Utah lawmakers approve Bears Ears land swap

The proposed deal ups the amount of federal land SITLA would acquire to 165,000 acres with good prospects for development and minerals.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The two buttes that make up the namesake for the Bears Ears National Monument can be seen in the distant horizon line as EcoFlight takes journalists, tribal people and activists over the Bears Ears Monday, May 8, 2017. The Utah Legislature has approved a deal to swap state trust lands in and around the monument for 165,000 federal acres in 21 counties.

The state’s exit from Bears Ears National Monument took a crucial step forward Tuesday with Utah lawmakers’ approval of a substantially revised land swap that would transfer 165,000 federal acres, land spread around rural Utah with high development potential, to the state.

The exchange has been touted as a windfall for the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, or SITLA, which manages state lands to raise revenue for public schools, because the agency would gain lands that are far more easily monetized than the archeologically rich and scenic lands it is giving up.

“It would allow SITLA to trade out of scattered lands that are surrounded by federal lands that are restrictively managed, and therefore bring in very limited revenue for the trust,” the agency’s executive director, Michelle McConkie, told the Legislative Management Committee. “Moving these parcels from federal ownership to SITLA ownership would give many communities across the state opportunities for economic development they would not otherwise have, in addition to allowing the trust to maximize its mandate and make money for the schoolchildren of the state.”

Still, the deal is politically fraught. Utah leaders oppose the monument’s designation and recent restoration, which was a request of Native American tribes with cultural ties to sacred lands encircling Bears Ears Buttes in San Juan County.

Most of us would agree that we’d rather not even be in this position,” said House Majority Leader Mike Schultz, R-Hooper. “Unfortunately, the federal government has put us in a position, especially for SITLA and San Juan County, that is a no-win situation. There’s a lot of issues that need to be addressed moving forward.”

The deal could be construed as the state signaling approval of the monument designation just as it’s about to head into an anticipated legal battle to revoke President Joe Biden’s decision last October to restore the monument’s original 1.3-million-acre footprint.

Also in the legal crosshairs is Biden’s restoration of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which was the subject of SITLA’s biggest federal land swap two decades ago.

Grazing fees and mineral sales

Schultz suggested San Juan is getting a raw deal in the latest exchange because that county would see a net gain of at least 110,000 acres of federal land.

But SITLA officials say state holdings in the Bears Ears region will never bring in much revenue beyond the $80,000 the agency collects for livestock grazing. Meanwhile, the 49,000 acres San Juan County would acquire offers numerous opportunities for economic development in Utah’s poorest county, such as mineral extraction in Lisbon Valley and residential development in Spanish Valley, according to McConkie.

“It allows us to block up land in known mineral development potential areas, as well as some areas near Blanding, that could allow for some recreational and tourism-related development related to the monument,” McConkie said.

Legislative leaders ultimately concluded trading the Bears Ears land for federal parcels in 21 counties would be in the best interests of the state. At its Tuesday meeting, the management committee unanimously endorsed the swap, a requisite step for moving the complicated deal forward under state law.

With the Legislature’s approval, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland can now enter into a memorandum of understanding, which in turn paves the way for a bill to be introduced in Congress authorizing the trade from the federal side.

Tuesday’s action comes with conditions, including a one-year sunset provision. The Legislature’s authorization will be withdrawn if congressional action is not completed and signed into law by May 17, 2023, Schultz said.

A new deal

The swap has been a work in progress over the past few years, with SITLA officials quietly identifying federal lands that they believed would enhance its revenue-generating mission.

To shore up political support, SITLA dramatically increased the amount of land it would have received in San Juan County under the deal’s previous version, while completing various range improvements on its Bears Ears holdings before the swap is final. These improvements, which include 21 new water wells, are intended to benefit San Juan ranchers whose state grazing allotments would become federal.

Meanwhile, the revised deal saw a substantial reduction in state acquisitions in Grand County, where elected leaders contested SITLA’s efforts to trade into places that have been proposed for conservation status.

Tuesday’s crucial decision came after a months-long push by SITLA’s chiefs, who were dismayed with the Senate’s refusal to consider a resolution of support during the legislative session.

Both McConkie and her predecessor Dave Ure toured the state, lobbying various rural county commissions for their support. The lands the agency is seeking are scattered around the state, but are concentrated mostly in San Juan, Millard and Emery counties.

Previously, SITLA proposed acquiring just 142,000 acres, far less than the 160,000 it would give up. To make the deal more attractive to state leaders, the deal’s final version calls for an additional 23,000 federal acres going to the state, most of it in San Juan County.

“It’s a product of our continuing work with county officials to find more acreage that could benefit San Juan County, while maintaining our fiduciary duties. We are doing the best we can for San Juan,” said SITLA spokeswoman Marla Kennedy. “We have spent enormous amounts of time over the last two years trying to figure this out…. We are interested only in picking up lands that are going to benefit the trust. We have collaborated with them in doing that.”

With the state acquiring more land that it is giving up, the deal will be more palatable to Utah’s political leaders, especially Sen. Mike Lee, who bristle at any expansion of federal control of land in Utah. However, the developable, mineral-rich lands SITLA would acquire are likely more valuable than the remote sections it is exchanging.

Any disparity in values will not be known until the lands are appraised, and that won’t happen until the conveyance is final, according to Kennedy.

“The land package is final. However, there may still be some minor adjustments, as has been common in past exchanges,” McConkie said, “to ensure equal value is received, to address parcel-specific issues that may arise, such as the presence of hazardous waste, cultural resources, encumbrances or other resource issues.”

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