Everyone was happy with the Bears Ears land swap. Here’s why it fell apart anyway.

The exchange was supposed to be a ‘gold mine’ for Utah schools and keep the federal monument together.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) View of Monument Valley, with the Bears Ears in the distance, from the Pine Spring in Monument Valley, on Thursday, May 26, 2022. A proposed exchange of state lands within the monument for federal lands and mineral resources across the state fell apart this week.

As recently as the start of this week, the following, nearly unheard-of scenario was true: Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, the Utah Legislature, the Utah Trust Lands Administration (formerly referred to as SITLA), the tribal nations that make up the Bears Ears Commission and the federal government had agreed on something.

Later on Monday, it all fell apart.

The issue at hand was a proposed land swap. Land parcels managed by the state’s Trust Lands Administration, which manages state-owned lands to generate revenue for schools, scattered throughout Bears Ears National Monument would be traded to the federal government in exchange for lucrative, resource-rich federal lands across the state.

In May 2022 and again in June 2023, Utah Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, asked Utah’s Legislative Management Committee to authorize the governor and the Trust Lands Administration to proceed with the land exchange. The motion was approved unanimously, including by Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Salt Lake City.

“This is a big issue for our schoolkids and to make sure that we’re able to maintain the validity and the economics of trying to move these lands around to get the highest and best use and lands that are actually functionally usable to the state,” Adams said in June 2023.

Schultz now serves as Speaker of the House. He, along with Cox and Adams, released a statement on Tuesday in favor of rejecting the land exchange.

Cox and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson terminated a Memorandum of Understanding with Interior Secretary Deborah Haaland on Monday, withdrawing from the swap. Utah Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise, also announced a joint resolution in the Legislature rejecting the exchange.

What caused this deal to fall at the finish line?

“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,” a Tuesday statement from Cox, Adams and Schultz statement read. “When the administration is prepared to have a serious and good faith collaborative discussion about land management, we stand ready to renew discussions of a land exchange.”

The elected officials referred to an upcoming, unreleased plan to manage Bears Ears — the latest in a few federal land management decisions the state has disapproved of lately.

Gov. Cox and Speaker Schultz are up for reelection this year.

The land swap’s timeline

The proposed land swap was controversial from the beginning.

In 2017, right after former President Barack Obama created Bears Ears National Monument, the Trust Lands Administration said it didn’t want to trade its holdings within Bears Ears to the federal government. President Donald Trump had just taken office and expressed his intent to reduce the monument’s size; he followed through a year later.

The state-owned lands within the monument weren’t particularly lucrative. Former Utah Rep. Timothy Hawkes, R-Centerville, in 2022 reported that the state only generated $80,000 from those lands in 2021.

The Trust Lands Administration began to examine the benefits of trading in lands dense with scenic and archaeological value for those with more profitable resources.

Utah representatives from San Juan County — where Bears Ears National Monument and most of the state-owned land that would be swapped is located — said that the exchange would give the federal government even more control over the county, which is the state’s largest and poorest. Only a third of the federal lands Utah stood to gain in the exchange were in San Juan County.

To earn legislative approval, the Trust Lands Administration secured more federal land to swap over to San Juan County for “mineral potential and residential development potential” in Lisbon Valley and Spanish Valley, according to current Trust Lands Administration executive director Michelle McConkie in 2022.

Former Trust Lands Administration director David Ure in 2022 called the deal “a gold mine for the school kids to be able to capture the economic values throughout the rest of the state and keep rural Utah going.” In May of that year, the Legislature agreed.

Cox signed a memorandum of understanding with the interior secretary in March 2023. A few months later, the Trust Lands Administration and the federal government finalized which land parcels would be exchanged.

Utah would have handed about 162,500 acres of state lands to the feds in exchange for about 167,500 acres of federal lands that included valuable resources like potash, oil and gas, lithium and gold, according to McConkie.

Some Utah leaders worried that the exchange would legitimize Bears Ears while the state simultaneously challenged the national monument in court.

“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, both governments agree that trading out state land inholdings is in everyone’s best interest,” McConkie said at a House Subcommittee on Federal Lands hearing in June 2023.

The Bears Ears Commission — composed of representatives from the Hopi Tribe, the Navajo Nation, the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and the Pueblo of Zuni — expressed support for the land exchange in June 2023.

With legislative and gubernatorial approval secured, the last step to lock in the land exchange was congressional approval. McConkie said in 2023 that she hoped the federal legislation would pass quickly.

U.S. Rep. John Curtis and U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, both R-Utah, made sure to clarify that their legislation, introduced in Congress last year, was not an endorsement of Bears Ears National Monument.

“There are few issues more controversial in my state than public lands,” Curtis said in 2023. “I want to point out that this legislation does not codify the Bears Ears monument, it simply is a totally separate issue.”

The U.S. House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee ordered Rep. Curtis’ land exchange bill favorably reported in July 2023. The U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources recommended the same bill sponsored by Lee to pass on Jan. 9, 2024.

Lee expressed support for Utah backing out of the swap this week, echoing state leaders’ sentiments about the Biden administration’s “cavalier dismissal of Utah’s feedback” relating to Bears Ears’ management.

