Utah state trust lands officials have long wanted out of the Bears Ears region, years before this archaeologically rich area in San Juan County became a flashpoint in Utah’s public lands battles with the 2016 designation of a national monument.
In recent years, they quietly assembled a far-reaching land swap, among the largest in the history of the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA), in the hopes of shedding dozens of square-mile state-owned sections floating in a sea of federal land that has been preserved at the request of five tribes with ancestral ties to this landscape.
The agency would acquire 142,000 acres in 81 parcels that can profitably support drilling, mining, solar energy or residential and commercial real estate development. These lands are spread around the state in 19 counties.
The state trust lands encircling Cedar Mesa and Bears Ears Buttes hold priceless cultural treasures, but they are not of much use to SITLA, whose mission is to generate revenue for public schools from its 3 million acres of formerly federal land that was given to Utah when it became a state in 1896.
“Our land exchange, while it’s kind of driven by the monument, it’s not really all about the monument,” SITLA deputy director Chris Fausett recently told the Emery County Public Lands Council. “These are lands that have been identified for exchange out of SITLA hands for a long time, even going back to [former Rep.] Rob Bishop’s PLI [Public Lands Initiative]. Most of these lands were part of what was to be traded out. They’re lands that are tough for us to monetize.”
SITLA cleared only $80,000 from trust lands within Bears Ears current boundaries last year.
“Which isn’t a great return compared to what we could do if we’re able to move these out and put them in more productive areas that we can do something with,” Fausett said. “This area is just covered with the cultural resources. It’s just really costly even to be able to sell land there.”
But SITLA’s deal with the Bureau of Land Management requires legislative approval, which has not been forthcoming, even though officials say the 160,000-acre land trade would result in a windfall worth hundreds of millions to Utah’s school trust fund.
Now the agency’s new executive director Michelle McConkie and her staff are making the rounds to rural county commissions, looking to build public support for the deal ahead of next month’s meeting of the Legislative Management Committee. This panel of Utah legislative leaders has the authority to OK the deal — if it chooses to exercise it.
David Ure, SITLA’s recently retired chief, tried and failed to get the Legislature to sign off on the deal during the last session. A resolution in support of the swap cleared the House, but never got a hearing in the Senate.
Under the deal, SITLA would expand its holdings of mineral-rich lands in Grand, Emery, Garfield, Millard and San Juan counties in exchange for state lands in and around the 1.3-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument that President Joe Biden restored last year. But it also would acquire smaller tracts with potential for real estate development in Tooele, Utah, Washington, Wayne, Rich and Kane counties.
It would be the sixth, and possibly last, major exchange between SITLA and the federal government. The five previous trades had no trouble winning legislative approval and account for about one-third of the school trust’s current $3.4 billion value, Fausett told Emery County officials at the April 5 meeting.
The trade would secure 23,000 federal acres in that county and SITLA hopes to land an endorsement from the Emery County Commission. The swap has already garnered support from Sanpete County, where SITLA would get 4,400 acres west of Gunnison with oil and gas potential.
“Alongside many other counties in this area of the state, Sanpete County is continually looking for economic development opportunities that allow our residents to live and work in Sanpete County,” the County Commission wrote in an April 12 letter to Senate President Stuart Adams, asking him to approve the swap. “We believe the targets [for land acquisition] identified by [SITLA] will provide serious long-term benefits not only for the school children of Sanpete County but for all our residents.”
But officials in Grand County, which would see the greatest influx of trust lands in the deal, are irked with the proposal, which seeks to swap into areas they have proposed for conservation status, such as Big Flat, Labyrinth Canyon, and other areas popular for dispersed recreation, according to Grand County Council member Kevin Walker.
“The places they’re proposing to trade into are almost all areas that we would like them to trade out of. It seems a little contradictory,” Walker said. “It doesn’t make sense to trade out of one conservation designation, Bears Ears National Monument, directly into where people are trying to get another [designation].”
Already home to the second-largest amount of trust lands, Grand County’s inventory would grow by 27,416 acres, nearly all with potential for helium and hydrocarbons.
Some of SITLA’s selections are adjacent to spots where it has already amassed large holdings, such as a 12-section block north of Delta, where trust land is under development for a renewable energy hub near the Intermountain Power Plant. The agency is also hoping to secure numerous sections around the city of Green River, a 11,460-acre block around the proposed Goldstrike Mine in Washington County and 20 sections scattered around Shootaring Canyon, a historic uranium mining region in eastern Garfield County.
Included in the swap are more than 30,000 acres of trust lands outside the Bears Ears boundaries, mostly in areas that had been included in the tribes’ initial monument proposal. But SITLA also would give up some of its holdings in areas with important recreational values far from the monument.
This list includes the Bonneville Salt Flats, Sugar Knoll in Kane County, and Spring Canyon, a popular hiking spot near Kanarraville and just outside Zion National Park’s northern boundary in Iron County. However, SITLA would retain a section covering Kanarraville Canyon, an even more popular hiking spot immediately to the north of Spring Canyon.
The agency would also keep a 5,000-acre block it holds in the monument, where it is developing a solar farm outside Bluff.
Unlike Grand, most rural Utah counties embrace increased extractive industry and SITLA has turned to some — namely Carbon, Sevier, Millard and San Juan — to drum up public support for the swap, which officials frame as a boon for rural economic development.
An influential foe of the trade is Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, a former San Juan County commissioner who fought the Bears Ears designation. He contends the trade would cheat his home county by increasing the amount of federally owned land there.
But SITLA would acquire 16,000 federal acres with mineral potential in the county, according to an April 12 letter SITLA chairman Don Foote wrote to the San Juan County School District.
“The development of these acquired San Juan County lands will lead to more economic activity and tax revenue for the county, as well as greater income for the Permanent State School Fund, than the very minimal activity occurring on the nonproductive lands SITLA will trade away,” Foote wrote.
Normally, large land swaps require a yearslong administrative process, but the Bears Ears trade could be completed within a year if Congress passes legislation authorizing it, according to SITLA leaders.
But that could only happen with the Utah Legislature’s official blessing and time is running out with control of the U.S. House expected to flip after the upcoming midterm elections.
“We kind of have a narrow window of opportunity to work on this right now where all the stars have aligned with the federal government,” Fausett said. “We’re nervous that if we wait too long that faces change, politics change, priorities change. Right now Bears Ears is a hot topic, so we’ve got their attention. And who knows, six months from now, a year from now, whether that will be the case.”
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