Twenty-five miles south of Moab, Looking Glass Arch overlooks a sprawling desert landscape from a shaded alcove, from which outdoor enthusiasts can see all the way to the Abajo Mountains and beyond. The site is a treasured location for Moab’s climbers, aerialists and hikers, and social media erupted on the morning of June 7 as news of a deal between the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration and luxury glamping company Under Canvas near the rock formation spread.
“When I actually understood what was happening, I was bawling. I’m so connected to that parcel of land,” said Dailey Haren, a lifetime Moabite who posted about the agreement in an Instagram post on June 7. “If this happens, I will leave Moab, and I was born here. For me, it’s that serious.”
Haren organized a petition, “Citizens Against Moab Under Canvas at Looking Glass Rock,” which has garnered over 2,000 signatures as of June 17. But as details of the deal made their way to Facebook and other platforms, misinformation and uncertainty followed. Rumors that Looking Glass Arch would be wholly sealed off from public access troubled many Moab locals, who flooded SITLA and Under Canvas with calls, emails and social media messages.
“We received some pretty nasty attacks,” Under Canvas Chief Marketing Officer May Lilley told the Moab Sun News. Lilley spent much of June 7 reaching out online to clarify details of the project.
The most common inaccuracy on social media, Lilley said, was the misconception that Under Canvas’ new lease would change public access and use of Looking Glass Arch.
“It will remain fully accessible to the public,” she said. “Not only is the rock not in our parcel, we’re not developing it. The rock will remain untouched and everyone will have the same access that they always have.”
For some who oppose the deal, the fine details aren’t the issue. Haren and others say they object to the loss of another natural space to corporate or tourism development, particularly through a deal with SITLA.
The Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration was created in 1994 to manage Utah’s 3.4 million acres of trust lands, which are designated by Congress for each state. These lands are not public, but rather held by 12 beneficiaries. SITLA manages contracts with private corporations on these trust lands — which constitute 6% of the state — to generate revenue for the Permanent School Fund, and has raised $1.96 billion since its inception. Last year, School Trust Lands donated approximately $93 million to Utah’s public schools.
“In my experience, SITLA is very much misunderstood,” Bryan Torgerson, a resource specialist for SITLA, wrote in email correspondence with the Moab Sun News. “The public misunderstands that because we leave our lands open to the public to freely recreate on, that School Trust Lands are public lands. They are not. They are sacred lands that must be used for the sole purpose to generate money for public schools.”
Looking Glass Arch itself is maintained by the Bureau of Land Management. Public access to and use of the arch will not change due to the parcel’s lease change, Torgerson clarified; the parcel recently leased to Under Canvas is a quarter-mile from the arch at its closest point.
“Under Canvas was deemed the best partner for use of a section of this piece of land, largely driven by the company’s emphasis on land preservation, low impact approach to development, focus on allowing everyone to enjoy the outdoors and region, and economics,” Torgerson wrote.
Torgerson emphasized that the RFP process on the land parcel was public and by the book, including “multiple public postings on both the SITLA webpage and multiple newspapers.” The window for accepting bids for the lease was closed on April 30 and SITLA expects to finalize the lease contract with Under Canvas within the next two weeks.
The 240-acre parcel, which begins a quarter-mile east of Looking Glass Arch, was previously leased by cattle ranchers, who will now be moving their grazing operations across Highway 191. The new lease with Under Canvas is for 30 years and will be developed using “nonpermanent structures” — similar to Under Canvas Moab — and “reclaimed and reseeded with native grasses and shrubs after the lease expires,” according to Torgerson. SITLA sponsored a cultural resource study on the parcel, which determined that no cultural or historical resources would be impacted by development.
Torgerson reported that though the lease application was originally for 240 acres, Under Canvas anticipates that actual development will only take place on 70 acres and the rest will be left as open space. The parcel does not include land directly against Looking Glass Arch.
“Statewide, SITLA’s projects are very thoughtful, professional and there is usually widespread acceptance,” wrote Torgerson. “Occasionally, there seems to be a very concerted effort to rile the community using incomplete or inaccurate information on certain projects.”
Under Canvas higher-ups were surprised by the swift and sudden outrage seen from the Moab community this week.
“More than anything, it’s about cleaning up the inaccuracies. On social media, the sharing of misinformation was disappointing,” said Lilley. “I’m not even asking anyone to take down their posts — they’re free to post what they want — but at least have it be fact-based.”
Lilley addressed other rumors as well, clarifying that the development would include “some kind of water feature, but certainly not a conventional, resort-style pool.”
“There’s not going to be much there in terms of infrastructure,” she continued.
Lilley applauded SITLA for their decision to award Under Canvas with the land parcel, given the company’s stated mission to provide low-impact access to the outdoors with a philosophy of sustainability.
“Our mission is to enhance access to the outdoors and get more people outside enjoying these beautiful spaces, and it’s just furthering that mission,” Lilley said. “This doesn’t have to be at a cost to the local community. We’re not taking anything away from anyone.”
While clarification from Under Canvas and SITLA has been helpful, the crux of the issue for many is the continued loss of undeveloped land in Moab’s surrounding areas.
Pleas to “leave it natural” and “protect our undeveloped spaces” crowd the petition’s comment section.
“This is not sustainable in the long run,” Haren said, echoing the many who wonder if such leases, contracts and development will spell the end for Moab’s treasured landscapes.
June 18, 2021: This story has been updated.