Utah agency reverses course, pulls back energy leases in original Bears Ears monument

SITLA returns fees to oil and gas companies as sides await outcome of Biden-ordered review.

(Zak Podmore | Tribune file photo) Looking west from a parcel of Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) land that was leased to an oil and gas company in October before the leasing fees were refunded. The parcel overlaps with the original boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument, which President Joe Biden has promised to restore.

A Utah agency that came under fire last year for leasing land in the original boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument has refunded fees to the two oil and gas companies involved in the deal.

Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration Director David Ure approved a refund last month of the leasing bonuses, first-year rental costs and filing fees charged for the nearly 2,000 acres of trust land leased to Kirkwood Oil and Gas and 640 acres leased to John Wolcott.

The parcels were located about 10 miles north of Bluff and partially overlapped with the eastern boundary of Bears Ears before President Donald Trump slashed the monument’s size in 2017.

The lease sale, which occurred just weeks before the November election, raised $11,800 for Utah’s schoolchildren, but environmental groups worried it would complicate a future land swap with the federal government if President Joe Biden reverses Trump’s monument cuts.

On his first day in office in January, Biden initiated a 60-day review of the monument boundaries. SITLA approved the refunds several weeks later, and Deena Loyola, the agency’s information officer, said the SITLA leases are currently “on hold as the new administration conducts its monument review.”

The state agency leased land in the original monument near Canyonlands National Park in 2019 and also refunded the fees for those parcels shortly after they sold.

Steve Bloch — legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which sued the Trump administration over the monument reductions with a coalition of environmental groups and five Native American tribes — applauded SITLA’s about-face.

“We’re grateful that school trust lands decided to walk back these leases,” Bloch said. “We think it was inappropriate for them to offer the leases in the first instance and appreciate that they’re setting things straight by refunding the monies.”

Roughly 8% of the land within the boundaries of President Barack Obama’s 2016 Bears Ears National Monument designation in southeastern Utah was managed by SITLA, and all state trust land is exempt from federal monument protections. But SITLA has historically exchanged its lands within national monument boundaries for federal land elsewhere in the state, and it was taking steps to follow suit in Bears Ears before Trump initiated his own monument review.

“We expect that President Biden will fully restore, if not expand, Bears Ears National Monument,” Bloch said, “and we hope school trust lands will be a willing partner with the Biden administration to exchange out all of its lands inside of the restored monument.”

SITLA remains open to a land exchange, Loyola said, adding the agency stands by a previous statement that it “has a long history of exchanging trust lands out of national monuments, parks, and other federal conservation areas, and will address land exchange possibilities in the event the original monument boundaries are restored.”

Biden’s 60-day monument review ends March 21, but Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., Biden’s nominee for Interior secretary, who would oversee any changes to the monument boundaries, has yet to be confirmed by the Senate.

Haaland, an enrolled member of the Laguna Pueblo, has vowed to visit Utah before altering the size of Bears Ears.

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.