“By proceeding with a prohibitive new management plan, the administration ignores Utahns’ concerns and jeopardizes recreational access and grazing rights,” Sen. Lee said in a statement to The Salt Lake Tribune. “Utah is ready to engage in meaningful discussions regarding land management, but for that to happen, the administration must demonstrate a genuine willingness to collaborate.”

The federal legislation is now null and void without approval from the Utah governor and Legislature.

“Unfortunately, despite the fact that we had federal agreement and federal legislation plus state authorization to move forward with that transfer, as things stand now talks on what the future of Bears Ears [National] Monument will be have deteriorated to such an extent that it’s...no longer responsible from a financial point of view to move forward with that resolution,” Snider said to the House Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee on Friday, presenting the joint resolution to reject the land swap.

A representative from the Navajo Nation read a statement from Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren and Council Speaker Crystalyne Curley to the committee on Friday, which emphasized the tribe’s disappointment with the proposed joint resolution.

The Navajo Nation is one of the five tribes that asked President Barack Obama to create Bears Ears National Monument in 2016. The tribe is also represented on the Bears Ears Commission, a group of tribal representatives that has been involved in creating a management plan for the monument that combines federal and tribal perspectives.

“The Navajo Nation truly believes that contemplated land exchange is in the best interest of all three sovereigns, the United States, the State of Utah and the Navajo Nation,” the statement read.

“What is particularly troubling is that the rejection of the contemplated land exchange is seemingly not based on the merits of the land exchange but on the separate issue of the development of a co-management plan,” it continued.

Redge Johnson, the executive director of the Utah Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office, told the committee that the BLM’s preferred plan for Bears Ears was “very problematic.”

“It’s very unfortunate that we have to take this action,” Johnson said, “but I commend the speaker, Senate president and the governor for being willing to play this card when that was the only card we had left to play.”

Snider’s joint resolution rejecting the land exchange passed out of the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee on Friday morning with 11 votes in favor and 2 opposed. The nay votes belonged to Rep. Gay Lynn Bennion, D-Cottonwood Heights, and Rep. Doug Owens, D-Millcreek.

Utah’s recent disagreements with the feds

Utah leaders have recently disagreed with federal land management decisions.

In their statement rejecting the land swap, Cox, Adams and Schultz said the issue was the resource management plan for Bears Ears National Monument. The federal Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service and the five tribes of the Bears Ears Commission have been working to complete a draft plan, which has not yet been released publicly.

“It’s a real radical moving of the goalpost [for Utah] to say, ‘the draft plan is so offensive, we’re not going to move ahead with the exchange to show you how much we don’t like it,’” Steve Bloch, legal director for the nonprofit Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, told The Tribune. “It’s a draft, and that means it can change, and I’m sure the BLM would have worked with them to change it. It feels really unfortunate that this is the path it’s gone down.”

In September, the federal Bureau of Land Management closed 317 miles of routes in the Labyrinth Rims/Gemini Bridges Travel Management Area in southeastern Utah to motorized use. The agency said the road closures would protect wildlife, watersheds and cultural sites.

Utah quickly challenged the decision. Johnson called the BLM’s plan “egregious over reach” in a Facebook post.

Sen. Mitt Romney chimed in on Twitter: “Shutting down over 300 miles of off-road trails near Moab has extensive impact on the economy in the region. I support Utah’s efforts to appeal [the BLM’s] overreaching and nonsensical rule.”

Curtis and Lee brought the issue to Congress, introducing companion legislation called the Historic Roadways Protection Act in response to the road closures.

As a backdrop to these recent disagreements, Utah has been fighting the feds in court over Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments. The state argues that President Joe Biden overstepped his legal authority when he expanded the monuments to their original boundaries in 2021, just years after former President Trump slashed their acreage in 2017.

Utah filed a suit challenging the monuments in 2022, asking a district court to declare the monument designations unlawful. A district judge dismissed the suit in August 2023, but the state appealed the decision to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.

If Utah succeeds, 2 million acres in the state would be removed from federal protection. Gov. Cox has said that Utah wants the case to reach the U.S. Supreme Court.

Previous land swaps benefited the state

The Bears Ears trade would not have been the first of its kind.

In 1998, a land exchange facilitated the creation of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The state gained 145,000 acres of land that contained 160 million tons of coal and 185 billion cubic feet of natural gas. In return, the federal government got 363,000 acres within the monument, four National Park Service units, three national forests and $50 million in cash — the difference in market values of the lands exchanged.

More recently, in 2014, Utah swapped 25,000 acres in Grand County for 35,000 acres in Uintah County, ripe for development. The BLM gained Corona Arch and Morning Glory Arch near Moab in the trade.

Another exchange in 2016 led to the BLM’s gain of 84,000 acres to expand the Utah Training and Test Range, a federal military reservation in the West Desert. Utah got 96,000 acres, some with geothermal and solar resources, in return.

If the Bears Ears swap had gone through, it would have been the sixth large land exchange between the Utah Trust Lands Administration and the federal government.

“I think about the support for this exchange as akin to a unicorn,” Bloch said. “There are so few things that so many disparate interests agree on.”

“This is very much like cutting off the nose to spite the face,” he continued.