Utah lawmakers approve Bears Ears land swap


Exit from the state of Bear Ears National Monument reached a crucial milestone on Tuesday with Utah lawmakers’ approval of a significantly revised land swap that would transfer 165,000 federal acres, land spread around rural Utah with high development potential, to the state .

The exchange was touted as a boon to the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, or SITLAwhich manages state land to generate revenue for public schools, as the agency would gain land that is much more easily monetized than the archaeologically rich and scenic land it gives up.

“This would allow SITLA to swap scattered lands that are surrounded by restrictively managed federal lands, and therefore generate very limited revenue for the trust,” said the agency’s executive director, Michelle McConkie. Legislative Management Committee. “Transferring these parcels from federal ownership to SITLA ownership would provide many communities across the state with economic development opportunities they otherwise would not have, in addition to allowing the trust to maximize its mandate and to earn money for the school children of the state.”

However, the agreement is politically heavy. Utah leaders oppose the designation and recent restoration of the monument, which was a request by Native American tribes with cultural ties to the sacred lands surrounding Bears Ears Buttes in San Juan County.

Most of us would agree that we’d rather not even be in that position,” said House Majority Leader Mike Schultz, R-Hooper. “Unfortunately, the federal government has put us in a position, especially for SITLA and San Juan County, which is a no-win situation. There are a lot of issues that need to be addressed moving forward.”

The deal could be interpreted as the state’s endorsement of the monument’s designation just as it is about to embark on a scheduled legal battle to overturn President Joe Biden’s decision last October to restore the monument. original 1.3 million acre footprint of the monument.

Biden’s restoration of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which was the subject of SITLA’s largest federal land swap two decades ago, is also in the legal crosshairs.

Pasture fees and mineral sales

Schultz suggested that San Juan get a gross deal in the last exchange, because that county would see a net gain of at least 110,000 acres of federal land.

But SITLA officials say state holdings in the Bears Ears area will never bring in much revenue beyond the $80,000 the agency collects for grazing cattle. Meanwhile, the 49,000 acres that San Juan County would acquire provide many opportunities for economic development in Utah’s poorest county, such as mining in the Lisbon Valley and residential development in the Spanish valley, according to McConkie.

“This allows us to block land in known potential areas for mineral development, as well as some areas near Blanding that could allow for monument-related recreational tourism development,” McConkie said.

Legislative leaders ultimately concluded that it would be in the state’s interest to exchange Bears Ears lands for federal parcels in 21 counties. At its meeting Tuesday, the management committee unanimously approved the trade, a necessary step to move the complicated deal forward under state law.

With the approval of the Legislature, Utah Governor Spencer Cox and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland can now enter into a memorandum of understanding, which in turn clears the way for the presentation of a bill in Congress authorizing trade on the federal side.

Tuesday’s action comes with conditions, including a one-year sunset provision. The Legislature’s authorization will be withdrawn if congressional action is not completed and enacted by May 17, 2023, Schultz said.

A new deal

The swap has been a work in progress for the past few years, with SITLA officials quietly identifying federal lands they believe would enhance its revenue-generating mission.

To build political support, SITLA significantly increased the amount of land it would have received in San Juan County under the previous version of the deal, while also completing various lineup upgrades on its prior Bears Ears holdings. the exchange is final. These improvements, which include 21 new water wells, are intended to benefit San Juan ranchers whose state grazing allotments would become federal.

Meanwhile, the revised agreement has seen a substantial reduction in state acquisitions in Grand County, where elected leaders have challenged SITLA’s efforts to trade in places that have been nominated for conservation status.

Tuesday’s crucial decision came after a months-long push by SITLA leaders, who were dismayed by the Senate’s refusal to consider a supporting resolution in the legislative session.

McConkie and his successor Dave Ure toured the state, lobbying various rural county commissions for support. Land sought by the agency is scattered throughout the state, but is primarily concentrated in San Juan, Millard and Emery counties.

Previously, SITLA offered to acquire only 142,000 acres, far less than the 160,000 it would give up. To make the deal more attractive to state leaders, the final version of the deal calls for an additional 23,000 federal acres for the state, most of it in San Juan County.

“This is the product of our ongoing work with county officials to find more acreage that could benefit San Juan County, while maintaining our fiduciary obligations. We are doing our best for San Juan,” SITLA spokeswoman Marla Kennedy said. “We have spent an awful lot of time over the past two years trying to figure this out…. We are only interested in reclaiming land that will benefit the trust. We worked with them to do that.

With the state acquiring more land than it is giving up, the deal will be more palatable to Utah’s political leaders, especially Sen. Mike Lee, who bristles at any expansion of federal control of land in Utah. However, the mineable, mineral-rich land SITLA would acquire is likely more valuable than the remote sections it trades.

Any disparity in values ​​will not be known until the land is assessed, and that will not happen until the transfer is final, according to Kennedy.

“The land package is final. However, there may still be some minor adjustments, as has been common in past exchanges,” McConkie said, “to ensure equal value, to address package-specific issues that may arise, such as the presence of trash dangerous, cultural resources, loads or other resource issues.

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