Why Utah leaders just rejected a valuable Bears Ears land swap

Gov. Cox and legislative leaders say the Biden administration ignored ‘good faith input’ from the state.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The two buttes that make up the namesake for the Bears Ears National Monument reveal the vast landscape.

Utah stood to gain valuable land and mineral resources from the federal government in exchange for state lands within the controversial Bears Ears National Monument.

Now, state leaders said that the deal is off.

Gov. Spencer Cox, Senate President Stuart Adams and House Speaker Mike Schultz said Tuesday in a statement that the federal government has pushed forward a management plan for the monument without considering the state’s wishes.

“The Biden administration continues to ignore our good faith input,” the Utah leaders, all Republicans, said in their statement.

“The federal government has signaled that it once again plans to adopt a restrictive land management plan that will harm recreational access, grazing and other traditional public uses of these lands,” their statement continued.

Bears Ears Commission, a group with representatives from the five tribes in the area, released a statement expressing disappointment.

“We believe that it is in the best interest of Utah’s school-age children and the Monument for the land exchange to be accomplished. It is our obligation to our ancestors, to the Bears Ears landscape and its unique resources, and to the American people, to protect Bears Ears, and we remain committed to that goal,” the statement said.

Approximately 130,000 acres of land managed by the Utah Trust Lands Administration, formerly known as SITLA, lie within Bears Ears National Monument in San Juan County, according to a joint resolution introduced Tuesday in the Utah Legislature. The Trust Lands Administration leases, mines and sells lands to generate money for Utah public schools.

In March 2023, Gov. Cox signed a nonbinding memorandum of understanding with the U.S. Department of the Interior that would swap that land for federal land holdings and mineral interests across the state. On Tuesday, he withdrew it.

The joint resolution, HJR26, reads that “the state would better manage and administer the lands in the proposed exchange for the benefit of the state’s trust land beneficiaries and economy than the federal government; and condemns the federal government’s planning effort and lack of coordination with the state.”

In May, Utah’s congressional delegation introduced companion legislation, the ”Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration Exchange Act of 2022.” It was introduced in both the U.S. House and Senate, but did not pass — and so is not legally binding.

The head of the Utah Trust Lands Administration expressed frustration with the Department of the Interior’s handling of the situation.

“We agree with Utah’s leadership; it’s disappointing to see the Department of [the] Interior prioritizing a restrictive management plan over the land exchange,” said Michelle McConkie, the administration’s director. “We’ve been working with the Legislature, the governor, and Utah’s congressional delegation on this exchange for years, and a lot of time and effort has gone into getting the best deal for Utah’s school children. It’s frustrating to see this effort fall short of the finish line.”

According to the Trust Lands Administration, Utah would have gained about 167,500 acres of federal land in exchange for 162,500 acres of state land.

Most of the federal land that would have been gained in the swap is in San Juan, Emery and Millard counties.

In a statement, Greg Sheehan, Utah state director of the federal Bureau of Land Management, said the agency was “disappointed” in the Utah leaders’ decision “not to proceed with the land exchange to provide productive lands for the State outside of the Bears Ears National Monument, which was a strategic approach to avoiding natural resource conflicts and optimizing revenue for Utah’s schoolchildren for years to come.”

Sheehan called Utah’s move a “setback,” but added that “the BLM remains committed to exploring avenues of collaboration with the State of Utah to the benefit of all.”

Utah Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said in a statement that it was “premature, unjustified, and counterproductive” for Gov. Cox and the Utah Legislature to pull their support of the land swap before the BLM released its management plan for Bears Ears.

“The Governor and Legislature’s coordinated efforts sideline the interests of ordinary Utahns, prioritizing the exploitation of protected lands for mining while politicizing our public lands,” said King, who is running for governor this year.

Bears Ears National Monument, established by President Barack Obama in 2016, spans 1.36 million acres of southeastern Utah. Citing local opposition, President Donald Trump dramatically reduced the monument’s acreage by 85% the following year. In 2021, President Joe Biden restored Bears Ears to its original boundaries.

Utah has taken the federal government to court, attempting to roll back Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in southern Utah. A federal judge dismissed the state’s lawsuit in August, but the state has appealed its case to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, challenging the Antiquities Act, and hopes to bring its argument to the U.S. Supreme Court.