Taking a literal act of Congress, feds hand Utah parcels of public lands

(Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management) The BLM is deeding an isolated 80-acre parcel to the northern Utah city of Hyde Park just one of many public land conveyances authorized by the 2019 Dingell Act. The land is on Hyde Park's eastern boundary where the city merges with the Bear River Range foothills and is to remain open.

A few years ago, Hyde Park leaders were exploring an annexation request when they discovered that an 80-acre rectangle on the Cache Valley city’s eastern border is owned by, well, everyone.

“The United States of America” was the purported owner indicated in the databases they reviewed.

“It took some digging, but we found the land was under the title of the Bureau of Land Management,” said Mark Hurd, a City Council member at the time. “It was odd because this parcel was completely surrounded by private property.”

If fact, there is not much public land at all in the Cache Valley, other than the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest in the Bear River Range rising above Hyde Park, north of Logan.

The discovery of an isolated BLM patch on the city’s back doorstep put Hurd and other Hyde Park leaders on a quest to acquire the land from the federal government, a process that was all but completed last week, when the BLM announced the land was to be conveyed to the small northern Utah city to support its water needs.

The deal is among several land grants authorized by the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act, which Congress passed last year and named in honor of late Democratic lawmaker from Michigan. This was the major public lands bill that designated wilderness and special management areas in Emery County. In addition to the conservation measures outlined for the San Rafael Swell and surrounding public lands, it also envisioned “conveying” certain parcels of public land to local or state entities for specified public purposes.

The biggest is a 6,261-acre chunk of the Swell that the state will take for expanding Goblin Valley State Park.

The BLM also announced last week it was giving Uintah County a 790-acre parcel at Ashley Springs, which serves as a critical water source that has been threatened in the past with proposals to mine phosphate.

The Dingell Act also designated the 173,475-acre Ashley Karst National Recreation and Geologic Area on national forest near the springs. This land will be managed as open space to protect the watershed and underground karst system and aquifer. Mineral development and new road construction will be barred in this area, but it will be developed for nonmotorized recreation under a management plan now in the works.

While transferring public land to the state is a hot-button issue in Utah, the Dingell Act conveyances are not particularly controversial because they are mostly geared toward recreation enhancement and watershed protection.

Other Dingell Act conveyances include a 640-acre section to the city of Emery for a park and public recreation; Emery County gets a 320-acre parcel for the expansion of the Huntington Airport; the county also gets and two 5-acre lots, one for a sheriff’s substation and the other for the Buckhorn Information Center used by visitors to the San Rafael Swell.

A 2.2-acre parcel the U.S. Forest Service owns on Nephi’s south Main Street will go to the Juab County city for a work center.

Hyde Park’s efforts to secure the 80-acre BLM parcel were complicated by bureaucratic red tape, but the emergence of the Emery County land bill offered an easier pathway.

“As surprising as it sounds," Hurd said, “an act of Congress was the fastest way.”

With the help of Sen. Mitt Romney and Rep. Rob Bishop, both Utah Republicans, Hyde Park and Uintah County tacked their land requests onto the larger Dingell Act, which sailed to passage in 2019.

“With the finalization of this land transfer comes the recognition that our land is best managed by the communities and people closest to it — not federal bureaucrats," Romney said in a news release lauding the Ashley Springs conveyance. “I’m proud to continue working to secure greater local involvement in the decision-making regarding our lands.”

Like Uintah County, Hyde Park was interested in securing its water needs by acquiring the BLM parcel, which straddles the unpaved Canyon Road leading into the Bear River Range foothills.

“It turns out to be an ideal location to tie into our existing water storage infrastructure,” Hurd said. “As buildout continues, the community would be able to provide water to all parts of the future Hyde Park city limits.”

Once that land transfer is complete, the parcel will be incorporated into the city limits. It is already used by the public for outdoor recreation and sits near a proposed alignment of the Bonneville Shoreline Trail.

“It was a fun project to be a part of. The area is well loved, used for hiking and mountain biking. People hunt in the area,” Hurd said. “It makes sense that a trailhead could be located on this property that supports the Bonneville Shoreline Trail. There is planning to continue the trail all the way around the Cache Valley.”