a “No trespassing” sign.

No one disputes the right of Lyman Family Farm, a company started by Utah air-ambulance executive Joe Hunt, to restrict access to its land. But blocking the county road, which accesses public land, is stirring controversy.

The Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, or SITLA, which sold the trust section at auction for $500,000, has advised the new owner to unlock the gate.

Local officials are not so sure of the road’s status. The route is a Class D county road, according to San Juan County’s travel plan. Although blocking a county road is considered a criminal offense, the county has yet to move to reopen the road. Officials learned of the locked gate on Dec. 30 and are now trying to determine whether the county holds easements to this road.

“The section has nine Class D roads. Some are quite short and end on the private land. The county notified SITLA about the easements. Nothing was acquired before the land was sold. I’ve asked the county attorney to look into the legalities of the matter,” Sheriff Rick Eldredge said.

The spot is on the north side of the highway where it bends around the southern tip of the distinctive sandstone ridge that rises like a backbone along the southeastern part of Bears Ears National Monument.

Chris Webb, an executive for Hunt’s Air Medical Resource Group who has spoken for Lyman Family Farm in the past, did not return a phone message. But Eldredge said the new owner has expressed a willingness to work with the county to resolve the road’s status.

The sale of the parcel sparked outrage among many Bluff residents and other Utahns concerned about SITLA creating a private inholding in an area then poised to become a national monument.

President Barack Obama in December set aside 1.3 million acres in the area to protect their geological wonders and the ancient remnants of American Indian societies that populated the region for thousands of years.

Blocking the road “is just a slap in the face to the town,” said Wes Shook, who serves on the elected Bluff Services Area board.

“The town knew this would happen,” Shook said. “If [the Bureau of Land Management] had done this, you guys [county officials] would be jumping through hoops to make it open. [The county is] trying to make sure it was an illegal closure. We believe it is, but they are dragging their feet hoping it goes away. They don’t have any respect for the folks who have used the property and accessed the public land.”

San Juan County’s response to the Comb Ridge closure does contrast sharply with its strenuous objections to closures ordered by the Bureau of Land Management in recent years. Eldredge has launched criminal probes in the past after BLM retired some roads used by locals.

Up in Montana, according to the Missoulian, eight pieces of Western history have been lovingly restored to their place in the Missoula County Courthouse after four years of absence. The paintings in question, done by Edgar Paxson, depict several classic scenes in Western history, from buffalo runs and encounters between native tribes and explorers—including Merriweather Lewis and William Clark. From the Missoulian:

The paintings were removed to safe storage in August 2012, in the early stages of the five-phase, $16.4 million courthouse renovation. It’s finished now, all but exterior work that will go to bid next month and should be wrapped up by the end of summer.

Paxson’s prize Missoula pieces, which went on the courthouse walls in 1914, spent part of 2014 on display in the Missoula Art Museum, and by all appearances came through in fine fashion.

The paintings were down once before. During a restoration project in 1980, two paintings were found underneath the Paxson works. They’re now framed and illuminated too, and hanging above the landing of the courthouse’s north stairwell, between the second and third floor. The two are of a more general western theme – a wagon train rolling through the mountains.

“While the draftsmanship is strong, the coloration is only blocked in, using the characteristic light, pastel colors that Paxson used as underpaint,” a press release from the county said, citing information provided by the art museum.

An opposing school of thought has it that the underpaintings were those of a previous courthouse décor project that fell into disfavor with the locals. The Missoula Women’s Club, driven by Mrs. A.E. Pound, led a campaign to replace them. The reception at the dedication of the Paxson paintings on Nov. 9, 1914, was in honor of Pound as well as Paxson and his wife, Laura.

Amanda Bielby, the local painter who renovated and repainted the historic courtroom upstairs, repainted decorative numerals – 1 through 8 – under each painting to correspond with interpretive literature. The design of the numbers, Bielby said, is a tribute to the Native American influence.

Finally, over in Colorado, according to the Denver Post, a pair of Colorado space/aeronautical companies (Boulder-based Southwest Research Institute and Jefferson County-based Lockheed Martin Space Systems) is contributing significantly to two of the latest NASA Discovery Programs:

The mission, announced Wednesday, plans to study seven asteroids, six of which are part of the Trojans orbiting in tandem with Jupiter and one of which flies in the main asteroid belt. Researchers at SwRI hope instruments on the craft, built by Lockheed Martin, will gather information that can help scientists better understand the formation of the solar system.

Lucy, which is scheduled to launch in October 2021, is the first of two Discovery missions announced by NASA. The other, Psyche, is scheduled to launch October 2023 and will be heading to a metal asteroid that could be the exposed core of a former planet as large as Mars.

The missions are “two chapters of a storybook of the early solar system,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

“My hope is as we look back at this a few years down the road, we will really see the opportunity of learning and the great discoveries that came from both of these missions,” Zurbuchen said during a NASA press call Wednesday.

SwRI’s Harold Levison, the principal investigator for Lucy, said during the press call that the Trojan asteroids are remains of former worlds formed in different regions of the solar system during its earliest era. Looking at them through a telescope, the former worlds appear vastly different.

“We believe that’s telling us something about how the solar system formed and evolved,” he said. “These small bodies are the fossils of planet formation.”

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