Utah stands to gain control over vast tracts of valuable land and mineral resources in exchange for land it owns within the contentious Bears Ears National Monument.
State leaders have been at odds with federal land managers over Bears Ears ever since former President Barack Obama established the 1.4 million-acre monument in 2016. But they do concede state-owned lands within the monument managed by the State Institutional Trust Lands Administration, or SITLA, aren’t generating much money for Utah’s school kids. That’s especially true now that they’re surrounded by federal monument lands with significantly more restrictions on how they can be used.
“While the declaration of the monument and its large geographic scope are matters of significant controversy and litigation between the state of Utah and the United States,” SITLA Executive Director Michelle McConkie said at a House Subcommittee on Federal Lands hearing Wednesday, “both governments agree that trading out state land inholdings is in everyone’s best interest.”
If Congress agrees to HR3049, the “Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration Exchange Act of 2023,” the state will gain more than 167,000 acres of federal land and mineral rights after swapping out 162,511 acres to the feds, with more than 149,000 acres of those lands in Bears Ears.
Former President Donald Trump slashed the Bears Ears National Monument to 200,000 acres in 2017, only for current President Joe Biden to restore Bears Ears to its original footprint in 2021. Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes filed a lawsuit over the monument last summer, which remains pending and is opposed by many of Utah’s native tribes.
“There are few issues more controversial in my state than public lands,” said U.S. Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, the bill’s sponsor. “I want to point out that this legislation does not codify the Bears Ears monument, it simply is a totally separate issue.”
Either way, the creation of the monument encompasses a vast checkerboard of SITLA land.
“It’s not like it’s an organized checkerboard,” Curtis said. “It’s these random boxes. These could be on the side of a mountain, they could be in the midst of a sacred, ancient Native American site. They could be in all of these random places.”
SITLA is primarily charged with using its land to generate money to support K-12 public schools. While the state can still use and manage those lands within Bears Ears however it wants, the surrounding federal lands now have limitations on activities like mining and development. That, in turn, makes it hard for SITLA to attract extractors and developers to invest in its own property.
“It was always difficult for us to make money off of these lands” within Bears Ears, McConkie told the Congressional subcommittee. “We’ve made about $80,000 a year, typically, on grazing [there].”
Through this land exchange, SITLA will hand over those parcels and gain property in 20 different counties with the potential for oil and gas extraction, renewable energy projects, real estate development and landfills. Some also include valuable minerals, like potash, lithium and uranium.
“We’ve already had door knocks from industry on some of these lands,” McConkie said.
In addition to the state parcels within Bears Ears, SITLA is also swapping hundreds of acres within Iron, Kane, Millard, Salt Lake and Utah counties, along with 9,632 acres in Tooele County, which includes part of the Bonneville Salt Flats near the Great Salt Lake.
The Bears Ears Commission, which represents five Indigenous tribes and nations, issued a letter of support for the exchange, as did Beaver, Carbon, Duchesne, Emery, Millard, Sanpete, Sevier and Uintah counties.
Only about a third of the federal lands gained are in San Juan County, home of the Bears Ears National Monument.
“I do realize a third is not a whole,” McConkie said. “But ... it has economic development potential [for San Juan County] that the scattered lands within what is now a national monument do not have.”
SITLA has inked multiple land exchanges since its formation in 1994, including in portions of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and the Utah Test and Training Range.
The road to the current Bears Ears agreement hasn’t always been smooth, with Utah lawmakers threatening to block the deal in 2022. After some pleading from SITLA, the Legislature ultimately concluded the exchange was in the state’s best interest, especially its schoolchildren, and greenlit the negotiations last spring.
In emailed statements, representatives with SITLA said they expect the deal to cruise forward.
“We anticipate implementing the land exchange quickly after enactment of the federal legislation,” said Chris Fausett, managing director of surface resources, “hopefully early next year.”