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SITLA wants out of Bears Ears, trade for other federal lands

Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration officials to swap 135,000 acres inside the monument’s borders.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Bears Ears buttes April 10, 2021.

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While Utah’s elected leaders prepare a lawsuit to reverse President Joe Biden’s restoration of Bears Ears National Monument, that isn’t stopping other state officials from exploring how to shed the 135,000 acres of state-owned sections within the monument’s enlarged boundaries.

In its current 1.36 million-acre version, the monument spans Cedar Mesa, Comb Ridge, Dark Canyon and the Abajos, a complex of rugged, undeveloped terrain rich in archaeological treasures and natural wonders. Captured in that mix are more than 200 square-mile “checkerboarded” sections of trust lands managed to generate revenue for public schools.

Other than grazing, there is not much the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, or SITLA, can do with these lands. Trading them for federal lands elsewhere in Utah is the smartest thing the agency can do, regardless of whether Utah prevails in any lawsuit to change the monument’s boundaries, according to SITLA spokeswoman Marla Kennedy.

The agency has already sold a valuable section inside the monument on the southern tip of Comb Ridge to a private party.

Under the October proclamation Biden signed enlarging the monument, the Bureau of Land Management is directed to orchestrate the massive land trade — as well as protect the land from mining, road building and looting.

SITLA’s Bears Ears trade would be one of several exchanges Utah trust lands officials have undertaken with the BLM over the past decade, consolidating its holdings in mineral rich areas that are better suited for monetizing. The trades are always instigated by the federal government, at the direction of either Congress or the president, but these deals, such as Utah Recreational Land Exchange completed in 2014, have worked out very well for the state.

Last year, SITLA completed a complicated deal exchanging 84,000 acres in Tooele County for 90,000 acres of BLM land in six counties in western Utah. The feds needed the swap to accommodate a major expansion of the Utah Training and Test Range (UTTR), the sprawling federal military reservation in the West Desert.

Complicating this transaction was the land SITLA was giving up was appraised at $14 million, or less than half the value of the land it was acquiring. Rather than reduce the amount of land it was seeking, SITLA tapped into its valuable holdings covering desert tortoise and rare plant habitat in an high-growth area outside St. George to cover the difference. It didn’t take a lot of land from this pool to make up the difference, according to Chris Fausett, SITLA’s deputy director.

“The 166 acres in Washington County was worth almost as much as the 84,000 acres we traded out of in the West Desert,” he told the SITLA board at its September meeting.

Now in the works is a massive land trade authorized under the 2019 John Dingell Act, the sweeping bipartisan public lands bill that included various designations in Emery County. The goal is to allow SITLA to unload land it holds inside newly established areas set aside for preservation and recreation.

“We worked into that an opportunity to exchange out of those wilderness and recreation areas and we’re picking up several targets all over the state that have solar, mining and industrial development potential,” Fausett said. “Like in the [test range] trade, here is going to be a value disparity because the stuff we are trading out of isn’t worth as much as the stuff we want.”

In that deal, SITLA would get 98,600 acres of BLM land scattered around 17 counties in exchange for 115,500 acres of trust lands in mostly Emery County.

The UTTR swap proved an instant winner for SITLA when the agency turned around and sold 25,000 acres of its newly acquired holdings to Graymont Western U.S. for nearly $7 million. The Canada-based limestone producer intends to expand its Cricket Mountain operation into this land in Millard County and SITLA will reap a royalty off the production.

Unlike the UTTR and Dingell Act trades, however, the Bears Ears deal is fraught with politics. Some could argue that by pursuing the trade, the state is consenting to the monument enlargement. That was the case with Utah’s long-ago participation in a lucrative exchange of state land inside the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument as designated by President Bill Clinton in 1996.

In that expedited deal finalized in 1998, SITLA traded 363,000 acres scattered inside the Staircase monument, four National Park Service units and three national forests for BLM lands, plus a cash payment of $50 million to make up the difference in market values. SITLA received 145,000 acres of land that contained 160 million tons of coal and 185 billion cubic feet of natural gas.

The Bears Ears’ original designation, signed by former President Barack Obama in 2016, envisioned a similar deal for the new monument in San Juan County. But the SITLA board voted against trading out its holdings in the monument at the time. Back then, former President Donald Trump had just come into office, signaling he might reverse proclamation that Obama made against the wishes of elected state and some local leaders. In late 2017 Trump delivered, slashing that monument to just 200,000 acres covering Comb Ridge and Indian Creek in separate units, and halving the Staircase to about 1 million acres.

Now the monument is back to its original size, plus 11,000 acres the Trump administration inexplicably added. Whatever happens to the monument’s boundaries, SITLA will likely make a deal for its holdings on Cedar Mesa and Arch Canyon, lands that weren’t making much money anyway.

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