Ray Tibbetts, right, and author Tom McCourt in 2010, following the publication of “Last of the Robbers Roost Outlaws – Moab’s Bill Tibbetts.” [Photo courtesy of Canyonlands Natural History Association]

When Ray Tibbetts’ friends and acquaintances look back on his life and legacy, they tend to use the same word to describe him: “icon.”

Tibbetts, who passed away on Tuesday, April 4, 2017, was a witness to – and a part of – Grand County’s history throughout the second half of the 20th century, and well into the new millennium.

“Ray deserves all of the respect he can get in this county because he’s done so much for it,” former Grand County Commissioner Ron Steele said. “We lost a real icon in this part of the world.”

“Ray is an icon,” Moab resident Dave Cozzens said. “He always had a smile, and wisdom flowed from him.”

Tibbetts built up that reputation over decades of involvement in the community – both as a local businessman and a Grand County commissioner.

In Utah and other Western states, he was known as a leading figure of the Sagebrush Rebellion, a movement that sought state control over public lands and land management decisions in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

“Ray Tibbetts leaves behind a legacy of hard work, community and public service, a strong commitment to family and friends, and a love of the land,” Grand County Council member Curtis Wells said.

Although he represented Grand County during a more conservative time in its history, he’s continued to influence and mentor current generations of elected officials like Wells. He called Tibbetts a “lifelong, dear friend” to his grandfather – former Grand County Commissioner Jimmie Walker – and a close friend to many other family members.

“Ray and (his wife) Caroline Tibbetts have been very supportive of my political endeavors during the past few years and I’ll miss our talks in his back yard,” Wells said. “He will be missed, but most certainly not forgotten … Good show, Mcgruff!”

A figure in the Sagebrush Rebellion – and the creation of Canyonlands

At the height of the Sagebrush Rebellion, Tibbetts appeared before congressional committees to protest what he viewed as federal encroachment on the sovereign rights of state and local governments to manage roads and public lands within their jurisdiction. His family called Tibbetts a “keeper of the land” who believed in the concept of multiple-use management, along with the need for a diverse local economy.

But he was just as instrumental in the creation of Canyonlands National Park in 1964.

As plans for the park were being drawn up, Tibbetts took several high-ranking federal government officials, including former U.S. Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, on helicopter tours of canyon country to show them places that he felt needed to be protected. Most of those places were ultimately included within the new park’s boundaries.

After his mother discovered a sandstone arch near Dead Horse Point State Park, Tibbetts worked with the U.S. Geological Survey to put it on the map. Today, it bears his mother’s name: Jewel Tibbetts Arch.

Even in his retirement, Tibbetts remained actively involved in land-use management issues, weighing in on the eastern Utah Public Lands Initiative and the newly created Bears Ears National Monument in San Juan County.

According to Steele, Tibbetts told a representative from Washington, D.C., that if he really wanted to protect the land, the federal government shouldn’t advertise it as wilderness.

“Keep it under your hat” was his advice, Steele said. “He understood that for every cause, there’s an effect.”

Decades before Moab became an outdoor recreation destination that draws visitors from around the world, Steele said that his friend would dazzle him with his geographic grasp of an area that few others had explored.

“He was probably the most knowledgeable man I ever met in this area,” Steele said.

In a November 2012 interview with the Moab Sun News, Tibbetts said that the beautiful land and open spaces are the things he loved most about living in Moab.

“Getting the red sand in your blood – it’s part of your DNA,” he said.

His family members remembered that Tibbetts seemed to know every rock and bush in his beloved red-rock country, which he liked to call “God’s Country.”

“Ray loved spending time deer hunting, finding the jewels of the earth and feeding his soul in ‘his church,’” they said in a remembrance of his life.

In recent years, his family stories reached a wider audience in author Tom McCourt’s “Last of the Robbers Roost Outlaws – Moab’s Bill Tibbetts,” a nonfiction book about his onetime-outlaw father.

McCourt dedicated the book to Ray Tibbetts, with an inscription that reads, “A good man and a chip off the old block.”

Steele said that Ray Tibbetts had been saving material about his family for years and years, making McCourt’s task that much simpler as he put the book together.

