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Deal protects land near Book Cliffs, allows other drilling

Published August 21, 2014 10:56 am

Reservation • Ute tribe to honor swap that protects Book Cliffs, boosts oil, gas holdings.
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A long-awaited deal will protect remote southern reaches of the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation from development and, at the same time, let the tribe and state partner on oil and gas ventures to the north.

While the arrangement was spearheaded by pro-drilling members of Utah's congressional delegation, environmentalists found much to praise because the agreement safeguards parts of the scenic Book Cliffs inside the reservation from industrial development.

Ute tribal leaders plan a Wednesday commemoration of the Hill Creek Cultural Preservation and Energy Development Act, which President Barack Obama signed into law July 25 and which paves the way for the federal-state mineral swap.

The ceremony at Fort Duchesne will include a tour of the tribe's Hill Creek Extension, the region of the reservation affected by the law.

"With this bill, we will be able to protect our most valuable resources while also promoting energy development," said Gordon Howell, who heads the tribe's business committee.

The law enables the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) to give up mineral rights it holds in the Hill Creek's southern end in Grand County, a roadless area the tribe intends to protect for its wildlife, scenery and spiritual significance.

In exchange for its claim to 18,000 checkerboard acres of minerals, SITLA will get access to an equal number of subsurface acres to the north on the Uintah County portion of the Hill Creek Extension.

"The southern parcels won't be developed. As soon as the government receives them they will be held in trust for the tribe, which has designated that as a nondevelopment area," said Kent Hoffman, oil and gas chief for Bureau of Land Management's Utah office, which administers the oil and gas deposits in play.

Next, federal and state agencies must agree where the state will gain mineral rights. The process of identifying those federal acres may take some time, although officials say it will be far less complicated than recent swaps that got mired for years in appraisals and negotiations.

"It's not technically a land exchange, but an 'in-lieu selection,' " SITLA General Counsel John Andrews said. "It's an authorization for us to relinquish our mineral estate in the south half and select minerals in the north half [of Hill Creek]."

Geologists working for SITLA and the tribe are identifying "the correct BLM minerals in the north part," Andrews said. "We are trying to identify the most prospective minerals."

The idea is for the tribe and SITLA to develop the oil and gas in a joint partnership with the private sector. The company would sell the resources, and royalties would be shared among the Utah schools trust fund, the tribe and the federal government.

"The federal government is getting the percentage it would get anyway [6.25 percent]," Andrews said. "In reality, they will get more because they weren't able to access their minerals previously."

Every member of Utah's congressional delegation supported the accord, which won nearly universal endorsements, including from The Wilderness Society.

"This legislation will help protect one of the most ecologically critical and culturally sensitive lands in the country," Paul Spitler, the group's wilderness campaign director, said in a news release. "At the same time, it will increase revenue for the Utah schools and the tribe. It is a win for the environment, the tribe and the state."

Congress created the Hill Creek Extension in 1948, adding 510,000 acres to the Ute Tribe's reservation. But the mineral rights remained in federal control with the subsurface resources of every ninth section — 39,000 acres total — belonging to Utah for the benefit of schools.

But the tribe's wish to manage the southern end of its reservation, around the Book Cliffs, for natural and cultural values rendered SITLA's mineral interest there largely inaccessible.

The agency asked for a swap in 2006, but the BLM declined, citing legal concerns. Looking for a solution, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, sponsored the law authorizing a trade.

bmaffly@sltrib.com