The Utah Legislature has always approved big land trades that state trust officials arrange with the federal government, which have yielded huge gains for the school trust fund that draws significant revenue off these state-managed lands.
Since the creation of the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, or SITLA, in 1994, the agency has pulled off five major swaps, trading its “checkerboard” sections out of an ocean of federal land in sensitives places, such as Grand Staircase or the Utah Test and Training Range. In exchange, the agency has acquired mineral-rich lands in places more amenable to extraction, resulting in economic activity that both helps rural job creation and school funding, officials say.
But this past session, lawmakers balked at a trade involving state lands inside Bears Ears National Monument, a move that could delay or even scuttle what could be the most lucrative land swap in SITLA’s history.
SITLA officials see the failure of HJR16, a resolution needed to allow the swap to move forward, as a blow to their mission, and it has prompted a backlash from public education advocates.
“On behalf of the trust beneficiaries, I can tell you we’re deeply concerned,” said Tim Donaldson, director of Utah Land Trusts Protection and Advocacy Office. “We want to make sure it is understood that stopping, or even delaying, this exchange, would have significant costs and opportunities lost for public schools and other beneficiaries. In these uncertain times, walking away from opportunities that could amount to hundreds of millions of dollars to the trust would be a mistake.”
Under state law, any exchange of state land exceeding 500 acres must be approved by the Legislature, either through a resolution or action by the Legislative Management Committee. Over the past few years, SITLA has quietly arranged a deal with the Interior Department to trade 160,000 state acres for 142,000 acres of federal land scattered around the state in 19 counties, mostly Grand, Emery, San Juan and Millard.
SITLA officials are now pressing legislative leadership to take up the matter at the management committee’s April 13 meeting. Prompt approval is essential to get the proposed swap in front of Congress in time to win passage by the end of this session, they say. Agency brass fear that any delay would set the deal back seven or more years, as has been the case with past swaps.
Such exchanges must be value for value, rather than acre for acre, and therefore require complicated appraisals.
Sponsored by Rep. Timothy Hawkes, R-Centerville, HJR16 cleared the Utah House but died in the Senate without a hearing.
House Speaker Brad Wilson, who voted for the resolution, and Hawkes did not respond to voice messages seeking comment on SITLA’s concerns.
In the legislative debate, lawmakers’ chief issue focused on whether the swap would undermine Utah’s forthcoming lawsuit seeking to reverse President Joe Biden’s decision last October to restore the Bears Ears monument close to its original 1.3 million acres in San Juan County. The defense in that pending lawsuit could point to the swap as proof that Utah approves of the monument’s new boundaries.
But SITLA’s general counsel, Mike Johnson, contends the swap would not affect the state’s legal case, which is being handled by the outside law firm Consovoy McCarthy. He says the swap is a good deal for the state, whether or not the monument boundaries stick.
“We’ve done a lot of heavy lifting over the past year to put the pieces in place and negotiate very favorable terms. It is critical to capitalize on this opportunity. We’ve seen examples in other states where exchanges were delayed, focus was lost, federal priorities changed, and school lands became stranded for a decade or more,” Johnson said. “We hope there is no fear that the exchange will conflict with the monument lawsuit because the issues are distinct, and the exchange and lawsuit can proceed in parallel.”
Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, is a leading opponent of the proposed swap, which he claims shortchanges San Juan County. As a San Juan County commissioner in 2016, he fought the Bears Ears original designation by President Barack Obama.
“Who controls the land, controls the economy, they control the people,” said Lyman. “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.”
But Dave Ure, the state’s Trust Lands Administration director, went out of his way to ensure the swap left as much trust lands in San Juan County as possible and in places that could be developed, such as lands just outside Blanding and surrounding the county’s uranium-processing facilities.
SITLA’s Bears Ears holdings are rich in archaeological treasures, scenic beauty and value that doesn’t generate revenue. These holdings produce $80,000 a year, mostly in the form of grazing fees. While the lands the agency would acquire would produce millions in revenue if they produce valuable minerals, according to Ure.
“Why would any rural county not want that economic development?” the director asked lawmakers in a committee meeting.
In what would be SITLA’s sixth major land exchange with the Bureau Land Management, the state would give up nearly all its holdings inside Bears Ears, plus another 30,000 acres elsewhere. It would retain some of its land inside the monument outside Bluff where it is developing a solar farm, according to Johnson.
In exchange, SITLA would obtain federal lands with good potential for uranium, lithium, helium, potash and oil and gas. In state hands, these resources would be much more likely to be developed.
In SITLA’s most recent swap, authorized by Congress under the 2019 Dingell Act, SITLA is trading 115,500 acres mostly in Emery County for 98,600 acres in 17 counties. That deal, which is nearly final, won approval from the Legislative Management Committee in a 11-4 vote in 2018.
The Dingell Act established new wilderness and conservation areas around San Rafael Swell, Labyrinth Canyon and Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry and other places valued for recreation and natural attributes.
In regards to the Bears Ears swap, Wayne County commissioners specifically asked Ure during a commission meeting last year about including federal lands near Capitol Reef National Park. Their hope was that SITLA could develop the land for camping, which is in short supply inside the park that saw a record 1.4 million last year, more than double its 2013 visitation.
Parcels fitting that need are now included in the proposed swap.
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