“(McCourt) said, ‘It was the easiest book to write because it was all written for me,’” Steele said.

From business to government and beyond

For many long-time residents, their introduction to Tibbetts began when they walked into Miller’s Clothing and Family Budget Clothing – two businesses that Tibbetts and his brother-in-law Hal Johnson owned and operated. After the stores closed in 1987, following a 32-year-run, Tibbetts went into real estate full time.

Film location manager Larry Campbell looks back to the shops’ era as a period when residents could buy “real clothing” in the historic downtown Cooper-Martin Building.

Campbell was born in Moab, and he cannot recall a time when Tibbetts wasn’t around.

“Ray’s just been here forever,” he said.

“He’s just always been a great guy,” Campbell added. “He had been involved with our community for as long as I can remember.”

Steele served with Tibbetts on the Grand County Commission during the height of the Sagebrush Rebellion era. But their decades-long friendship began years earlier, around the time that Steele moved to Moab to work as an electrician for Texas Gulf Sulphur in 1965.

One day, Steele walked into one of the family’s clothing stores to buy a new pair of work boots.

“We just hit it off,” he said.

In the years that followed, the two men cemented their friendship, and found common cause in their opposition to the Federal Land Management Policy Act (FLPMA) of 1976.

At the time, they belonged to different political parties: Tibbetts was a Republican, and Steele was a Democrat. But they worked with their respective parties in support of platform positions that the Sagebrush Rebellion gave voice to.

In Grand County, the Sagebrush Rebellion flared up when federal land managers closed what Steele called an old toll road through Negro Bill Canyon. Although barriers came and went, Steele said they kept the route open for the remainder of their time in office.

Like virtually any other issue related to land management in southeastern Utah, the controversial closure – and the controversial reaction to the closure – stirred passions on every side of the political spectrum.

“There were people in this county who thought we were nuts,” Steele chuckled. “But we were not nuts. We were following the Constitution.”

While they may have had their detractors, Steele said that in his opinion, everything that Tibbetts did was for the benefit of the people of this county.

He remembers feeling especially impressed by Tibbetts’ reaction when someone offered to charge a meal to a county credit card.

“Ray said, ‘No. I will not have the county feed us,’” Steele said.

Likewise, when they had to attend meetings in Salt Lake City on official county business, they would leave early in the morning and come back on the same day because Tibbetts didn’t want to charge the county and its taxpayers for a motel room.

“He was very, very concerned about the public money,” Steele said. “He just guarded it like it was his own.”

In his November 2012 interview with the Moab Sun News, Tibbetts outlined his philosophy toward life: “Live your life with gusto and treat everyone with grace and friendship.”

For Steele, his friend’s “old-time, pioneer-type thinking” was always on display during their long walks together in the desert.

“He was a guy that just had it figured out,” he said.

Raymond Moore Tibbetts was born on April 22, 1932, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to James William (Bill) and Betty Jewel Agens Tibbetts. Ray was the youngest of four boys: Bob, Jim and Gail, all of whom preceded him in death. The family returned to Moab in 1939, where Tibbetts completed his education at Grand County schools and served four years in the U.S. Air Force. After returning to Moab, Tibbetts worked two years in the Grand County Sheriff’s Office.

Tibbetts married his sweetheart Carolyn Grace Miller on Aug. 7, 1955, and in 2016, they celebrated their 61st wedding anniversary. They had five daughters, Melinda Lee, Monica Tibbetts Fryer (Colin), Cynthia Lyman (Tim), Shellee DeVore (Donn) and Megan Pepper (Bill) — all of whom were his “pride and joy,” Steele said.

In addition to his daughters, he had 15 grandchildren, 24 great-grandchildren and one great-great grandchild.

A celebration of Tibbetts’ life is planned on Saturday, April 15, from 2 to 5 p.m. at the Red Cliffs Lodge’s Colorado Room. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the Ray Tibbetts Memorial Fund at Wells Fargo.

Condolences may be sent to the family at www.SpanishValleyMortuary.com.

Ex-county commissioner, “Sagebrush Rebel” Ray Tibbetts dies at 84

“He was probably the most knowledgeable man I ever met in this area.”