Touted as ‘gold mine’ for school trust, land swap in Bears Ears could fail as lawmakers eye monument lawsuit

The Senate has so far denied a hearing to HJR16, which would finalize the deal.

A proposal to swap Utah state trust lands out of Bears Ears National Monument has been sidetracked in the Senate this week thanks in part to concerns that such a deal would undermine Utah’s anticipated legal challenge to the monument’s restoration.

Framed as a surefire win for Utah’s school trust, the trade would put valuable mineral-bearing federal lands in the hands of the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, or SITLA, in exchange for the state’s 130,000 acres scattered around the monument. The swap also includes nearly 30,000 acres elsewhere in the state.

The deal requires the Legislature’s approval, which would come with the passage of HJR16. That bill cleared the House but has been denied a hearing in the Senate.

The joint resolution has been strongly pushed by retiring SITLA director, David Ure, himself a former state senator, who believes the trade would yield hundreds of millions of dollars for the agency’s beneficiaries.

For the past three years, SITLA has been identifying areas that it would like in exchange for its checkerboarded sections in the national monument, which President Joe Biden last year restored to its original 1.35-million-acre boundary under the powers given presidents under the Antiquities Act.

“This is a gold mine for the school kids to be able to capture the economic values throughout the rest of the state and keep rural Utah going,” Ure told the House Education Committee last month.

But some lawmakers are concerned such a resolution is premature since every parcel to be traded has yet to be identified, according to the bill’s Senate sponsor, Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City. And a feeling persists that the land swap could be seen as legitimizing the expanded monument state leaders will seek to revoke through a forthcoming lawsuit.

“We want to make sure we don’t disrupt that,” he said Tuesday.

Any trades of state land exceeding 500 acres require approval from the Legislature, which has always approved large, complicated trades that can take years to pull off.

Vickers suggested it might be better to bring the land deal back before the Legislative Management Committee once SITLA and Bureau of Land Management agree on all the lands are to be traded.

“If we go that path, we could also make a recommendation to the governor to convene a special session,” Vickers said. “There are multiple paths that accomplish the same thing.”

Under the guidance of Rep. Timothy Hawkes, R-Centerville, HJR16 cruised through the House in a 48-23 vote, over the objections of some representatives who argued the swap hurts San Juan County, whose land base is largely federal.

Trading out SITLA’s sections scattered around the monument would further beholden Utah’s largest and poorest county to the whims of the federal government, argued Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding.

“Who controls the land, controls the economy, they control the people,” Lyman said. “If you take these sections … and move them to a more ‘productive place,’ then in 20 years, you can take the kids out of that county and send them to that more productive place to get jobs. It’s not fair.”

As a San Juan County commissioner in 2016, Lyman was a leading voice against President Barack Obama’s designation of the Bears Ears monument and cheerleader for President Donald Trump’s dramatic reduction the following year.

“When we talk about these school sections, they are a birthright at the time of statehood [in 1896], not only to the state, but to the areas that they were put in,” Lyman said. “They were a dispersed pattern and spread across the state. When you get into a county like we have down in Garfield, Wayne, Kane and San Juan, these public lands counties, it really is a safety net.”

SITLA’s sole mandate, however, is to “optimize” revenue from trust lands for the benefit of the school trust. The agency has a fiduciary duty to trade into more profitable lands when the opportunity arises, according to officials.

Whether or not there is a big monument designated over the lands encircling Bears Ears Buttes, a land trade would result in a massive windfall for SITLA, according to Hawkes and Ure.

“It’s hard to develop them in any meaningful way. The revenue that was derived from these lands last year was less than $80,000,” Hawkes said. “So there’s not a lot of value in it. But the federal government is willing now to exchange on favorable terms.”

Under the proposed trade, SITLA would give up all its holdings within the monument, plus additional lands in Iron, Kane, San Juan, Tooele, and Uintah counties, totaling nearly 160,000 acres, for BLM lands in 19 counties, including San Juan.

In response to San Juan’s concerns about losing SITLA acreage, Ure said, the agency reworked the deal as best it could to acquire some federal land there.

“It’s hard down there because the minerals they have are not necessarily in a position, or of great enough strength or density, that private enterprise wants to come in there [and mine],” Ure said. “If they had, they would have already been in there on the BLM ground.”

Under the deal’s current configuration, SITLA would trade into nearly 20,000 federal acres in San Juan County to establish buffers around uranium sites.

“As of last week, I gave Blanding about 1,600 acres right around the outskirts so that economic development might be there instead of having BLM ground that’s hard to negotiate with,” Ure told lawmakers. “Have we done everything right? Most likely not. But when you have about 10 or 15 different bosses, it’s kind of hard to get everything done at the same time.”