Feds wary about proposed Utah land swap

Published September 28, 2005 12:16 am
Straight trade: The state wants to exchange 45,000 acres along the Colorado River for 40,000 federal acres with probable oil and natural gas deposits
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WASHINGTON - The Interior Department has reservations about a Utah land exchange along the Colorado River, expressing little interest in nearly a quarter of the land it would get in the deal and treading carefully on the sensitive issue of how lands would be appraised.

But Deputy Assistant Interior Secretary Chad Calvert said in testimony to the House Resources subcommittee Tuesday that he hopes the concerns can be worked out. And a state official said he thinks the land exchange remains on track.

The state is seeking to transfer 45,000 acres along the Colorado River to the Bureau of Land Management. Much of it is environmentally sensitive, including parcels near Arches National Park, a portion of the renowned Slickrock bike trail, the Corona natural arch and lands inside a wilderness study area.

In exchange, the state would get about 40,000 federal acres with oil and gas or other development potential.

But more than 11,000 acres the BLM would acquire are of little interest to the federal agency, including remote areas north of Dinosaur National Monument and well east of Arches National Park, Calvert said.

The state also is asking for 29,500 acres that probably have substantial, but unquantified, oil and gas resources. Some of it is already under lease, and putting a value on the land would be difficult, Calvert said. Other areas the state is interested in have tar sands, a resource gaining increased attention from Congress and the BLM.

Kevin Carter, director of the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, said that to get major land swaps done, both sides often accept land they don't particularly want.

"We have lands in the deal that aren't our first priority to accept, either," said Carter. "There's give and take in all of these things."

He said he is confident the difference can be worked out and the bill advanced sometime next month.

If approved, it would be the first major land swap since a proposed San Rafael Swell exchange fell apart in 2002 amid allegations from BLM whistleblowers that it was a $117 million taxpayer giveaway.

The Interior Department instituted sweeping appraisal reforms after the San Rafael deal crumbled, and Calvert said the Colorado River exchange, as it is written, departs from accepted appraisal rules by giving additional value to environmental rather than economic factors.

The Interior Department also expressed "major concerns" about a proposal to allow Park City to acquire about 100 acres of BLM land overlooking the city's historic district. Calvert said the land is extremely valuable, perhaps worth more than $1 million per acre, and provisions in the bill would direct the Interior Department to undervalue the land.

The Interior Department endorsed a bill that would convey about 200 acres around Minersville Reservoir to Beaver County.

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