Ann Leppanen: A lose-lose land exchange for small-town Utah

Here in Bluff, we’re not often asked about our interests concerning how the state and federal lands within our town boundaries are managed.

Not long ago, our U.S. representative, the Honorable John Curtis, implored his colleagues in Congress to understand why Utahns dislike top-down Washington mandates about public lands in Utah.

“I would appeal to this group to understand this philosophy,” he said, “that those on the ground understand best and care the very most about preserving and protecting this land.”

Here in Bluff, we can very much relate to this sentiment. We’re not often even asked about our interests concerning how the state and federal lands within our town boundaries are managed. When we do express earnest concerns about irreplaceable archaeological resources, our livelihoods, our water supply or our air, we are almost always ignored.

The latest example of this dynamic came last week. Utah officials and conservation groups trumpeted a deal negotiated in secret between the State Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) and the U.S. Department of the Interior, which resulted in a bill being introduced in Congress. HR 3049 would facilitate an exchange of state lands scattered throughout the Bears Ears area for federal lands elsewhere in Utah. The state lands proposed to be traded to the Department of the Interior currently generate very little income and also provide a barrier to landscape-wide management of cultural, natural and recreational resources in Bears Ears National Monument.

Theoretically, a land exchange should be a win-win proposition benefiting Bears Ears while also providing the state with parcels that can be profitably developed for the financial well-being of the beneficiaries served by SITLA — mostly public education.

However, because the people on the ground who “understand best and care the very most” were not even consulted by SITLA or the Department of Interior, the exchange is destined to be a lose-lose proposition for rural Utah. Let me explain.

In maps made public only two weeks ago, SITLA will acquire three parcels from the federal government within our town boundaries that are currently owned by the Department of the Interior. One of these properties consists primarily of towering cliffs that give our town its name holding dozens of archaeological sites, including a cliff dwelling, hundreds of petroglyphs and pictographs, burial sites and artifacts. Why the Department of the Interior would even contemplate turning over cultural sites considered sacred by Indigenous peoples for development is beyond our comprehension. And if this parcel were developed, which would be quite difficult, it would dramatically change the scenic entry to historic Bluff.

Two other parcels proposed to be acquired by SITLA for development are adjacent to the San Juan River. The land is in the river’s floodplain, making development risky and problematic for management of a recreational resource people travel from around the world to float. The Bluff River Trail, which passionate town residents worked to create for more than a decade, runs through both parcels. Again, we can’t understand why the Department of the Interior would convey such valuable recreational land for development. All three of the parcels are currently zoned by our town as open-space agricultural land. Needless to say, the “upside” for SITLA’s beneficiaries seems minimal, and the risks for Bluff are unacceptable.

To make matters worse, SITLA refuses to trade parcels out of the Bears Ears boundaries on land north of Bluff that have significant implications for our town. These parcels also hold one-of-a-kind archaeological sites sacred to Indigenous peoples.

SITLA maintains that a solar development proposed by AES and a gravel operation run by Sonderegger, Inc. necessitate that they hold onto these lands. This area has also seen prior interest from oil companies who would drill through and potentially frack under the aquifer that provides Bluff’s drinking water.

Our town contends that further industrial development of this area poses an unacceptable threat to Bluff — via increased flooding risks and real dangers for our water supply. More importantly, these risks are completely unnecessary. Oil and gravel-rich lands with high solar potential and existing transmission lines are conveniently located on BLM lands only a few miles east. SITLA could just as easily acquire these alternate lands in the trade from the U.S. government and not threaten local interests.

If all this sounds complicated, it is. That’s why listening to people on the ground who know the details makes a ton of sense.

So, I implore all those involved — Rep. Curtis, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, SITLA Director Michelle McConkie and Gov. Spencer Cox — to take a pause on HR 3049 and make the time to work out a real win-win with local people.

(Bluff Mayor Ann Leppanen)

Ann Leppanen is the mayor of Bluff, Utah.